The Australian Olympic Committee and Swimming Australia are threatening a conservative lobby group with legal action for featuring images of elite female swimmers on billboards it is using to campaign against trans women’s participation in sport.
The AOC will send a legal letter to the conservative group Advance on Tuesday alleging the billboards are using its intellectual property without permission, a spokesperson said on Monday night.
Billboards and social media graphics created by Advance feature the phrase “women’s sport is not for men” alongside images of swimmers Dawn Fraser, Emma McKeon and Emily Seebohm, who commented recently on trans women competing in female sports.
McKeon and Seebohm are in their uniforms which feature the Olympic rings. That is the intellectual property the committee claims is being used without permission.
Earlier on Monday, Advance indicated it would not remove the billboards following another legal threat from Swimming Australia. Seebohm – an Olympic champion – has criticised the political action group for using her comments and image “as part of a political agenda without my consent”.
Advance, which is campaigning against Labor and moderate Liberals at this election, recently launched a series of billboard ads critical of the Warringah MP Zali Steggall’s support for trans women to compete in female sports.
The group, formerly known as Advance Australia, campaigned hard against Steggall in the 2019 election when she challenged Liberal MP Tony Abbott, including creating the roundly mocked “Captain GetUp” superhero. Advance, which claims it was set up to combat “woke politicians and elitist activist groups”, has come out strongly in favour of the Liberal Warringah candidate Katherine Deves, whose controversial comments on trans people have attracted widespread criticism.
Fraser told the Daily Telegraph last week “I don’t think it’s fair to have transgender men competing against women”; McKeon told a Griffith University event that she “personally would not want to be racing against someone who is biologically a male”; while Seebohm told Sky News that “biological males are always going to be stronger, fitter, faster than biological females” and swimming authorities “need to work out how we can all come together in this sport”.
Eugénie Buckley, the chief executive of Swimming Australia, said the body “strongly condemns” the use of the athletes’ imagery in the ads, and claimed Advance had never sought or received permission to use them.
“For clarity – if it was sought it would have been categorically denied. Swimming Australia does not endorse this, or any message, from the Advance Australia party,” Buckley said in a statement.
“Swimming Australia believes in a competitive environment that is inclusive, fair and equitable for all athletes at the same time. Ultimately, all Australians deserve to feel welcome, safe, valued and celebrated in swimming.”
She said Swimming Australia had issued a legal notice to Advance and expected the ads to be removed “immediately”.
Seebohm told Guardian Australia she stood by her comments but did not consent to them being used by Advance.
“As I have stated in the media this week, there needs to be a conversation started about how to be inclusive while still maintaining fairness for all athletes,” she said.
“I did not, and would never, give my permission for my image or brand to be used by Advance Australia on the mobile billboards, or advertising that is currently circulating, as part of a political campaign.
“I remain committed to finding a fair solution for all athletes to be able to compete on a level playing field, while encouraging inclusiveness and supporting more young people to become involved in sport.”
Guardian Australia was attempting to reach Fraser and McKeon and does not suggest they endorse the ads or the use of their image in any way.
Nine newspapers reported on Monday night that Fraser was furious her photo had been associated with the campaign and she had engaged her own solicitor.
As of Monday afternoon, the graphics featuring Fraser, McKeon and Seebohm remained on Advance’s Facebook page. A spokesperson for the group did not commit to removing the billboards when contacted.
“The statements by Dawn Fraser, Emma McKeon and Emily Seebohm are all on the public record and make the compelling argument that allowing biological males to compete in girls and women’s sport just isn’t fair,” Advance told Guardian Australia.
“The country’s best swimmers have made their views clear, so where is the sport at? Swimming Australia should be honest about what they plan to do to address the concerns of Australian parents.
“It’s incredible that the media have become obsessed over who is allowed to use a photo rather than calling out sports bodies and politicians over this important issue.”
The spokesperson accused Swimming Australia of “running cover for radical woke politicians”.
Advance is calling for supporters to vote against Liberal MPs who had criticised the views of Deves and Liberal senator Claire Chandler, who had proposed a bill on trans women in female sports. Several Coalition senators told Guardian Australia they felt Chandler’s bill was “redundant” and its stated aims were already covered by existing legislation.
Advance described moderate Liberals like Dave Sharma, Andrew Bragg, Trent Zimmerman, Warren Entsch and the New South Wales treasurer Matt Kean as “numpties”, and backed Deves’s statements by saying “Good on you, Katherine!”
“DO NOT let the pathetic ‘modern Liberal’ faction and their buddies in the Climate 200 clique get you down,” Advance wrote on its website.
“Trent Zimmerman, YOU should be sacked by the people of North Sydney for your woke nonsense … Warren Entsch, YOUR very, very different views are the reason you should be VOTED OUT. IGNORE Dave Sharma and Senator Andrew Bragg.”
The Country Liberal party’s Senate candidate for the Northern Territory, Jacinta Price, was until earlier this month a “spokesperson” for Advance. At a press conference with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, in Alice Springs on Sunday, Price backed Deves’s comments on trans athletes.
“I’ve been a captain of several AFL football teams here in Central Australia. I know what the impact would be,” Price said.
“It is up to the media to understand that being pro-women is not anti-trans as far as I’m concerned. And that is what Katherine is standing up for … I agree with the fact that she stands up for women’s rights.”