FINA decision a victory for women

The decision by swimming’s international governing body to maintain single-sex competition for females is a huge victory for the rights of women and girls.

It’s also vindication for women who have been speaking out for years about the importance of single-sex sport for women and girls, and who have been denigrated and abused for doing so.

An overwhelming 83.8 per cent of responses to the survey conducted by FINA agreed that eligibility for women’s events should be based on biological sex. Ironically, in 2019 the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner accepted a complaint against me for making exactly the same point.

The FINA survey is a huge reality check for those who have spent the last few years aggressively and condescendingly insisting that female athletes neither want nor need single-sex sport. Do those same people believe that these swimmers, including Australian champions like Emma McKeon, Emily Seebohm, Cate Campbell and Dawn Fraser are wrong?

It’s been surreal for me to hear the claims that “nobody is raising this as an issue” made repeatedly in recent years, despite the fact I’ve been contacted by thousands of women from all over Australia and the world, some of them with Olympic medals and World Titles, who most certainly are concerned about this issue.

The sad reality is that women who have dared to speak out in defence of single-sex women’s sport in recent years have been targeted not only by social media trolls but in some cases by decision-makers in their own sports. Female athletes reliant on sponsors for income and whose careers can end in a second by non-selection often find it all but impossible to say publicly what they know to be true about the differences between male and female athletes.

It's hardly surprising to me that female athletes with a career ahead of them have thought twice about speaking out. For expressing the view that women and girls should be able to compete with and against their own sex – a position decisively backed by elite swimmers – I’ve been told by internet trolls that I should kill myself, that they hope I get cancer, and numerous other unprintable slurs. I’m far from alone in this, as women who have been vocal on this issue like Olympian Sharron Davies and tennis legend Martina Navratilova, could attest. I have no doubt that it’s taken real courage on the part of those female athletes who, in recent months, have publicly advocated for single-sex sport and fairness for women.

But if women hadn’t been bravely speaking up, there’s every chance FINA would have fallen into the same trap as Sport Australia and Australia’s major sporting codes in dealing with this issue: conduct a secretive consultation behind closed doors, ignore the science which demonstrates that those who have been through male puberty maintain physical advantages over female athletes, and adopt the position that women’s sport should be based on identity rather than sex, to the detriment of fairness and safety.

To be fair to those organisations, Australian laws which suggest single-sex sport is unlawful discrimination and limit the circumstances in which it can be offered have undoubtedly played a part in their posture. That’s why I drafted a Bill to ensure that Australian sporting codes can offer single-sex sport for women and girls without risk of legal action being taken against them, while also enabling sports to operate a full range of categories so that everyone has an opportunity to participate. With the current laws still enabling legal action to be taken against a sporting body which follows FINAs lead, the risk remains that Australian women and girls will be denied the right to play sport in a female single-sex competition.

The reason I’ve consistently advocated for the rights of women and girls to have single-sex sport in spite of the abuse and vitriol directed towards me is simple: because athletes, mothers and women from all walks of life have asked me to. FINA’s decision, and the decisive support from swimmers for maintaining the single-sex women’s category, demonstrate why it was so important not to blindly accept the prevailing narrative that ‘inclusiveness’ requires women to shut up and make way.

Now, we can only hope that other sporting codes and decision-makers take FINA’s lead, and finally start taking the concerns of women and girls seriously.