Understanding athletes’ struggles


World Athletics, formerly IAAF, has announced that more female African athletes are banned from the 400m-1500m events. They are: Christine Mboma of Namibia, Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

They join the Olympic Champion Caster Semenya who is also barred from events. Semenya, Wambui and Niyonsaba won gold, silver and bronze, respectively, in Rio 2016’s 1500m; while Mboma, an 18-year-old, set an U-20 record for 400m two weeks ago at a European meet.

World Athletics now seeks to classify athletes on the basis of testosterone levels. It is based on a theory of ‘differences in sex development’-a group of rare conditions involving genes, hormones and reproductive organs, including genitals. The first female athlete challenged was India’s Dutee Chand, India’s first global athletic champion, at the 100m Asian Games. She was barred from competing because of naturally occurring testosterone levels. The governing body seeks to restore ‘natural levels’ by taking contraceptive pills, having a monthly injection or undergoing surgery, commonly known as ‘drug taking’. She eventually won her case.

What immediately jumps out is that all affected are ‘non-white’, which suggests that all white female athletes have ‘acceptable levels of testosterone’, or if their levels are elevated the therapy has worked 100 per cent in their cases. But is not medical intervention to affect an athlete’s performance level a form of drug abuse?

Consciously modifying an athlete’s physiology and anatomy to give competitors an advantage? Reverse drug abuse? Who designs, administers and evaluates these treatments? Which countries and organisations share the research data? There is the inherent racism and cultural invasion. Physiology and anatomy are determined by heredity, cultural practices and lifestyle. The oldest human group known on the earth is believed to have originated outside of Europe.

Who is Europe now to come and set standards and guidelines for human evolution?

How much is enough/too much testosterone/oestrogen in defining sex and gender? What are the side effects of these treatments on women? Must a woman be forced to choose between being a mother and an athlete?

Europe is telling the female athletes of non-white countries how high they can aspire, limiting their goals and wishes for self-fulfilment. To what extent they can aspire to represent their countries and cultures. A row is brewing at the moment over what type of swim caps African women can use.

The swimmers are saying their hairstyles necessitate the change to ‘fit over and protect thick, natural curly hair’. The women pointed out that African hair does not lie flat as the hair of Europeans, which allows water to get in.

FINA, the governing body for the sport, is saying the ‘soul caps’ do not follow the ‘natural form of the head’. As ever, they did not define the ‘natural form of the head’ outside the existing standard, ie, Euro-designated.

Years ago with the increasing dominance of non-white athletes, the authorities were considering ‘hair-tests’. Except that curly hair of Africans was found to be more retentive of substance and moisture, which made an adverse finding more likely. Worse yet, they would have ended up trying to regulate the contents of hair treatments across the spectrum. How is that for insanity?

These are professional athletes. They earn their living in a fiercely competitive world with a short life span. What these authorities are practising is called ‘restraint of trade’. Champion athletes earn money from prizes, from endorsements, from image rights. Narrowing their scope is limiting opportunity.

Look at the decision to go ahead with the Covid-19-threatened Olympics, heedless of the ongoing suffering in Tokyo and the likelihood of further spread worldwide. It is a case of getting on that podium at any cost. An Olympic gold medal almost immediately turns into increased earning power.

These issues must be dealt with as part of the wider struggle against discrimination, racism, cultural imperialism, abuse of human rights. This is the same fight that John Carlos, Tommy Smith, Yvonne Goolagong and Kathy Ann Freeman fought from the ’60s through to the ’90s; that the African/black footballers have on their hands in European soccer; that Naomi Osaka and Lewis Hamilton have taken on. It will not be won on the playing fields but, rather, requires institutional change.

Rae Samuel