Swimming’s global governing body, FINA, has voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women’s competitions, in an important decision welcomed by many female athletes but which sets them apart from most other sports.

The new policy states that trans women must demonstrate that they have “never experienced any part of male puberty”. This comes on the heels of a scientific panel report that found that trans women retain a significant advantage over sex-compliant swimmers even after using medications to lower their testosterone levels.

As a result, starting next week, trans women will only be able to compete in the women’s category if they have completed their transition by age 12 and have not yet gone through puberty.

The decision means swimming is only the second Olympic governing body, after Rugby World, to impose a ban on scientific grounds. Other sports have used testosterone limits as a basis for allowing transgender women to compete in the women’s category, a position that encouraged inclusion but has been criticized as unfair to gender-compliant women.

The Fina policy was adopted by a majority of 71.5% after being presented to the voting members of the 152 National Unions gathered at the Congress in Budapest. The decision follows a report by a transgender task force of medical, legal and athletic leaders established in November 2021.

Commenting on the policy, FINA President Hussain Al-Musallam said: “We must protect the rights of our athletes to compete, but we must also protect the fairness of competition in our events, particularly in the Fifa Women’s competition category.”

The sport took off after Leah Thomas, who was a moderate collegiate swimmer as a male competitor, won a collegiate national title from the NCAA earlier this year in the US. Others have argued that Thomas is an entrepreneur whose identity and success should be celebrated, not diminished.

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Fina promised to form a working group to establish an “open” category for transgender women at certain events as part of his new policy.

Former British swimmer Sharon Davis welcomed the news on Twitter: “Can’t tell you how proud I am of my sport, head Fina and Fina to practice science, consult athletes/coaches and fight for women’s fair sport. Swimming will always welcome everyone, no matter who you are, but Fairness is the cornerstone of this sport.”

Karen Pickering, another former swimmer, said: “I was present at the Fina conference presentation, discussion and voting and I can vouch for the care and sensitivity shown by all athletes who cannot now compete in their gender category ID can adapt to…but competitive justice towards category of women.

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