Swimming's world governing body, FINA, on Sunday voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women's competitions and create a working group to establish an "open" category for them in some events as part of its new policy.
The new policy, which takes effect Monday, will require transgender competitors to have completed their transition by age 12 to be able to compete in women's competitions. The working group will spend the next six months to determine how to set up the new open category, FINA said.
"This is not saying that people are encouraged to transition by the age of 12. It's what the scientists are saying, that if you transition after the start of puberty, you have an advantage, which is unfair," James Pearce, the spokesperson for FINA president Husain Al-Musallam, told The Associated Press. "They're not saying everyone should transition by age 11; that's ridiculous. You can't transition by that age in most countries, and hopefully you wouldn't be encouraged to. Basically, what they're saying is that it is not feasible for people who have transitioned to compete without having an advantage."
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health lowered its recommended minimum age for starting gender-transition hormone treatment to 14 and some surgeries to 15 or 17.
The regulations would have a major impact on the career of Lia Thomas, who earlier this year became the first openly transgender woman to win a NCAA Division I women's swimming title.
Responding to the new policy, she said, "The new FINA release is deeply upsetting. It is discriminatory and will only serve to harm all women."
Thomas told Sports Illustrated in March that she wants to continue to compete after college, with the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials as a goal..
The IOC urged shifting the focus from individual testosterone levels and calling for evidence to prove when a performance advantage existed.
FINA's "deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific" new policy is "not in line with [the IOC's] framework on fairness, inclusion and non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations," Anne Lieberman of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ athletes, said in a statement.
"The eligibility criteria for the women's category as it is laid out in the policy [will] 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.
Pearce told the AP that the open competition category would most likely mean more events but that those details still need to be worked out.
"No one quite knows how this is going to work," Pearce said. "And we need to include a lot of different people, including transgender athletes, to work out how it would work. So there are no details of how that would work. The open category is something that will start being discussed tomorrow."
The decision was made during FINA's extraordinary general congress on the sideline of the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, after members heard a report from a transgender task force made up by leading medical, legal and sports figures.
The policy was passed with a roughly 71% majority after it was put to the members of 152 national federations with voting rights that had gathered for the congress at the Puskas Arena.
FINA said it recognizes "that some individuals and groups may be uncomfortable with the use of medical and scientific terminology related to sex and sex-linked traits, [but] some use of sensitive terminology is needed to be precise about the sex characteristics that justify separate competition categories."
Dr. Alireza Hamidian Jahromi, co-director of the Gender Affirmation Surgery Center at Temple University Hospitals in Philadelphia, said 12 is an arbitrary age.
"Where did that 12 come from?'' he said. "Is that a specific age that everybody is supposed to have passed through puberty, because it may not be the case.''
Age of puberty varies for different people, he said.
Hamidian Jahromi said the transition involves three stages: social, medical involving hormones, and surgical.
"Which of these three do they mean? Should the patient have undergone surgery by that time, which is almost impossible,'' he said.
Other sports have also been examining their rules around transgender athletes. On Thursday, cycling's governing body updated its eligibility rules for transgender athletes with stricter limits that will force riders to wait longer before they can compete. The International Cycling Union (UCI) increased the transition period on low testosterone to two years, and lowered the maximum accepted level of testosterone.
The previous transition period was 12 months but the UCI said recent scientific studies show that "the awaited adaptations in muscle mass and muscle strength/power'' among athletes who have made a transition from male to female takes at least two years.
Information from Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.