Olympic gold medalist Hogshead-Makar: Transgender ruling positive news for female swimmers

FINA ruling on Sunday largely banned transgender women from competing in elite-level swimming

FILE - Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas waits for results after swimming the women's 200 freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships, Friday, March 18, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Republican governors of two states this week vetoed legislation to ban transgender players from girls' sports, but their decisions to buck the party's conservative wing could prove short-lived against a fired-up GOP base. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) (John Bazemore, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They listened to the science. They listened to the women.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a four-time Olympic swimming medalist, CEO of Champion Women and advocate for women’s rights in sports, has long said that it’s not fair for biological women to have to compete against transgender women in sports.

On Sunday, a ruling by FINA, the world’s governing body of swimming, agreed with that and voted to put restrictions on transgender athletes in women’s competitions. Under the new policy, transgender competitors must have completed their transition by age 12 to be permitted to compete in women’s competitions.

FINA said it would work to create an open division for future transgender swimmers to include them.

The reaction from both sides of the issue across multiple sports — from state legislatures to the athletes to the governing bodies of college and international sports — has been intense.

“They had the right scientists there. The scientist explained it to everybody there. They had a transparent process,” Hogshead-Makar said. “And I’m hoping that other sports organizations, sports governing bodies, will be able to kind of use some of the science and research that has been produced so that they can come up with the same decision.”

Hogshead-Makar has championed women’s rights for decades. Her post-competitive career has centered around Title IX work and the checks and balances of equal opportunities for women.

Hogshead-Makar said that Sunday’s ruling by FINA was a significantly positive step for competitive swimming and female athletes.

“Now, I don’t think that denying facts does the transgender community any favors, but I agree that trans women are women for all purposes, meaning the classroom and the employment and family law and public accommodations, etcetera,” Hogshead-Makar said.

“But when it comes to sport, you cannot deny biology and facts. And the facts say that men and women are so different, different enough that in order to give girls and women an equal opportunity to participate, they need their own team.”

During Hogshead-Makar’s time as a competitive swimmer in the 1970s and ‘80s, performance enhancing drugs were rampant in the sport. She won four medals — three of them gold — in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Hogshead-Makar made the 1980 Olympic team but didn’t participate after the United States boycotted the Games in Moscow. Four years later, numerous countries staged a boycott of the Games in Los Angeles.

East Germany had what was later revealed as a state-sponsored doping program that began in 1974 and included dozens of athletes taking part, both knowingly and unknowingly, in it.

“No, I would not have won a gold medal if the East Germans had been allowed to compete. They were a little bit better than we were, like, we’re talking 1%, maybe 2%. But they were never competitive with the men,” she said. “… But on the other hand, I was able to be in a clean Olympics. I can’t tell you what that meant, for everybody, for my family and what it’s meant for the rest of my life.”

Lia Thomas, a biological male who competed at the University of Pennsylvania, is the most well-known transgender swimmer. She became the face for both sides of the trans-athlete debate.

On one hand, the success of Thomas after hormone therapy — a reported 30 months of it when she began her final season in college — and competing under the immense spotlight that it created, pushed that issue to the forefront.

It also brought in to question the fairness of what Thomas was doing. Thomas met the NCAA requirements for a transgender athlete to compete. She swam on the men’s team for three years at Penn before the COVID year and then returned to compete on the women’s team after that. Hogshead-Makar said that even though Thomas is the most high-profile transgender swimmer, the framework and research had been in place to make the case about fairness for females in competition for years.

“If a female tests positive for performance enhancing drugs like testosterone twice, she is banned for life. Why? Because it’s not fair,” she said. “Being on testosterone for that long leaves lifelong changes in the body that you cannot roll back by just giving more estrogen or some other way. So, I think transgender athletes and females should be held to the same fairness standard.”

FINA’s policy is a shift from that of the International Olympic Committee, which, for years, relied on a testosterone-based metric to determine if a transgender athlete would be permitted to compete.

That trickled down to both college sports and high school sports. Late last year, the IOC shifted the testosterone criteria to something titled the International Olympic Committee framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations.

In short, that framework set to steer away from the testosterone measuring and encouraged the individual governing sporting bodies to determine its own transgender athlete policies. Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, a group that works “to create LGBTQI+ inclusive athletic environments,” said that FINA’s vote is a step backwards.

“The eligibility criteria for the women’s category as it is laid out in the policy police the bodies of all women, and will not be enforceable without seriously violating the privacy and human rights of any athlete looking to compete in the women’s category,” Lieberman said in a statement.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.