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Lia Thomas’ transgender case thrown out after US swimmer ruled ineligible

Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas has lost her battle against new World Athletics' rules - USA Today/Brett Davis

Lia Thomas, the swimmer who became the first transgender winner of an American collegiate title, has had her case against new World Aquatics rules dismissed by the Court Of Arbitration of Sport.

World Aquatics banned transgender swimmers from the elite female category if they had undergone any part of male puberty following Thomas’s NCAA win in 2022, an intervention which ended Thomas’s hopes of ever competing in women’s swimming events at the Olympics.

Thomas responded by lodging a legal challenge with Cas in September of last year, arguing that the rules were “invalid and unlawful” because they were discriminatory and contrary to the Olympic Charter and European Convention of Human Rights.

Cas, however, has dismissed the case after concluding that the rules applied only to World Aquatics elite events or world records, and otherwise had “no impact” on athletes.

World Aquatics said that Thomas lacked the legal standing to challenge its policy because she was not a member of USA Swimming when she launched proceedings and had not competed to a standard that would have qualified for her international selection in World Aquatics events. It argued, therefore, that she was not affected by the rules.

Thomas’s triumph in the 500-yard freestyle event in Atlanta in 2022 made global headlines and sparked a major controversy in the United States and beyond over her participation in women’s races. The 24-year-old has not since swum competitively, with the Cas panel noting that Thomas did not apply for, let alone be granted the right to participate, in elite events within the United States’ own swimming policy. She is currently only entitled to compete in non-elite USA Swimming-events.

The hearing, then, had focused on the question of whether Thomas had the right to challenge the rules, rather than whether the actual transgender policy is unlawful and discriminatory. The precedent, then, is that any transgender athlete who launches a similar legal challenge must be able to demonstrate that they are directly affected by the policy. The British transgender cyclist Emily Bridges has also threatened to challenge the policy in her sport after both British Cycling and the global governing body, the Union Cycliste International, produced new rules which excluded transgender women from the female category.

A growing number of sports governing bodies have been bringing in similar policies to swimming amid mounting pressure from athletes, campaigners and politicians to prioritise fairness and safety over inclusion. Shortly before World Aquatics introduced its policy two years ago, Thomas said that it had been “a goal” to swim at the Olympic trials for a very long time.

She also told ESPN: “The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned. People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win’. I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”

Thomas had previously been ranked just 65th over the same 500 yard distance in the NCAA division one’s male category.

Opposition to her racing in women’s events has been led in the US by rival swimmer Riley Gaines, with whom Thomas tied for fifth place in the 200 yards freestyle in Atlanta.

World Aquatics said that the decision was “a major step forward in our efforts to protect women’s sport”.

“World Aquatics is dedicated to fostering an environment that promotes fairness, respect, and equal opportunities for athletes of all genders and we reaffirm this pledge,” it added.