Enter your email to read this article
Read news on any topic, in one place, from publishers like The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more.

Transgender swimming ban: Cate Campbell backs Fina restrictions

Cate Campbell after completing a race at the Tokyo Olympics.
Cate Campbell has said she ‘wrestled long and hard’ with her views on transgender women competing in elite female competitions. Photograph: Patrick B Kraemer/EPA

Australian Olympic champion Cate Campbell has supported Fina’s vote to restrict transgender women from taking part in elite female swimming competitions, saying she had “wrestled long and hard” with her views on the polarising issue before concluding that fairness is a “cornerstone” of professional sport.

Fina’s historic decision has also elicited criticism; the policy shift has been slammed by transgender advocacy groups and swimmer Maddie Groves described it as “discriminatory and unscientific”.

On Monday, at the world championships in Budapest, 71% of the global governing body’s 152 national federations voted in favour of proposed new rules stipulating that male-to-female transgender athletes could now only compete in the women’s category provided they had not experienced any physical parts of male puberty.

It also pledged to create a working group to establish an “open” category for trans women who do not meet the new criteria to race as female.

Before the vote, Fina heard evidence from scientists, lawyers and elite female athletes including Campbell.

Campbell, in her address, said she believes in inclusion, and reflected on her move to Australia from Malawi as a nine-year-old. The four-time Olympic gold medallist said she wants transgender and gender-diverse people “to be part of the broader swimming community”.

Ultimately, though, she said women’s fight to “be included and seen as equals in sport” had only been possible because of their gender category distinction, and that to remove it “would be to the detriment of female athletes everywhere”.

“We see you, value you and accept you,” Campbell told the congress. “My role, however, is also to stand up here, having asked our world governing body, Fina, to investigate, deliberate and uphold the cornerstone of fairness in elite women’s competition.

“And it pains me that this part of my role, may injure, infuriate and potentially alienate people from an already-marginalised trans community.

“Believe me, I have wrestled long and hard with myself, with what to say and do. I am aware that my actions and words, no matter what I say, will anger some people – whether they are from the trans-community or from the cisgender female community.

“However, I am asking everyone to take a breath, to absorb before reacting. Listen to the science and experts. Listen to the people who stand up here and tell you how difficult it has been to reconcile inclusion and fairness.”

“That men and women are physiologically different cannot be disputed. We are only now beginning to explore and understand the origins of these physiological differences and the lasting effects of exposure to differing hormones.

“Women, who have fought long and hard to be included and seen as equals in sport, can only do so because of the gender category distinction. To remove that distinction would be to the detriment of female athletes everywhere.”

Madeline Groves with her silver medal at the 2016 Olympics
Madeline Groves, a double silver medallist at the 2016 Olympics, has called the Fina ban ‘discriminatory and unscientific’. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Groves tweeted her views on Monday, partially quoting the end of Campbell’s speech, which said: “It is also my hope that a young gender-diverse child can walk into a swimming club and feel the same level of acceptance that a nine-year-old immigrant kid from Africa did all those years ago.”

Groves responded: “So you ban them from competing with their peers? You’re OK with ostracising an already marginalised group? Real accepting.

“There are already gender diverse people in swimming and I’m guessing they’re not feeling very accepted [right now]. Shame on everyone that supported this discriminatory and unscientific decision.”

Just.Equal, a LGBTIQ lobbying, advocacy and campaign group, called on Fina “to re-examine the decision”.

“The decision to isolate trans women to their own lane at the pool means effectively they cannot compete at elite level because they will be competing against themselves,” said Just.Equal advisor, Sally Goldner.

“We question a process that was undertaken in secret, and ask whether trans people were consulted about their lives or whether this decision was imposed on us without consultation.”

Conversely, Swimming Australia commended Fina for its “comprehensive process” in forming the policy, the clarity it provides in relation to all Fina-recognised competitions and world records, and its pledge to create an open competition category.

“Swimming Australia endorses a competitive environment that is fair and equitable for all athletes at the high-performance level, and we believe this new policy reflects that position,” it said in a statement.

“We also firmly believe in inclusivity and the opportunity for all athletes to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression. It is both our responsibility and commitment to continue to learn and educate ourselves on the appropriate balance in this space.”

Seebohm, meanwhile, was “just thankful that finally we have a decision”. “We have a direction,” she told the Nine Network. “We’re not saying no to transgender athletes, we are saying yes, we are going to make a category for you.”

Seebohm said swimmers had found it difficult to speak publicly about “such a hard topic”. “Because you are scared of cancel culture, right? That’s such a thing now. If you say one wrong thing, you’re done,” she said.

“I think it was a matter of once one Australian athlete said something it was like, ‘let’s stand up’. We all feel the same, it is just we were all too scared to be the first one to say anything.”

Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, offered tacit endorsement and criticised the Coalition’s handling of the debate over trans women in sport during the last election.

“This is one of the reasons why … there shouldn’t have been an attempt to make this a political issue during the last federal election campaign,” Albanese said. “Guidelines are very clear that it is up to sporting bodies. They will make their decisions based upon their assessments and that is appropriate. We shouldn’t use vulnerable people, put them in a situation whereby one side or any side of politics tries to seek a political advantage over that.”