There is an uproar over the regulations that have barred Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from the 400m race at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games, with critics saying they are deliberately discriminatory against African athletes.
While Masilingi and Mboma have been shut out because of reportedly high blood testosterone levels, World Athletics has allowed a transgender Newer Zealand to compete against women, while the Namibian girls are not allowed to compete against women.
The decision to bar the teenage athletes last week came a day after Mboma ran the 400m in 48,54s to make her the seventh fastest ever woman over the distance. A few days earlier, Masilingi – who is ranked third in the 400m globally this year – set a new Namibian record of 22.65s in the 200m.
The two athletes will now only participate in the 200m in Tokyo, though they are more competitive in the 400m.
The regulations on blood testosterone levels have been contentious since they were introduced in 2019, with some observers saying they were instituted to target African athletes.
African athletes who have been affected by the regulations include South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Aminatou Seyni from Niger, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui.
Ugandan 800m runner Annet Negesa quit the sport after World Athletics reportedly told her to undergo irreversible surgery to reduce her testosterone levels.
World Athletics passed says female athletes’ blood testosterone levels be under 5nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) for them to compete in select women’s events, including the 400m. Athletes with blood testosterone levels higher than 5nmol/L – as in the case of both Masilingi and Mboma –should lower them with medication, which World Athletics says ensures fair competition.
Vetumbuavi Veii, a retired Namibian sports administrator and former chair of the African Union Sport Council (AUSC) Region 5, says the rules are discriminatory and mostly appear to target African athletes.
“During my tenure as chairman of AUSC Region 5, together with my colleagues, we strongly challenged those rules. I remember when Caster Semenya faced a similar problem, we took up the matter with the leadership of the African Union and said it must be addressed as a violation of fundamental human rights,” he said.
“But the problem we have in Africa is our national Olympic committees. They will never challenge these things because they are fully funded by the same people who make these rules, so it is difficult for them to radically challenge the rules that discriminate against African athletes. With such national Olympic committees that are dependent on donor funds, how will Africa unite on this issue?”
He touched on the issue of New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, who is set to become the first-ever openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics. Hubbard’s inclusion in the Olympics has generated a fierce debate on gender, sexism and sport.
“They are allowing a transgender man to compete as a woman, but they have issues with our girls. It doesn’t make sense at all. That is why I’m saying the rules are targeting Africans and all athletes of colour, because how can you allow a man to compete with a woman, but can’t allow two young girls to compete against fellow women? These things must be challenged at the highest level.”
Namibia’s Sports Ministry has also condemned the withdrawal of Masilingi and Mboma from the 400m race; while the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) of Namibia said the rules were discriminatory, bigoted and bordering on racism.
The LPM and PDM called on African athletes to launch a wholesale protest by withdrawing from the upcoming Olympics, and urged sports authorities to challenge the rules.
Namibia National Olympic Committee president Abner Xoagub this week claimed World Athletics went behind their backs in making the Mboma-Masilingi matter public in the way they did, calling it an unacceptable invasion of athletes’ right to privacy and the confidentiality of their health records.
“Throughout our communication, we agreed that we will treat this with the respect and confidentiality it deserves because of its sensitivity, but World Athletics did not take that into consideration,” Xoagub said.
He added that they had always anticipated that the girls would come under scrutiny because of their performances on the track.
“These ladies have XX chromosomes, they are females and conform to all female biological requirements,” Xoagub reportedly said
However, three-time Namibian Olympian and chairperson of the country’s Athletes Commission Gaby Ahrens says the rules should not be viewed as a racial attack on the personae of African athletes.
The now-retired trap shooter, who heads the Namibia Athletes Commission (NAC), believes that it is the responsibility of coaches and technical teams to assess rules and regulations before entering athletes for competitions.
“The withdrawal of Mboma and Masilingi from the 400m list at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is heartbreaking for us all, especially for our athletes,” stated Ahrens. “But like in all competitions governed by rules and regulations, no amount of emotions will change the rules while the game is underway. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the coach and the athletes to familiarise themselves with and abide by the rules before entering a competition.”
Ahrens – who represented Namibia at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics – says as painful and disadvantaging as it is, she does not believe that World Athletics deliberately tailored those rules and regulations to disgrace and disadvantage African athletes, or athletes of colour in general.”I honestly do not believe that this is deliberate victimisation of African athletes. The rules do not target African athletes, the rules target athletes with high levels of testosterone which gives them an advantage over other athletes. My advice to the athletes and their supporters is to focus on the events that they are eligible to compete in and have a fair chance of winning. What our girls need most now, especially so close to the Olympics, is positive encouragement and not all this bad publicity.” – New Era/Agencies