It all began as a close finish in the standings at the end of a tough heptathlon competition at the 19th Asian Games Sunday in Hangzhou, China. Within hours, the results became a most unlikely trans-in-sports controversy, just months after transgender women were banned by World Athletics.
Heading into the 800 meters to end the seven-event competition, India’s Swapna Barman was in fourth place overall, trailing China’s Liu Jingyi by 9 points.
Behind them both was 20-year-old Nandini Agasara, an up-and-coming talent from India’s junior ranks who would need to crush the 800 to have a chance at a medal.
She did just that, with a personal best of 2 minutes, a full 15.33 seconds. She was the fastest in than the field and the effort lifted her to a bronze medal.
The next day, the accusations flew from Barman’s Twitter. It was deleted later, but not before a number of outlets saw it.
The night before, Agasara was smiling on the podium in Hangzhou. On Monday, she denied Barman’s claim.
“I won my first international medal, here at the Asian Games, and I wanted to enjoy it a little but I have not got a chance to do even that,” she told The Hindu newspaper. “Why did she not say anything when I started competing? How can someone say something like this about another woman?”
She went even further to the Times of India: “It’s only when I won the bronze because of my sheer hard work and dedication that she came up with this transgender thing. This is so unfair.”
The bronze medalist also said that she would raise a complaint with the Athletics Federation of India. The governing body did not comment directly on Barman’s statement but said they would investigate it.
Perhaps the governing body could also inform Barman that transgender women are banned from competition. World Athletics made that rule change in March.
To Barman’s credit, she did apologize publicly via Twitter on Thursday.
I wish to tender my unconditional apology for my tweet the other day specially to my co-athlete was the sheer disappointment and momentous emotional outburst which made me react in this manner against the ethos of sports and deeply feels sorry everyone for my emotional reaction— Swapna Barman (@Swapna_Barman96) October 5, 2023
Barman’s prior accusation however, and Agasara feeling the need to defend herself against it, are examples of how much anti-trans hysteria has affected discussions in sports.
In an interview with India Today, the fourth-place finisher went as far as misgendering the cisgender bronze medalist and fellow Indian.
“It is not possible to achieve such performance in four months, everyone knows it, you must also know it,” she said. “I will not talk to him now. I will do so later. He was probably not selected even in the Asian Championships. After that, I thought maybe he won’t do it here either, but when the tickets came, I saw that his name was also there.”
It isn’t the first time this has happened. In the last year, we’ve seen anti-trans protesters “transvestigate” high school kids from New Hampshire to California. There were the parents in Utah who leveled similar accusations because of the result of a high school meet. You even had it drop down to the grade school level in British Columbia earlier this year.
However, this was on the elite stage and, despite changed regulations, this stage wasn’t immune. It was more glaring and more worrisome.
Agasara is a cisgender woman, but Barman’s accusations and even her attitude in misgendering her opponent will gain some supporters and whip up more anti-trans nonsense.
This should be one of the biggest moments of Agasara’s young life: her first elite competition and she ends up on the podium with seasoned multi-event athletes who competed in the Summer Olympics two years ago.
Her anger over her moment being stolen by a spoilsport is understandable, but unfortunately isn’t new. Women’s sports has always dealt with this sort of chauvinism, but to have come up in this context amid the regulatory changes that have taken place?
There are some in the Twittersphere and media who will try to say that trans inclusion is to blame for this. That is nonsense. Transphobia caused this, and transphobes in the discourse made it palatable for Swapna Barman to ruin a special moment for another athlete.
How different would this situation have been if elite sport had heeded the IOC’s Framework For Fairness that barred discrimination based on “an unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status.”?
Both Barman and Agasara find themselves caught on the wrong end of what transphobes believe about sports, that transgender women are not women and that cisgender women need to be “protected” from trans women.
That belief hurt a young athlete who earned celebration not denigration. We who participate, cover and cheer in sports need to seriously look at that before it happens again.