Johannesburg — American transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has reignited the testosterone in sport debate, as she attempts to compete at the USA’s NCAA swimming championships next month.
Thomas, who began transitioning in 2019, used to compete in the men’s category and reached a world ranking of 462nd. Now, Thomas is the top-ranked swimmer in the women’s category and this has sparked an outcry from her competitors.
Pending rule changes by NCAA and USA swimming may stop Thomas from competing, as it may force her to prove her testosterone levels are less than a certain mark for three years prior. It remains to be seen what Thomas’ testosterone results will show.
In a letter, published by AFP, sent to the University of Pennsylvania and the Ivy League athletic conference, 16 University of Pennsylvania swimmers, who wished to remain anonymous said: "Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women's category.
"If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women's Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete,”
"We support Lia's mental health, and we ask Penn and the Ivy League to support ours as well," the letter reads.
"Sport is competitive by definition, and Lia's wins, records, and honours should not come at our expense, the women who have worked their entire lives to earn a spot on the Penn Women's Swimming Team.”
Meanwhile, South Africa’s Caster Semenya remains barred from competition as an athlete with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD). As a DSD athlete competing in the women’s category, it means Semenya has naturally elevated testosterone levels. DSD athletes have been banned from athletics events from 400m to the mile.
The DSD ruling was made in 2018, and effectively meant Semenya will never again (as the rules stand), be able to compete in the events in which she has excelled.
Semenya, of course, is a two-time Olympic champion in the women’s 800m. However, Semenya was only able to stand proud with a gold medal around her neck once at the Olympics, in Rio 2016. In 2012, Semenya finished second in the women’s 800m Olympic final in London behind Russia’s Mariya Savinova. Savinova was later banned in 2017, and her results from a three-year period which included 2012 were scrapped. Therefore, Semenya only became a double Olympic champion in retrospect.
In fact, Semenya winning in Rio helped make the case for World Athletics. Their research into DSD athletes had Semenya as the focal point, and it is no surprise that regulations therefore directly target her.
The distinction between Semenya and Thomas, is that the South African has not attempted to change her physiology and is being forced to take medication that will greatly affect her natural competitive ability. Thomas, in contrast, has transitioned to a different gender but has remaining genetic traits, namely testosterone levels, that should exclude her from eligibility in the women’s category.
Another example of the rules not applying to athletes in all events is New Zealand’s women’s weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. Though not a DSD athlete, Hubbard became the first transgender athlete to qualify for the Olympics. Hubbard, 43, was born male but transitioned to female in her 30s. It’s reported that Hubbard has recorded levels of testosterone below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee.
Hubbard, who also competed as a male weightlifter, was ranked 16th in the world in the women’s +87kg category going into the Olympics but did not medal.
It will be interesting then to see if Thomas remains eligible for competition, and if such rulings will have any bearing on the legal battles which the 31-year-old Semenya still faces.