The Olympics Has a Black Woman Problem


Everyone has heard the story of Sha’Carri Richadson, the young American track and field super star who is the fastest woman in America. The NCAA star has been breaking records since she was 18 and was scheduled to be the superstar of the Tokyo Olympics.

Richardson tested positive for marijuana following her 100 meter final at the U.S. Olympic trials. This invalidated her run results and made her ineligible to compete in the 100 meters at the Olympics. Richardson accepted a one-month suspension that began June 28, but was barred from running in her best event.

On July 6, the Olympic Committee also barred her from competing on the relay team in August, even though Richardson’s suspension would be up. The Committee decided her trials results were not admissible due to the marijuana test. This decision means she will not be competing in the Tokyo Olympics at all.

It is a crushing ruling for Richardson, who has handled the entire incident with grace and apologies. She smoked a joint after her mother died, forgetting, in her grief, about the looming doping test. If Richardson had gotten falling down drunk instead, she’d be in the Olympics. That’s how ludicrously out of touch with legalized marijuana —  hardly a performance enhancing drug unless the sport is competitive eating — the Olympics are on their rules.

The decision, which the Committee said was made with heavy heart and solely for fairness to other athletes, is also crushing for Team USA: Not to have the fastest woman in the country on their team when Richardson was a lock for the gold is a blow for everyone.

Less newsworthy than Richardson has been the ban of several other Black women runners for failing a different Olympic test: The test for femaleness.

If that sentence stopped you, it should because it is a deeply wrong test that seems to unfairly target and penalize Black and brown women who can have different body types and physiology than their white and European peers.

Recently female Olympic runners have had to submit to a testosterone test in addition to the standard doping test that snagged Richardson.

When the world’s fastest women get blocked from running and their actual femaleness gets called into question on the public stage, how damaging is that to those women, to the sports in which they compete and to the standard of what is meant by the so-called “level playing field” the Olympic Committee and other world competitions claim to aspire to?

That some of these women are out lesbians only adds to the question of what is actually happening with these bans.

At issue is that some women have naturally occurring high testosterone levels. The ovaries produce both testosterone and estrogen. Relatively small quantities of testosterone are released into the bloodstream by the ovaries and adrenal glands.

The amount and levels of hormones change daily. Estrogen and testosterone are secreted in short bursts which vary between night and day and from one stage of the menstrual cycle to another.

Women with low body fat often do not produce sufficient amounts of estrogen and too much testosterone. This is most common in women athletes — too much testosterone can cause irregular or absent menstrual periods.

It can also cause increased body and bone mass and therein lies the problem according to international games rules. The claim is that women with high testosterone have an edge in competitions.

South African Olympian Caster Semenya has been the poster girl for women with high T for several years now and was just banned from the Tokyo Olympics. This may end her Olympic career since she is now 30.

Semenya has won two Olympic gold medals and three World Championships in the women’s 800 meters. She has been competing since she was 17. Following her victory at the 2009 World Championships, she was made to undergo sex testing, but she was cleared to return to competition the following year.

Semenya was chosen to carry her country’s flag during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics and later won a silver medal in the women’s 800 meters.

But in 2019, new World Athletics rules prevented women with high T from participating in 400m, 800m and 1500m events in the female classification unless they take medication to suppress their testosterone levels. In 2021, Semenya filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights against the restrictions which ostensibly make her body illegal.

In a world where female bodily autonomy is consistently being debated politically and socially, this aspect has been largely ignored. Women with high T or DSD (differences in sex development) are often completely unaware that they have this condition and only discover it when they are tested.

That was the case with two Namibian teens competing for the Tokyo Olympics. The girls — the fastest in Namibia — were barred July 1 from running in the 400 meters at the Olympics because of high T, making them the latest female athletes to be affected by the regulations becoming known as the “Caster regs”

Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, both 18, were subjected to “medical assessments” by the track governing body World Athletics at their training camp in Italy, the Namibia Olympic committee said of the ban.

Mboma ran 48.54 seconds to win a 400 meter race in Poland on June 30 which was an under-20 world record and the seventh-fastest time ever recorded by a woman in the 400. It was also the fastest time in the world this year and the fastest time in the world since 2019.

Masilingi’s 49.53 seconds at a low-level meet in Zambia in April stands as the third fastest time of 2021 behind Mboma and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the current Olympic champion.

The speed of Mboma and Masilingi caused the testing. They will still be allowed to run in the 200 meter race, but Namibian officials were angered by the decision to ban them from the 400.

Neither girl was aware of her high T status prior to the testing which some called arbitrary and intrusive.

The rules have also affected two other high-profile African athletes, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, who won silver and bronze behind Semenya at the 2016 Olympics.

Niyonsaba and Wambui have both also been barred from the 800, although Niyonsaba has qualified for the Olympics in the 5,000 meters and will run in Tokyo.

Other runners in India and Bangladesh have also been targeted with the high T issue in recent years in global competitions.

The World Medical Association and the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights have called the regulations, which insist that women with high T or DSD take estrogen or “female” hormones for six months in order to compete, discriminatory and harmful. Taking estrogen has been linked to various cancers in women.

The question is, are Black women runners who are more likely to have high T than their white peers being discriminated against? The Olympics seem to have a Black woman problem, and it has impacted at least a half dozen participants in the Tokyo Olympics. If the trigger for the sex test is that Black women are fast, as happened with Mboma and Masilingi, perhaps it is time to address what a “level playing field” really means and whether rules that demand Black women alter their bodies to compete are making the competition more fair or just more racist.