The perfect storm has already developed in the matter of transgender women in competitive sports.

Lia Thomas, a senior at Penn, is clobbering competition in middle- and long-distance freestyle races. She has already broken two Ivy League records and, in the 1650, recently won by 38 seconds.

Two years ago, Lia was known as Will Thomas, who was a second-team All-Ivy League swimmer as a man on the Quaker roster.

The rules allow transgender women — that is, women who used to be men — to compete in women’s sports. That’s why Lia Thomas is competing on the Penn women’s team now.

This is not the first time this sort of thing has ever happened. Renee Richards, a transgender woman, competed in professional women’s tennis in the 1970s. She had some success, although she never broke through the highest reaches of the sport. But in the recent era — the post-Caitlyn Jenner era — this is the real test case.

Swimming and running are about as pure an expression of physical prowess as is available. Wrestling, tennis, softball, golf, basketball, volleyball — they all involve technique and/or eye-hand skills in a way that does not necessarily give an advantage to men.

Testosterone imparts advantages to men over women in speed and strength. Thomas, as I said, was second-team all-Ivy; Thomas’ best times in men’s events would be world records for women.

I want to be clear that Lia Thomas has every right to express herself as a woman, and has the same rights as anyone else to engage in competitive sports. I don’t really even blame her for wanting to compete in the women’s division, since that is where she feels she belongs.

The problem is with the rules that allow that. The simplest thing to me is to have two divisions in sports: Women and “open.” The women’s division is for biological women — people born as women who express themselves now as women. The “open” division is for anybody else. Give it another name if “open” is somehow offensive.

I also recognize that the position I’m advocating would hurt the feelings of Lia Thomas; she might even contend that her rights are being violated. I don’t agree with that, but I can empathize with her feelings.

Thing is, dozens of women who have to compete against her right now could make a strong fairness case themselves. How is it fair, they could ask, that I have to compete against a person who for two decades was a man?

They’re right, of course. It’s not fair. Does Lia Thomas’ desire to compete in women’s swimming rise to the level of a “right”? If so, does her right trump the desire — or “rights” — of all her competitors for a fair shot?

I’m not entirely convinced that anybody has a fundamental “right” at stake — nowhere in the Constitution does it guarantee anything about the 200 free. So what you’re dealing with here are desires, and basic concepts of fairness.

Right now, the people getting treated unfairly are the other Ivy League women’s freestylers. That’s not Lia Thomas’ fault. That’s the fault of the rulemakers.

Recommended for you