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PARK: Banning transgender athletes from women's sports goes beyond competition

Column: The Queue

Controversy over Lia Thomas underscores bigger problems with sports and gender. – Photo by University of Pennsylvania / Instagram

The news caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. There was not a particular headline, but women’s sports had made national news. It is rare for the world to ever talk about women’s sports, which is an issue of its own, but I was surprised to see women’s collegiate swimming at the top of my Twitter feed.

Lia Thomas is a 23-year-old collegiate swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the first openly transgender athlete to win a title in any sport at the NCAA Division I level. This news caused public uproar from fans of collegiate swimming to celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, who is a transgender former athlete herself.

I felt the conversation surrounding Thomas was obviously transphobic, but at the same time, it was expected — people say their arguments surround "fairness," but they are rooted in bigotry. Athletics is all about a certain level of fairness, one that is set by the minds of higher-ups who are greatly biased toward white, cisgender athletes. 

For example, in the 2021 Summer Olympics, Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended and barred from competing because she used cannabis, but in the 2022 Winter Olympics, Russia’s 15-year-old Kamila Valieva failed a drug test and was still allowed to compete.

In sports, there are some rules that are strictly enforced and others that are not. But what cannot be argued is that men’s sports and women’s sports are incredibly different. 

Higher testosterone levels and different physical skill sets allow men to perform at an advantage in events like running, cycling, weight lifting, swimming, rowing and more. But we cannot say men are better athletes than women — they just have some biological advantages that make them more competitive than women. Then the question of transgender athletes still remains, right? 

There is no simple answer, and I hate to say it, but I have no clear opinion, either. There seems to be a divide between advocating for transgender athletes to be able to participate in sports and acknowledging that transgender women will likely outscore their cisgender counterparts.

I quit competitive swimming in high school due to mostly physicality issues. I was a couple of heads shorter than most of my teammates, and it was greatly affecting my performance in the pool.

I soon fell out of love with the sport. I was unhappy with my times and moved on to find a spot on a sports team that better suited me: a coxswain on a crew team. I understand being at a physical disadvantage but there is no completely fair and inclusive solution. 

Swimming itself is an interesting sport to dissect here. As I had mentioned before, testosterone levels have an effect on performance in such a physical sport. USA Swimming announced in February 2022 that transgender women must have “low testosterone levels for three years” in order to compete.

Had it been a sport like field hockey where physical stature may not have had as much of an impact over skill, the conversation might be different. Field hockey in the NCAA is also a women’s sport, so there is no male equivalent to compare with. 

This uproar over Thomas is untimely and ill-placed. We want women to feel accepted and participate in sports. They are treated awfully both at a collegiate and professional level. 

From NCAA women’s basketball only just this year getting the same treatment from the association to the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team going through lawsuit after lawsuit, women in sports is a tough draw. On top of this, the media’s unwillingness to broadcast women’s sports due to low viewership does not help. That is exactly what I was so intrigued about with Thomas. 

It took a transgender woman to win an event in her sport — something the world should be celebrating — to bring attention to a possibly corrupt system of gendered athletics.

Athletics has its own history of being racist, sexist and biased toward men, and marginalized groups like transgender athletes and female athletes only make headlines when something is deemed to be worth complaining and arguing about.

Transgender people are already facing many tiers of discrimination. By feeding into a ban on transgender athletes from women’s sports, it would only be fueling the fire and subvert all the progress women’s rights and women’s rights in sports have gone through. Today, we must celebrate Thomas and her win.

Annabel Park is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and minoring in journalism. Her column, "The Queue," typically runs on alternate Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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