"It's very complicated" - When Michael Phelps commented on the controversy around transgender swimmer Lia Thomas

Michael Phelps Lia Thomas
Michael Phelps and Lia Thomas (Image via Instagram)

Controversy erupted earlier this year when Lia Thomas became the first transgender swimmer to win a major US college title. The trans swimmer made headlines as she won the 500-yard freestyle event at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I national championship.

While many lauded her for the achievement, Thomas was subjected to harsh criticism as well.

US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was one of the biggest names to comment on the issue. Having retired as the most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps continues to remain a major figure in swimming. Phelps weighed in on the controversy and termed Lia Thomas’ recent success as being “complicated.”

Michael Phelps bats for an ‘even playing field’

Phelps remained neutral while commenting on the controversy surrounding Lia Thomas. The Olympian said that it was only right for people to be comfortable with their identity. However, he went on to add that sports should have an “even playing field” suggesting that he had doubts about the fairness University of Pennsylvania swimmer's admission to the women’s events.

Trying to stay away from making any strong statement, Phelps further added that he was unsure what an “even playing field” should look like. He noted that he didn’t know what the future held for the sport.

Speaking in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in January, Michael Phelps said:

“I think this leads back to the organizing committees again because it has to be a level playing field. That's something that we all need. Because that's what sports are. For me, I don't know where this is going to go. I don't know what's going to happen.”
“I believe that we should all feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin, but I think sports should all be played on an even playing field,' he said… I don't know what it looks like in the future. It's hard. It's very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

The Lia Thomas controversy

Originally from Austin, Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania, began getting attention as she came out as a transgender woman in 2019. She switched to the Penn women’s swimming team after competing for three seasons on the men’s team.

The 22-year-old bagged multiple titles at the Ivy League women's swimming and diving championships. She faced criticism from many, including competitors and some of her own teammates.

People began protesting her participation, claiming that Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to compete against other women. According to USA Swimming’s policy, transgender athletes are allowed to compete once they undergo three years of hormone replacement therapy. However, Thomas was deemed eligible to compete with six months to go on her treatment. This blew up as the athlete shattered school and national records.

Despite the criticism, Lia Thomas continues to compete in women’s sports. Earlier this year, the transgender athlete revealed that she was preparing to compete at the 2024 Summer Olympics. Interestingly, US Swimming officials seem to have given a green flag for this.

Responding to queries over the same, officials stated that she could represent the US contingent at the Paris Olympics if she meets the criteria laid out by the Olympic committee.

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Edited by S Chowdhury
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