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Lia Thomas has filed challenge to World Aquatics’ trans ban, confirms Court of Arbitration for Sport

The trans NCAA Champion seeks to strike down a ban on trans women in elite swimming.

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NCAA Womens Swimming: Swimming & Diving Championship
2022 NCAA Champion Lia Thomas will seek to have discriminatory policies stricken down in Court of Arbitration for Sport
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly two years after winning an NCAA championship — and becoming a lightning rod in discussion of transgender participation in sports and society — former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has filed a request for arbitration to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The CAS announced confirmation of her filing Friday.

“Ms Thomas accepts that fair competition is a legitimate sporting objective and that some regulation of transgender women in swimming is appropriate,” the CAS statement on the filing read.

“However, Ms Thomas submits that the Challenged Provisions are invalid and unlawful as they discriminate against her contrary to the Olympic Charter, the World Aquatics Constitution, and Swiss law including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and that such discrimination cannot be justified as necessary, reasonable, or proportionate to achieve a legitimate sporting objective.”

News of the filing broke Thursday night via the Telegraph in the UK. Thomas’ lawyer, Carlos Sayao of the Toronto-based firm Tyr, told the newspaper the action was necessary because World Aquatics’ policy changes were a “trans ban”.

“She’s bringing the case for herself and other trans women to ensure that any rules for trans women’s participation in sport are fair, proportionate and grounded in human rights and in science,” Sayao stated to the Telegraph.

Carlos Sayao, a former elite swimmer now lawyer with Toronto-based Tyr, will represent Lia Thomas in possible proceedings with the CAS.
(left) Tyr LLP / (right) Robert Laberge/Getty Images

In addition to being Thomas’s lawyer, Sayao is a former elite-level competitive swimmer. He won a silver medal for Canada at the World University Games in 2001; he also competed for his country in the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the 2003 World Aquatics Championships.

Thomas, currently a law student at Drexel University, is best known for senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 2021-22 season, she swam for the women’s team having started her gender transition more than two years prior.

She became the first trans NCAA Division I individual champion by winning the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships in Atlanta in March 2022.

Thomas is also the second trans student-athlete to earn NCAA All-American honors.

World Aquatics announced in June 2022 that trans women would be banned from elite competition in women’s events.

The governing body did not make any direct statement on the recent CAS filing, but did reaffirm its stance on the policy changes enacted over 18 months ago.

“The World Aquatics policy on gender inclusion... was rigorously developed on the basis of advice from leading medical and legal experts, and in careful consultation with athletes,” World Aquatics executive director Brent Nowicki noted in a statement.

“World Aquatics remains confident that its gender inclusion policy represents a fair approach and remains absolutely determined to protect women’s sport.”

Since 2022, governing bodies across sports, including the NCAA, have moved forward with more restrictive and prohibitive policies in response to mounting anti-trans political pressure.

Thomas’ success also has been used as a means to foster anti-trans sentiment and has powered a push for discriminatory legislation against trans people even in areas outside of sports in the United States, and in a number of other countries.

Sayao noted this trend in stating what these policies mean in the bigger picture toward trans people, especially trans women.

“Trans women are particularly vulnerable in society and they suffer from higher rates of violence, abuse and harassment than cis women,” he noted.

“Lia has now had the door closed to her in terms of her future ability to practise her sport and compete at the highest level.

“She’s bringing the case for herself and other trans women to ensure that any rules for trans women’s participation in sport are fair, proportionate and grounded in human rights and in science.”

The CAS statement issued Friday says “no hearing date has been fixed yet” for the case.