When the delayed 2020 Olympics were finally set to take place, a number of athletes were missing from the starting blocks. And they all happened to be Black women.
Just two weeks before the opening ceremony, the Namibia National Olympic Committee announced that two of its sprinters, Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma, were disqualified from running 400m after undergoing tests at their Olympic training camps. The tests revealed that the athletes’ natural testosterone levels were too high to compete in this distance. Their exclusion from the Olympic Games is based on the revision of the 2011 rule established by The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which specified that contestant’s testosterone levels must be under 10 nanomoles per litre of blood to compete in women’s competitions, reducing the limit in half to 5 nanomoles per litre in 2018.
The IAAF started formulating rules on hormone levels after South African athlete Caster Semenya ran the 800m so fast that the Federation suspected her of cheating at The World Championship in 2009. The rule concerns distances between 400m and a mile and requires persons whose natural testosterone levels exceed the requirement to use medication, such as birth control, to reduce their testosterone levels.
The 2018 revision has affected all three medalists of the 800-meter race in the 2016 Olympic Games: Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi), and Margaret Wambui (Kenya). All were barred from competing in long sprints and middle-distance runs at the Tokyo Olympics – all Black cis women. There are several levels to this problematic rule. For starters, if testosterone is such a competitive advantage that it calls for a discriminatory rule, how come there is no cap on the natural testosterone levels for people wishing to compete in men’s competitions? Testosterone levels among men generally range from 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles, meaning that the variation is higher within this group than typically found between men and women.
Secondly, the rule discriminates against intersex athletes and trans women. Although none of the women targeted by the ban has publicly identified themselves as intersex, IAAF has made it clear that the athletes are not ‘woman enough’ according to their standards. Thirdly, it is not a coincidence that it is Black women and to some degree, women of colour, who continue to face exclusion. Evolutionary race scientists claimed true differentiation of the sexes to be a status that had only been achieved by ‘more highly evolved’ white people. Creating categories based on sex differences will always be a racialised practice. In sports, Black women continue to be viewed as ‘too masculine’ to be women and to compete with women who embody the feminine characteristics associated with white women.
Black women and women of colour have received limited support from their white competitors. After the 2016 800m event, Polish runner Joanna Jozwick who finished fifth expressed that all three medal holders “look how they look and run how they run” because their testosterone levels are “similar to a male’s”, adding she was glad to be “the first European” and “the second white” to finish the race. Great Britain runner Lyndsey Sharp had a hard time accepting the results, begging “those on the top to sort it out”. Indeed, we do hope that the IAAF help them ‘sort out’ their gender and racial biases and how these intersect to form consistent discrimination against Black women in athletics.
Semenya has tried challenging the rule by taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, appealing to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court and recently bringing the case to the European Court of Human Rights, where it is still awaiting a response. She decided to take medication to lower her testosterone levels from 2010 to 2015 but suffered weight gain, fevers, a constant feeling of nausea and abdominal pain, common symptoms of hormonal imbalance. The side-lining of women’s health and the health of Black women specifically is not new.
The IAAF – in an attempt to justify its rulings – has stated that “biology has to trump gender identity to ensure fairness” in sport. For every Black woman excluded from competing in long sprints and middle distance events, the gendered and racial bias in the current regulations is becoming more and more obvious. It will never be fair to only let cis athletes with hormonal levels within a narrow and arbitrary range compete in the most prestigious global sports event.