By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
There are three major stories happening right now surrounding the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics and there is a common theme among all of them. That is, female black athletes are being banned from the Olympics and the reasons are dubious at best. Highlighting the role of systemic racism, sexism and the suppression of black athletes whose natural athleticism has long undermined white supremacism in sport.
Earlier this week, we shared an article celebrating Sha’Carri Richardson’s journey to the Olympic Games, but less than a day after we posted it, news came out that Richardson was ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympics because she tested positive for THC or marijuana in her system.
This news came as a shock to the athletic and medical research community considering it has been long established that THC has long been debunked as a performance enhancing substance. So, it was a surprise at all that it would even be something to test athletes for, especially given it’s common use by athletes for generations for recreation, therapeutic use and pain management.
According to Richardson herself, she used marijuana to help her cope with the loss of her mother which occurred shortly before the US Olympic Track and Field Trials that took place weeks ago. While THC is listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list, it is only banned for “in competition tests” meaning that if you are tested for it during competition, you can be banned; but if you use it outside of competition it is okay. Richardson herself has taken full responsibility for her actions, coming on NBC’s Today show to explain her point of view,
“I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m allowed not to do and I still made that decision,” she said. “I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case, but, however, being in that position in my life, finding out something like that, something that I would say is probably one of the biggest things that have impacted me … that definitely was a very heavy topic on me.
“People don’t understand what it’s like to have to … go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain. Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with the pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you haven’t experienced before or that you thought you never would have to deal with?
Right now, I’m just putting all of my time and energy into dealing with what I need to do, which is heal myself,” she said. “So, if I’m allowed to receive that blessing, then I’m grateful for it, but if not, right now I’m going to just focus on myself.
“As much as I’m disappointed, I know that when I step on the track, I don’t represent myself. I represent a community that has shown me great support, great love, and I failed you all. So, I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions. “I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.
“Don’t judge me because I am human. I’m you, I just happen to run a little faster.”
Richardson is not the first or only athlete to be suspended after testing positive for THC, For Richardson herself, she agreed to complete a substance abuse treatment program in exchange for the US Anti-Doping Association to reduce her three-month suspension down to one month. Whether or not we will see her at the Olympic Games is still in question. While the ban itself will be up three days before the start of the 100m heats, the ban technically nullifies her race at the Olympic trials which means she is no longer part of the team.
While the ban on THC is out of date and lacks the scientific rigor to support its use as a performance enhancing substance, Richardson herself, as an outspoken, energetic, black, queer woman, challenges a lot of the notions in the traditionally conservative institution of sports. Many advocates for Richardson point out that her, as the fastest woman in the US, being banned is rooted in outdated marijuana laws that have unfairly targeted racial minorities for generations.
Speaking of Olympic Track and Field, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya were recently banned from competing in the 400m and 800m races at the Olympic Games because their naturally produced serum testosterone tested higher than the allowed 10 nmol/l. This regulation stems from the recent court battles between Caster Semenya (who is also banned from the Olympics) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) after the IAAF instituted a new rule requiring cisgender female athletes to keep serum testosterone levels under 10 nmol/l. The policy was clearly targeted at Semenya and only covers the 400m, 800m and 1500m (Semenya’s main events). Semenya, as a cisgender female living with hyperandrogenism, produces higher levels of testosterone than the average white/European cisgender woman for which the 10 nmol/l was based off.
For these athletes, this archaic attempt to regulate women’s bodies means they were subjected to shady “medical assessments” by World Athletics during a training camp in Italy, according to the Namibia Olympic committee. The news sparked protests from politicians and fans in Namibia and people from all around the world, as an unethical violation of Mboma’s and Masilingi’s rights and dignities as humans. Furthermore, IAAF’s testosterone policy has long been criticized for their effort to further regulate women’s bodies and to define a woman based solely on testosterone levels. Even more so given the lack of scientific evidence regarding testosterone levels and athletic performance, especially given the sheer complexity of the human body not to mention the geographic, cultural, and historical aspects that drive athletic development (Karkazis, K., Jordan-Young, R., Davis, G., & Camporesi, S. 2012).
Our current body of knowledge regarding testosterone and athletic performance is based off research studies conducted on cisgender men, with few studies examining the relationship in cisgender women. This is one of the biggest criticisms of the policies, given that they are not rooted in scientific basis and appear to be unfairly targeting women of African descent. As the physiological and biological processes of the human body are very complex, hormone levels in any individual tend to fluctuate on a minute, hourly, daily, weekly, and yearly basis. For cisgender women, the average free testosterone levels can range anywhere from 2.8 to 32 nmol/l. However, these statistics, again, are typically based on women of European descent, leading to a bias in the results.
Unfortunately, sports have always been used for gender policing ever since the first women were allowed to compete at the Olympic games in 1900, with only female athletes subject to sex/gender testing and limited to only certain sports or events. Claims of “fraud” and “fairness” are still used today, especially given the discussions surrounding transgender athletes in sports, and are often used by people who advocate for a clear distinction between men’s and women’s sports. In the past, gender verification in sports has included criteria of “femininity” such as hairstyle, dress or other feminine characteristics, genital exams, nude parades, and chromosome testing (which has long been debunked as an invalid and unreliable measurement method). For today, this includes regulating naturally produced testosterone levels using hormone suppression based on the statistically average levels of cisgender females of European descent. As a result, cisgender competitive athletes who do not fit these archaic, western definitions of “female” are unable to compete.
Specific swimming caps, known as “Soul Caps”, that are specifically designed for natural black hair and designed and produced by black entrepreneurs have been banned by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) from use in the Olympic games. Soul Caps recently partnered Team GB 10km swimmer, Alice Dearing, who is set to become Team GB’s first black Olympic swimmer and wears Soul Caps during her competitions. Dearing qualifying for the Olympic Games brought up the question regarding the use of the cap, which is specially designed for “people with thick, curly and voluminous” hair targeted for black women who often struggled with putting their hair into traditional swim caps. The mission of Soul Caps is about increasing diversity in swimming, making swimming more accessible for minority communities and breaking down the barriers/stereotypes “surrounding ethnic minorities” in swimming.
According to FINA, the caps “do not fit the natural form of the head” and “to the best of their knowledge, athletes competing at international events never used, neither require caps of such size and configuration.” Which is a dubious, if not outright ridiculous excuse at best. Danielle Obe, founding member of the Black Swimming Association, told the Guardian that the ruling “underlined the inherent systemic and institutional inequalities around the sport.”
Traditional swim caps have been designed for white athletes and their hair, which is not reflective of the needs of athletes with afro hair, according to Obe, which “grows up and defies gravity.” She further elaborated, “We need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for. Inclusivity is realizing that no one head shape is ‘normal’.”
Something as simple as a swim cap that is designed for the needs of the black community makes a big difference toward making swimming accessible for the community. Typically such swim caps have been rare, if not impossible to find and Soul Caps was created to fill this market niche.
“If I walked into my local health club, gym or leisure center, could I readily pick up one of these (swim caps for afro hair)? No,” said Obe. “Can I walk into a general retail store like Asda, Tesco or Sports Direct and pick one up? No.”
In the UK, only 2% of regular swimmers are black, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children do not swim. Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Currently, there is no scientific or statistical evidence to show that Soul Caps offers any kind of performance advantage, and their real motivation for banning the caps is dubious at best. For advocates like Obe, calling them out for their inherent effort to undermine black representation in the sport is important.
“If the (official swimming bodies) are talking about representation, they need to speak to the communities to find out what the barriers are that are preventing us from engaging. Hair is a significant issue for our community.”