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International swimming’s transgender athlete restrictions make waves in Canada

FINA was the first major international sport federation to announce how it will address trans athletes in its sport following the International Olympic Committee’s issuance of fairness, non-discrimination and inclusion guidelines last November.

“It’s the first IF to exclude trans, male-to-female trans, in such an explicit way,” University of Toronto sport and public policy professor emeritus Bruce Kidd told The Canadian Press on Monday.

“I read the IOC general overarching policy in a much more inclusive way, so this is a disappointment to me. Some media have speculated that others will follow in this way, which I think would be regressive, discriminatory and so on.”

Kidd, a distance runner for Canada in the 1964 Olympic Games, served on a working group for the The Canadian Center For Ethics in Sport when it established in 2016 a guide for sport organizations to create inclusive environments for trans participants.

“There are people who rail against it,” Kidd said. “I’ve participated in one or two public forums in the last while and certainly there are people on either side.

“But at the national leadership level, there’s not much disagreement with the CCES position which is self-recognition, self-identification, no requirement for medical intervention either hormonal or surgical, and no requirement to disclose.”

The CCES allows for a changing understanding of the science from more data to potentially alter that position, Kidd said.

“The empirical record is so limited,” he said. “Let’s err in the direction of inclusion and fairness and let’s not add to the discrimination, the marginalization.”

While Swimming Canada isn’t bound by FINA’s directives domestically, Canadian swimmers are when they compete internationally at a FINA-sanctioned event.

Under current Swimming Canada regulations, transgender swimmers wanting to swim for Canada in Olympic, Paralympic and world championship events must have written proof from FINA they are eligible to do so, in order to swim in national selection events.

“Swimming Canada believes swimming is for everyone,” chief executive officer Ahmed El-Awadi said Monday in a statement. “We welcome FINA taking these steps to bring clarity to issues such as this.

“We look forward to reviewing the policy in greater detail, and working with FINA and other key partners on aligning our policies in Canada.”

The balance sport is currently trying to strike is inclusion of athletes regardless of gender identity or sex variations in a harassment-free environment while, at an elite level where the financial stakes are high, ensure no athlete has an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.

Sport Canada ended financial support last month of a commissioned survey on inclusion when over 200 members of academic and sport communities declared in a letter the survey’s language was discriminatory toward transgender athletes.

The intent of the survey was to investigate views of high-performance female athletes on including trans athletes in their sports.

The United States has become a battleground for the issue, with some states legislating the prohibition of trans women and girls from playing female sport.

While the IOC issued guidance and principles on inclusion last November, it ultimately leaves it up to each sport’s governing body to draft eligibility criteria and determine whether an athlete has a disproportionate advantage.

Among the IOC’s principles were rejecting a blanket assumption that the male sex confers an athletic advantage across all sport, and discouraging the reliance on testosterone levels as primary basis of eligibility for women’s competition.

But FINA contends that, in consultation with its science working group, higher testosterone levels in males from puberty onward give them a competitive advantage in aquatic sport.

FINA said gender affirming male-to-female transition procedures can blunt some, but not all, effects of testosterone on body structure and muscle function “but there will be persistent legacy effects that will give male-to-female transgender athletes (transgender women) a relative performance advantage over biological females.

“A biological female athlete cannot overcome that advantage through training or nutrition,” FINA stated in the 24-page document that formed the basis of its decision.

Broader scrutiny of FINA’s document and more feedback over time was needed on such an important issue in sport, Kidd said.

“There is a process, there’s standards of evidence, there is arm’s length assessment, there is consultation,” he said. “If they had followed that process and taken a year then I think people like me, I think the world would feel much more confident about it.

“If they had released this as a draft — and the CCES always left the door open for further evidence — you have people around the world, scientists, athletes, ethicists and so on, and people came to a consensus that way, then you’ d have some confidence in that, but not this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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