The tumultuous topic of transgender athletes has undeniably disrupted the status-quo world of competitive sports. And while Lia Thomas may have grabbed headlines in swimming, all sports must decide a path forward on a divisive issue. Whether surfing is ready or not, officials will soon make choices about how to classify transgender surfers. Our research dug deep, and we found that one entity, more than any other, will most likely be forced to take a hard line on the matter.
Just as the International Surfing Association (ISA) determined the eligibility requirements to compete in Tokyo 2020, the topic of eligibility for gender divisions will very likely rest on the shoulders of surfing’s IOC-recognized governing authority.
During The Inertia’s recent conversations with both the World Surf League (WSL) and the ISA, both organizations acknowledged that they are weighing the options. Neither has taken a definitive stance on transgender policy yet.
They will probably need to make up their mind sooner rather than later, as Australian Sasha Lowerson recently became the first transgender woman to win a surfing competition. In that respect, they’re already lagging behind policy-makers at Surfing Australia. More on that later.
On The Inertia podcast, WSL CEO Erik Logan was reluctant to take a definitive stance on the topic.
“Quality, inclusion, and fairness are very core to who we are,” said Logan. “One of the things that we’re doing is we’re having conversations with experts, internally discussing, trying to develop where we are going to land on this.”
“And [we are talking about] finding the right way for all people to live their authentic self – figure out how they can compete fairly. Elite competition might differ from different levels of competition,” added Logan. “And again, when you get back to the IOC and ISA, there’s a whole other side of things. You have to remember that we are a qualifying entity for the Olympic sports as well.”
(Go to 38:53 in the podcast to hear the full response.)
When reached for comment, the ISA also responded without committing to a clear direction.
“The ISA Medical Commission is currently studying the IOC framework, along with other international practices, before making a recommendation to our Executive Committee regarding transgender athlete participation in ISA events,” said an ISA spokesperson.
“We recognize this is an emotive matter and participation policies across many sports are being reviewed and potentially updated. The ISA is monitoring the latest information closely so we will take our time to create a policy that’s fair and science-based,” the ISA concluded.
For a potential clue as to what type of policy the ISA may craft, you can look at the recently announced policy of FINA (swimming’s Olympic international federation) that largely prohibits transgender women from competing in women’s competitions.
In FINA’s newly crafted policy, only “swimmers who transitioned before age 12” can compete in women’s events. Additionally, FINA is considering the creation of an open competition category to create a space for athletes excluded from this policy.
However, do not confuse FINA’s restrictive policy with the less stringent requirements of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which has given rise to the Lia Thomas controversy.
The NCAA policy “requires a year of hormone-suppressing therapy to bring down testosterone levels… to diminish the inherent biological advantage held by those born male,” as explained in the New York Times.
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While it appears that neither the ISA nor the WSL are currently collaborating on policy, one can imagine that eventually, they’ll need to align. Both entities are part of the Olympic qualification pathway, and any policy on how to classify a surfer would need to be mirrored by both.
Given that topics, such as what country a surfer can represent in the Olympics, are solely determined by the ISA, similarly, the topic of which division a surfer can compete in may ultimately rest on the ISA’s policy. However, as WSL CEO Erik Logan hinted, the WSL could certainly craft its own policy across the tours that do not have Olympic qualification implications.
One surfing authority that has taken a stance on the topic thus far is Surfing Australia, which released an “Inclusion in Sport” document.
Surfing Australia states: “For all Community Surfing Competitions (i.e. non representative competitions delivered and managed by local clubs or associations) an individual can participate in the competition which best reflects their gender identity.”
Yet their policy also states that they are looking to the ISA for guidance:
“We recognize that international surfing is conducted under the rules and regulations of the ISA, and all ISA-sanctioned competitions and events must be played in accordance with ISA policy, even where they vary from these guidelines.”
Therein lies a big piece of the puzzle: What the ISA decides will permeate across its 110 national federations around the world. In that respect, the ISA’s decision will impact competitive surfing more than any other surfing entity’s. The national federations are patiently waiting for any news on a policy that will essentially become the global law of the land for any type of competition that hopes to have implications for surfing in the Olympics.
While we wait to see what the institutional authorities of surfing decide, some of the sport’s most prominent voices have already made their positions known via social media.
Kelly Slater made his voice heard in a firey comment section on an Instagram post regarding Lowerson’s victory, saying “Make a trans division and we don’t have this confusion.”
Keala Kennedy chimed in on the same post, “I think trans women athletes absolutely need to be included in sports, but their biological advantages need to be taken into consideration because it also has to be fair for female athletes. I don’t have the solution, however, having respectful, nonaggressive, collaborative conversations is a start.”
Bethany Hamilton took a more pointed stance, “Oh hell nooo. Let people think and be what they want but at least make a separate transgender division…”
Sage Erickson incredulously added, “Is this real???”
As the rabbit hole of Instagram debate reflects, the range of sentiments and opinions underline a few things: one, it’s an emotional topic, and two, there’s no easy, clear-cut solution. Last, the governing body’s decisions will not satisfy everyone.
The WSL and ISA are unsurprisingly taking their time to thoughtfully create a delicate policy. Time, however, is ticking.
Given that whatever decision is made will likely have to be woven into the Olympic qualification process, it will be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to make amendments to such a policy until after the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle.