Lia Thomas’ future in doubt under USA Swimming new transgender policy

USA Swimming released Tuesday its revamped transgender-eligibility policy, setting a tight testosterone standard ahead of the NCAA championships that could spell trouble for athletes like Penn swimmer Lia Thomas.

The national sports federation’s newly unveiled Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy on elite competition said that “it shall be presumed that the athlete is not eligible” unless the competitor can meet a testosterone standard.

Swimmers must demonstrate a testosterone concentration of less than 5 nanomoles per liter in serum for at least 36 months as measured by a minimum of three separate blood tests in the final 365 days.

“USA Swimming has and will continue to champion gender equity and the inclusivity of all cisgender and transgender women and their rights to participate in sport, while also fervently supporting competitive equity at elite levels of competition,” said the organization in a press release.

The problem for the 22-year-old Thomas, who swam for three years on the men’s team before switching this season to the women’s side, is that she began transitioning about 2 1/2 years ago, several months short of the new 36-month cutoff.

What’s more, the University of Pennsylvania senior has not been required to undergo testosterone evaluations under the 2015 NCAA criteria, which only mandated a year of testosterone suppression treatments, but no actual measurements.

The NCAA abandoned its rule last month in favor of a sport-by-sport approach determined by national governing bodies like USA Swimming.

The USA Swimming policy also established a fairness panel to determine that “the prior physical development of the athlete as a Male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender Female competitors.”

USA Swimming said its policy takes effect immediately, raising doubts about Thomas’s eligibility for the NCAA Division I swimming championships slated for March 16-19.

“Following the letter of the law around this new rule, a transgender athlete such as Lia Thomas would almost surely be unable to compete at NCAAs, but it is unclear if the NCAA may allow Thomas to retain her eligibility because of the last-minute policy changes,” said David Rieder of Swimming World.

There are several loopholes that could give transgender athletes wiggle room. For one, USA Swimming said the policy applies only to its members, and Thomas is reportedly not a member.

In addition, the NCAA urged national sports federations in its Jan. 19 decision to give “flexibility to allow for additional eligibility if a transgender student-athlete loses eligibility based on the policy change provided they meet the newly adopted standards.”

Then there’s the FINA factor.

USA Swimming’s eligibility criteria will be in effect until the Swiss-based global authority, the Federation of International Swimming, or FINA, issues its own policy, which could occur before the NCAA championships.

“USA Swimming acknowledges that at the time of adoption of this Policy, FINA is in the process of developing its own Gender Eligibility Rules,” said USA Swimming. “When FINA Gender Eligibility Rules go into effect, the eligibility criteria in those FINA Rules shall replace any inconsistent eligibility criteria found [in] this Policy.”

If FINA decides to keep the 5 nmol/L standard, transgender swimmers could find it difficult to qualify for elite competition.

The 5 nmol/L threshold is more stringent than the 10 nmol/L level recommended previously by the International Olympic Committee, which opted in November to defer to international sports governing bodies on transgender eligibility.

At least one such federation has already adopted the 5 nmol/L standard: World Athletics, the international track-and-field governing body, which overhauled its testosterone policy for middle-distance runners in 2018.

The policy has effectively disqualified athletes with Differences in Sexual Development [DSD] like South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who has identified as female since birth despite her naturally occurring high testosterone.

Semenya has challenged the policy in the European Court of Human Rights.

The World Athletics policy says that most females, including elite athletes, have testosterone levels of 0.12 to 1.76 nmol/L in blood, while the normal adult male range is 7.7-29.4 nmol/L.

“No female would have serum levels of natural testosterone at 5 nmol/L or above unless they have DSD or a tumour,” said World Athletics in a 2018 statement. “Individuals with DSDs can have very high levels of natural testosterone, extending into and even beyond the normal male range.”

New Zealand transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard was able to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in women’s weightlifting under the IOC’s 10 nmol/L standard, but U.S. transgender hurdler CeCe Telfer was deemed ineligible for the U.S. Olympic trials in June under the World Athletics rules.

The swimmer Thomas has posted some of the NCAA’s fastest times this season in the 200-, 500- and 1,650-yard freestyle, touching off a heated national debate about fairness and inclusion in women’s athletics.

Advocates for female-only sports were disappointed with USA Swimming’s eligibility criteria and its reliance on testosterone levels.

Inez Stepman, senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Law Center, said that allowing “biological males to compete in women’s events undermines the entire rationale behind single-sex competition.”

“A comprehensive review of the scientific literature released last summer by IWLC and IWF reveals that hormone therapy does not eliminate the male athletic advantage over females,” said the Independent Women’s Forum in a statement.

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