David Owen

I had two broad reactions to the International Swimming Federation's (FINA) decision this month to require individuals to have completed transition by the age of 12 to compete in women's competitions.

The first was articulated by my insidethegames colleague Patrick Burke in his excellent recent column on the subject.

It is, I concur, too early to label the move "historic"; we will need to know much more about the proposed "open" category that is set to be established before forming a sensible judgement on whether the portentous h-word is warranted.

Personally, it seems clear that any new restrictions and any new category should be introduced by sports simultaneously.

My second reaction can be boiled down to, 'Why on earth has it fallen to a single International Federation (IF), however prominent, to take the lead on such a vexed and important subject for the future of sport?'.

It seems to me that this is precisely the sort of issue that a competent, clear-headed umbrella body would be ideally positioned to handle.

The ongoing debate therefore illuminates what a big mistake I think it would be to terminate the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), pale and shrunken shadow of its former self as it may be.

A GAISF worth its salt, representing all types and levels of sport and properly resourced, would have been able to set up a permanent commission of experts to keep the fast-moving science under effective review, draft a set of first principles on dealing with matters pertaining to gender as fairly and sensitively as possible, and consult with individual IFs on how best to apply these principles to their particular disciplines and circumstances.

FINA's decision to ban transgender athletes from women's events has been met with mixed reactions from the aquatics community ©Getty Images
FINA's decision to ban transgender athletes from women's events has been met with mixed reactions from the aquatics community ©Getty Images

It could, in short, have made sport’s response to a problem viewed by some as an existential crisis for many women’s sports/disciplines significantly more cohesive, even if FINA has won plaudits from some for its boldness in at least attempting to grasp this well-established nettle.

Yes, as some of you may vaguely recall, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has kindly attempted to fulfil much of the role that I am advocating for GAISF, revealing last November what another insidethegames colleague Michael Houston described as a "framework for transgender and differences in sex development (DSD) athletes which are to be used as a guideline for IFs".

Surely, you might argue, as long as somebody has done this spadework, that is the most important thing.

The problem for me with that line of argument is that the primordial role of the IOC remains to nurture and control a single biennial event: the Olympic Games, be it summer or winter.

With the best will in the world, its pronouncements on any subject you care to name are likely to be coloured by what is perceived to be in the best interests of this single mega-event.

You might go as far as to argue that it would be a dereliction of duty for things to be otherwise.

GAISF, by contrast, could and should be representative of all sports events, and indeed of all levels of competition and competitors.

Unfortunately nowadays money tends to have a much bigger influence than logic on the ways and means by which decisions get taken in sport.

Simply stated, the Olympic Games is worth far, far more as a commercial property than almost any of the competitions the IFs themselves control.

The only international sports event in the same ballpark is the FIFA World Cup.

The dissolution of umbrella organisations such as GAISF could have serious consequences in the long run ©GAISF
The dissolution of umbrella organisations such as GAISF could have serious consequences in the long run ©GAISF

This affords the IOC massive influence - influence which, it seems to me, it is becoming increasingly adept at deploying.

By way of illustration, let me refer you to another insidethegames colleague Brian Oliver’s recent story on the finances of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

According to Oliver, "nearly 90 per cent of the IWF’s income last year came from its involvement in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games".

Nearly 90 per cent!

Actually, in 2021, even a major IF like FINA was reliant on the Olympic Movement for well over 50 per cent of its income; however, this proportion would be substantially lower over a complete Olympic cycle.

As readers are no doubt aware, an Extraordinary General Assembly is expected to be called in September to decide on GAISF’s dissolution.

Many of the 55-year-old body’s remaining assets are expected to be transferred to other umbrella organisations, such as the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF) and the Association of IOC Recognised International Sport Federations (ARISF).

Such a cacophonous succession of ugly sports acronyms is enough to make even my eyes glaze over.

Yet you only need to reflect for a moment to realise what a retrograde step for international sports organisations this would represent.

Not only are ASOIF and AIOWF creatures of the IOC - set up, moreover, with the specific intention of emasculating GAISF - but the single fact determining which umbrella body a given IF belongs to is the nature of said IF’s relationship with the Olympic Games/IOC.

In reality, the hugely money-spinning world football governing body FIFA has no more in common with fellow ASOIF member the International Gymnastics Federation than, say, the International Federation of Match Poker.

It is almost as if IFs are on the point of accepting that the only thing that really matters in international sport is the Olympic Games, or at least that everything else should be subordinate to this supreme event.

There is still time for them to wake up and set their faces against a move that would underline, not for the first time, where the power in international sport really lies - but not very much.