Spectators argue whether Thomas should be able to compete with women, says sports writer Ben Bowdon.
The NCAA Women’s Swimming National Championships were hosted by Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia, from March 16-19. University of Virginia won the competition for the second year in a row, while Stanford University fell shortly behind. 13 out of 18 events had at least one record broken, but since there were several Olympians from Tokyo 2020 competing, this is no surprise. Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh were among them — and demonstrated why they deserved their silver medals. The duo from the University of Virginia Cavalier’s broke four records among them, and each won all three of their individual events. They also won four combined relay titles. This dominant performance would normally take the spotlight at the competition, but there was another headline that was stressed: Lia Thomas.
Once again, the competition received much more attention and scrutiny than normal. The nation’s eyes were upon Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer who qualified to compete in three of the 13 individual events: the 100 freestyle, the 200 freestyle and the 500 freestyle. She made it into the finals in all three of her events, placing eighth, fifth, and first respectively and earning University of Pennsylvania their first women’s swimming title. This is an incredible showing for Thomas, even though two of her swims were below her qualifying times, but it is viewed with much skepticism and criticism. As usual, a mix of booing, cheering and awkward silence followed Lia Thomas’ name during the announcements.
Transgender athletes are still a topic of much debate. With little precedence for the new rules, Lia Thomas is one of the first to test them. There are few well documented times for men who transitioned to women, which makes it difficult to design rules that maintain fairness. Thomas has shown that just hormone therapy (HRT) does not completely level the playing field. In the 2018-2019 season as a man, she ranked 554th in the 200 freestyle, and 65th in the 500 freestyle against males. After two years of HRT, she ranked 5th and 1st compared to women. No swimmer ranks up that fast naturally and her advantage is undeniable. The most complicated question is what to do about it.
With these changing times, it is difficult to navigate this changing societal landscape. What should be prioritized? What testosterone limit should be the cap for transgender athletes? Should they be allowed to compete with their advantage, or should they be in a separate category of competition? Many societies and governments are attempting to navigate this issue. For sports specifically, it centers around the central question: what is the right balance of inclusivity and fairness? The beauty of sports is the fair competition — individuals or teams with an equal playing field intensely battling to determine the champion. This ultimate ideal cannot be sacrificed in the name of inclusivity, especially at the highest level where truly fair competition is the most important. Thus, there needs to be a separate venue for transgender athletes to compete in. This could take the form of exhibition swims at the NCAA championships, or even their own category. Just like men and women have separate competition pools, maybe that could work for transgender athletes that transition post-puberty, since they collectively will have a similar advantage or disadvantage, like the men and women categories. This solution would be inclusive while at the same time maintaining competitiveness.