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Talking about swimming

As a spectator sport in the US, competitive swimming ranks somewhere between sailing and dressage. The only time we seem to care is around the Olympics, mainly when an American is winning lots of medals and setting records. But in the interim four years, not so much.

So, I suppose in some way, the most impressive thing about this story is simply that people are actually talking about swimming in an Olympic off year. That said, the discussion isn’t about racing strategy, or suit technology, or even record times, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s about transgender swimmers, specifically transgender women and whether they should be allowed to compete in the women’s category. That, for better or worse, it how swimming ends up on Sports Center in June a full two years before the next Olympics.

This is because FINA, the sports federation that oversees swimming, has just mandated that transgender women would be banned from competing unless they began medical treatments to suppress production of testosterone before they started puberty, which for the vast majority of people is not the case. This effectively ends the current controversy over whether transgender women might take medals and championships away from athletes who might be physically disadvantaged, at least by the rhetoric of the argument. The rule starts Monday, which conveniently comes just days into the FINA world championships, just in case people needed something to talk about.

As is the case with all global sports regulations, enforcement will be messy. Right now, 70% of swimming nations have adopted FINA’s new rules as the law of their own land, or I suppose water. The US hasn’t decided yet, although I imagine it’s simply a matter of time. That, and preparing for the messaging war that’s bound to ensue. Of course, much of the genesis of this swimmer’s dilemma came in the United States, when just months ago University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title, in this case for the 500-yard freestyle. To be clear, when Lia previously competed for Penn as a man, Lia was a good but certainly not elite male swimmer, not even qualifying for nationals much less winning them. This ignited a relative firestorm inside the swimming community – and a near atom bomb outside of it – about whether Lia’s success was fair to all the female swimmers that finished behind her, especially those close on her heels. This was a question being answer by everyone from doctors to sociologists to politicians to actual swimmers and coaches. And it comes in the midst of a much larger national conversation, often done state by state, about transgender athletes in youth and high school sports. To date, 18 states have laws restricting athletes to their sex identified on a birth certificate, with likely more coming.

In general, I think there should be some guiding principles as the center of this conversation. First, we should recognize everyone’s right to sport and the potential it has for personal growth, potential that goes far beyond winning and losing. Second, we should recognize that the concept of fairness is at the center of sport, even if life and the conditions outside of it typically aren’t so. Third, we should understand the difference between elite competition, like what happens in NCAA, some high school, and certainly professional and Olympic contests, and sport that is inherently less exclusive and more participatory. And finally, we should recognize that it is very likely true that an elite transgender woman could have an advantage over a competitor born biologically female, as much as that pains many people’s sense of inclusion and progress.

The problem is, a whole lot, if not most people seem to believe in only some of the aforementioned, chosen more on political dogma than human reality. And how we end up in a culture war where state governments are lining up prove their bonifies. And of course, I know this is an easy thing to say from the pool deck about a binomial sports world that has always been at the center of human dispute.

Did FINA make the right decision? As someone with absolutely no medical expertise but who did compete in a similar college sport, it seems a reasonable and possibly fair decision even as I fully understand the harm this message might do to those transgender athletes competing for far lesser stakes. In other words, this is not easy, regardless of the politicians and activists who suggest otherwise. Which is also why we’re likely to be talking about swimming for quite some time.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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