Australia’s most successful male Olympian Ian Thorpe has hit back at a decision by international swimming’s governing body Fina to ban transgender women athletes from elite female competitions.
The swimming great, who won five gold medals at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympic Games, said the sport’s leaders had made the wrong decision.
“This is a very complicated issue, I can’t deny that, and I am personally opposed to the position Fina has taken on this,” he said. “I am for fairness in sport, but I’m also for equality in sport. And in this instance, they’ve actually got it wrong.”
Following a storm of controversy, and a campaign of harassment against a swimmer who won an American collegiate event, Fina banned transgender women from competing in women’s races unless they had transitioned before the age of 12.
Other international governing bodies soon followed suit. International Rugby League barred transgender women from playing women’s international rugby league, while gender inclusion rules have also come under review for football, netball and athletics.
Fina’s June ruling was welcomed by some of Australia’s Olympic stars, including Tokyo gold medallists Cate Campbell and Emily Seebohm, who had previously voiced concerns about “fairness” and physiological differences between men and women.
But Thorpe said some of these concerns were overblown. Of all the athletes who have competed at the Olympics, only two were transgender women. One of them – New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard – came last in her event in 2021. The other – BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe from the USA – was an alternate who did not compete.
“So when you run the numbers, someone who’s gone through the tough process and been able to transition to the sex that they determine for themselves is highly unlikely to ever be able to win an Olympic gold medal,” Thorpe said.
The five-time Olympic champion called Fina’s decision a “temporary solution” that failed to consider the implications it could have on the gender-diverse community.
“When it comes to the elite level, there needs to be a sensible conversation which includes endocrinologists, psychologists, physiologists – everyone that actually may have an opinion in this space.”
Thorpe said he believed concerns about transgender children in sport were “bizarre”.
“If someone is complaining about someone who is trans when they happen to be 10 years of age, it is bizarre. I can almost promise you that child will not be competing at an adult stage.”
Thorpe hung up his goggles for good after an attempted comeback in 2012, and has spent much of his post-pool retirement advocating for LGBTQI groups. In February, he criticised Australia’s new religious discrimination bill, calling it “state-sanctioned discrimination”.
He called for the protection of the transgender community, who he referred to as “some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in this country”.