A week in America | 25 March 2022

As the U.S gears up for a busy spring in the sports world, Martin explores the debate that has been happening in the usually calmer waters of competitive swimming.

Martin Liptrot

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Sport plays a big part in our American life.

The Superbowl, Daytona500, Kentucky Derby, World Series, Stanley Cup, Augusta Masters, US Tennis Open are the events which we calibrate our calendars around.

And, if like me, you live in the South or the Mid-West, college sport has an even greater significance than professional sport. While money is a factor in college sports, it is considerably less than in pro-sports and, perhaps, makes this the closest thing to the Corinthian Spirit America can muster.

March is perhaps the time that college sports blooms across the nation with the NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament headlining a range of college sports championships.

But while the fortunes of dunkers and free-throwers are being cheered in bars across the land, the normally calmer waters of competitive swimming are attracting most attention.

The issue of gender identity is at the heart of the storm.

A swimmer by the name of Lia Thomas handsomely won the 500-metre Freestyle national championship. No records were broken but this achievement made headlines across the country for one simple fact: Lia Thomas was born a man.

Lia Thomas has become the face of the transgender debate in America. Her achievements in the pool have thrust her, perhaps unpreparedly, into the limelight and a series of issues way beyond her ability to swim fast.

The first voices of dissent against her achievement did not come from the usual political, conservative or religious groups who normally come out in force and a flush of moral indignation when such topics are broached. Thomas’s loudest critics have been those who have to compete with her in the pool.

Her fellow competitors seem most agitated by her inclusion in women’s sports because it deprives one of them a spot on the roster.

Thomas’s story is an intriguing one. As William Thomas he raced for University of Pennsylvania Men’s Swim Team. He recorded top ten times in 1000 and 500 metre events and raced and won in Ivy League competitions but was only an average swimmer on the Men’s national stage. He then came out as trans-gender a year later and began hormone therapy to transition.

By all accounts, even from those who are most agitated by her recent achievements, Thomas has meticulously followed all the rules, protocols and policies stipulated by Swimming and College Sport authorities to allow her to compete at this month’s Women’s Swimming Championships.

The maelstrom started around Christmas when a group of anonymous parents of female swimmers wrote to Fox News – that bastion of tolerance – complaining that their daughters were to be denied the chance to compete for All-American status and the opportunity to trial for the Olympics because of Thomas.

Fox quickly found a rent-a-quote Republican in Vicky Hartsler, a congresswoman from Missouri, who upped the ante by running a campaign featuring Thomas with the slogan “Women’s sports are for women, not men pretending to be women“.

This served as the desired dog-whistle for other groups to form and under the banner of ‘Save Women’s Sports’ protesters disrupted swimming events Thomas was scheduled to compete in.

Britain’s golden girl of Swimming, Sharon Davies, has been one of the loudest critics, penning an article in the Daily Mail, declaring that sport should be governed by physiology – ‘Bodies do sport, not feelings’ the former Olympic silver-medallist wrote.

Davies of course has been smarting about this since the 1980’s when she was pipped for gold by an East German swimmer, Petra Schneider, who years later revealed she and her fellow team-mates had been ruthlessly pumped full of steroids through puberty by their coaches to give them an advantage.

Her Daily Mail article touches on her sense of wrong-doing, cheating and the lack of courage the sports administrators are showing. She warns of the hostility and sense of fear she and others receive from what she calls ‘Trans-activists’ but, she writes: “I refuse to back down because it’s an important issue for the next generation of young women.”

Davies is clearly well informed about the workings of NIFA, the body which oversees Swimming and Diving events, and wants to see a workable solution.

But her support for Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville’s solution seems a little ill-advised. Tuberville was a sports coach at Auburn University before opting to enter politics.

He is fiercely anti-abortion, pro-building a wall on the border, and an outspoken climate change denier, claiming we have nothing to worry about ‘for the next 400 years’.

His sense of fair play is unusual too. He was listed as one of the worst violators of the STOCK Act, the rules which forbid politicians trading stocks on the basis of information they are privy to, racking up 132 violations from transactions totalling nearly $900,000.

His defence was unorthodox too.

Tuberville responded to being named as one of the worst offenders by saying “They might as well start sending robots up here (Washington),” he told The Independent’s Eric Michael Garcia. “You can’t do anything.”

“I think it would really cut back on the amount of people that would want to come up here and serve, I really do”.

Perhaps that would be a good thing?

So, what Tuberville appears to be promoting, and Davies backing, is the creation of a third gender class.  

Graciously, Davies says she has no personal animosity for Lia Thomas, and wants her to ‘live her authentic life’ but the swimmer writes: ‘the only truly fair solution is to create a protected biological female category, and an open, welcoming and inclusive category where trans women and trans men can compete’.

Are they proposing three racing categories? Biological males, Biological females and some group for ‘others’. I find this scary and starkly reminiscent of the tragic ‘Separate but Equal’ designations which allowed racial segregation to continue in the U.S. for so long.

It perhaps would be leveraged too into non-sporting life too – Bathrooms, Changing Rooms, School Admissions and so on.

Davies and her supporters, perhaps because of a life dedicated to trudging up and down a pool from early in the morning every day, seem to be solely focused on gender in swimming and sports.

They seem to mistakenly believe Lia Thomas and other transgender athletes only motivation to transition is to to win races and medals.

Thomas’ decision to identify as a woman, take the hormone therapy, the surgical and physical changes which follow, and emerge as someone they feel is genuinely true to who they are, must surely be driven by something more than just wanting to win a race.

Lia Thomas has an advantage. She stands 6’4, has an imposing physique and hands and feet which propel her further and faster. She had these advantages before she decided to transition. But Thomas’ time in winning the 500-metre freestyle was still 10 seconds slower than the record set by 10-time Olympic medallist Katie Ledecky, a biological female.

So are transgender athletes welcome to compete, just not to win?

Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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