Southern Times Writer
Harare – Just a couple of weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games in July, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia were dealt a heavy blow: they were barred from participating in the 400m race.
The two teens had by that point posted four of the five fastest times over the distance, and the good money was on Mboma and Masilingi making the podium after the 400m final at the Olympics.
But regulator, World Athletics, ruled that their blood testosterone levels gave them what was a termed an unfair advantage over other women and so they could not compete in that race.
The young women took it in stride, moved to their less-preferred race, the 200m, and shook the world.
On August 3, Mboma took silver in the race in a time of 21.81s – the fastest ever by a woman under the age of 20. Masilingi came a commendable sixth.
But after the celebrations, the debate has quickly shifted back to why the sprint prodigies were banned from the 400m race in the first place, and it is not one that is going to go away anytime soon.
Targeting African Women
The regulations on blood testosterone levels have always been contentious, with critics saying they were either created or are being implemented in a manner that unduly targets female African athletes.
African women who have fallen foul of the regulations over the years include South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Niger’s Aminatou Seyni, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui. And of course, Mboma and Masilingi.
Ugandan 800m runner Annet Negesa quit athletics after World Athletics reportedly told her that she would have to undergo irreversible surgery to reduce her testosterone levels.
The rules pertain to what is now commonly referred to as differences of sexual development (DSD), which World Athletics standardises with the Hyperandrogenism Regulations of 2011.
According to the regulator, female athletes’ blood testosterone levels must be below 5nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) for them to compete in certain women’s events. Female athletes whose blood testosterone levels are higher than 5nmol/L are required to lower them by using medication.
In essence, World Athletics has decreed what the “normal” blood testosterone level of a woman is. And it has almost exclusively resulted in the disqualification of African women from certain sporting events.
Another contentious issue about the regulations is that women who are “abnormal” by World Athletics standards cannot participate in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m races. For some reason, blood testosterone levels do not matter if one is participating in the 100m or in distances above 1,500m.
This means, according to World Athletics, it is legal for Mboma and Masilingi to run in the 200m, illegal for them to run in the 400m, but legal for them to run 3,000m.
“The paradox in action … where we know that testosterone confers advantages in all events, but the policy implies it exists only in some,” wrote South African sports scientist Ross Tucker in his Science of Sport blog. “Thus an athlete is legal one day, illegal the next, depending on the event.”
Tucker has described World Athletics’ position as “poorly conceived … and very (very, very) weak on the evidence”.
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged the rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015, and the institution suspended the regulations for her and ordered World Athletics to produce evidence to back its testosterone claims.
World Athletics duly returned with “data”, widely criticised in the scientific community, to back its claims, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted this. A new version of rules was then introduced, which resulted in the likes of Semenya – and now Mboma and Masilingi – being banned from their preferred races.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport concedes that the rules are discriminatory, but crucially they are “necessary, reasonable and proportionate to protect the integrity of female athletics”. Never mind that they have thus far disproportionately affected female African athletes.
And on top of that contradiction, World Athletics allowed transgender New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard to participate in the Tokyo Games as a woman. However, women with a certain blood testosterone level are not allowed to participate in certain events as women.
Vetumbuavi Veii, a retired Namibian sports administrator and former Chair of the African Union Sport Council (AUSC) Region 5 has said of this: “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.”
Throughout the whole saga and right through to the Olympic 200m final and its aftermath, Mboma and Masilingi have maintained a quiet dignity and emotional maturity belying their young ages.
And they have also offered poignant assessments of the whole saga.
In an interview before the Games, Masilingi said: “It is really unfair because you cannot expect everyone to be the same, everyone to have the same abilities, we are born with different abilities, we can’t be the same it doesn’t make sense.”
She also told European media that: “In the beginning I was very down, you can’t come and tell me now I am not a woman. That is really frustrating and gets me on my nerves but there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.
“It was very disappointing, it was very upsetting as well, I was looking forward to my first Diamond League when I saw the news.”