At a track meet in Poland (in June), Christine Mboma won the women’s 400m in 48.54s, the fastest time in the world this year.
If you hadn’t heard of her before that blazing fast run, that’s normal. Mboma’s an 18-year-old phenom from Namibia and a newcomer to the European circuit where established stars compete, and her clocking set a new world record for runners under 20.
It also came two months after another Namibian teenager, Beatrice Masilingi, ran 49.53s 400m at a small meet in Zambia. That time still stands as the seventh fastest worldwide this season.
Those two times, run so close together, by runners so young and from the same country, raised eyebrows. Namibia, after all, isn’t a track and field powerhouse like Kenya. The country has produced exactly one Olympic medallist — sprinter Frankie Fredericks, who finished second to both Donovan Bailey (100m) and Michael Johnson (200m) in Atlanta in 1996.
The results also raised suspicions among officials at World Athletics, who dispatched doctors to Namibia so the two 18-year-olds could undergo “medical assessments”. Those tests revealed neither runner was doping, which both already knew. But the examinations found that both women’s bodies produce enough natural testosterone to violate World Athletics’ convoluted rules on the hormone.
Women — and only women — whose levels of natural testosterone exceed a limit World Athletics established in 2018, are barred from events between 400m and 1,500m, and faced with a choice. They can take drugs to lower their natural testosterone, courting a long list of side-effects to comply with World Athletics’ guidelines. Or they can switch events, even if it places them at a competitive disadvantage.
Mboma and Masilingi opted to drop down to the 200m, and the median sports fan, who might associate words like “testosterone” and “permissible limit” with intentional, illegal doping, thinks good-faith rule enforcement caught a pair of cheaters.
From a distance, World Athletics appears to have restored competitive integrity to a high-profile event ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
Except there’s a qualitative difference between anabolic steroids and naturally produced testosterone. Mboma’s and Masilingi’s default hormonal settings are no more an unfair advantage than Kawhi Leonard’s giant hands, or keen eyes in Major League Baseball, where the average player sees with 20/13 vision.
Mboma and Masilingi, then, are resigned to their second-best event, collateral damage in World Athletics’ ongoing, and ultimately successful, campaign to neutralise South African 800m runner Caster Semenya.
After several false starts, the testosterone guidelines were codified in 2018.
And while World Athletics leadership never specified that the rule targets Semenya, they apply only to the races in which Semenya excels, even though the group’s own research found the strongest correlation between natural testosterone and performance in women’s pole vault and hammer throw.
That neither of those two events has a testosterone cap tells you World Athletics rule-makers understand that correlation doesn’t always equal causation.
If the simple presence of natural testosterone, and not the confluence of a constellation of attributes and skills, boosted women’s pole vaulters above their peers, World Athletics would regulate that event the same way it does the 800m.
The rules only apply to Semenya’s races, as if a hormone general enough to show up in every vertebrate on the planet is also specific enough to distinguish between the flat 400m and the 400m hurdles.
But the rule is less about testosterone than about using the hormone as a pretext to shut out Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion, and the fastest half-miler of her generation, along with peers who ran faster than rule-makers thought real women should.
The 2018 guidelines have also chased the other two medallists from Rio, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, away from their preferred race.
Semenya and Niyonsaba both moved to longer distances.
Niyonsaba qualified for Tokyo in the 5,000m and 10,000m, while Semenya fell short at 5,000m. Wambui hasn’t run a significant race since 2019, and recently called for World Athletics to create a third gender category rather than force women like her to choose between their best event and competing drug-free.
If you’ve noticed that high-profile runners on the wrong side of the testosterone rule are all black women from Sub-Saharan Africa, hold on. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was tripped up by an early version of the rule, and regained her eligibility in 2015, with help from Toronto-based lawyers.
Broadening our scope, we still see a rule that disproportionately affects women of colour from the global south.
If we’re willing to extend benefits of doubts, we can view the trend as an unfortunate coincidence. Otherwise, we can view the testosterone rule as one more half-baked regulation created in the toxic place where sexism and racism overlap.
Its mechanism is different, but its spirit is the same as the FINA rule outlawing swim caps designed to fit black women’s hair, or the IOC cracking down on podium protests and Black Lives Matter gear.
Either way, these rules send a disturbing message to young female athletes in general, and black girls in particular.
Run fast, but not too fast, lest you exceed some gatekeeper’s expectations, trigger their suspicion and move them to act against you. Show too much speed and officials might ask you to take drugs to slow yourself down. But not marijuana. They’ll ban you for that, too.
Big picture, spectators lose.
We won’t get to see how teenage prodigy Mboma stacks up against established pros like Allyson Felix and Shaunnae Miller-Uibo in their preferred event.
The sport loses. Olympic finals should pit the best against the best, and that can’t happen if the owner of the world’s fastest time can’t even line up.
And Mboma and Masilingi lose the most. Even World Athletics would acknowledge neither of them has cheated. They were simply written out of the rules, which is even more demeaning. – Excerpted from CBC Sports
Geingob fumes over athletes’ ban
An exasperated president Hage Geingob last week said the withdrawal of sprinters Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma from the 400m of the Tokyo Olympic Games should not go unchallenged.
Geingob made the remarks during Team Namibia’s send-off at State House in Windhoek. The Tokyo Olympic Games run from July 23 to August 8, and the Paralympic Games run from August 24 to September 5.
Teenagers Masilingi and Mboma were barred from participating in the 400m because of high natural testosterone levels in what many believe is implementation of rules that target African athletes.
But in a bold statement, President Geingob conferred the responsibility of national flagbearer on Masilingi for the Olympic team. Johannes Nambala is flagbearer of the Paralympic team.
“This discrimination that is brought up when an athlete is doing well must come to an end,” President Geingob said. “We must protest; it is very unfair … I understand that we cannot interrupt the situation now, but we must fight on after the Games are done. This situation of seeing other people doing well, and then they want to bring in all sorts of things, is not nice.”
“(Masilingi and Mboma) were made that way. They practice hard and they go out there to beat them, now they start coming with all kinds of excuses. So, we are going to protest against that, I can assure you.”
The president encouraged the pair to remain focused on the 200m event.
“… we are from the Land of the Brave. Go out there and do your level best. Qualifying for the games is a dream that all of us hoped for when we were young, but we never achieved. You should remember that you are just a few from our population that qualified for the games, and you will be flying our country’s flag high.”In July, 18-year-old Mboma ran the seventh-fastest 400m time by a woman. Her 48.54s run was the fastest by any woman this year, and she was a prime contender for Olympic gold. – New Era/Namibia Press Agency