How black female athletes are scrutinized ahead of the Olympics despite their success


American hammer thrower Gwen Berry, left, and Namibian sprinters Beatrice Masilingi, center, and Christine Mboma, right, are among several black female athletes facing sanctions or criticism in recent weeks.


As the world’s top athletes head to the Tokyo Olympics, a wave of sanctions and criticism is shedding light on how black women in sports are being treated.

In recent weeks, the water sports governing body has refused to approve the use of a swim cap designed to accommodate natural dark hair in international competitions. An American Olympic hammer thrower has also been criticized for protesting during the national anthem and two Namibian sprinters have been declared ineligible to compete in a race due to naturally high levels of testosterone.

These incidents, experts say, show how sports policies do not necessarily take into account athletes of color and the dehumanization that black women and girls experience.

The policies and procedures associated with sporting events, including the Olympics, are often viewed as “race neutral,” said Lori L. Martin, professor of sociology at Louisiana State University who studies race. and education through the prism of sport.

But these can impact people differently depending on their race and gender, Martin says, as in the case of swim caps.

Days after British swimmer Alice Dearing became the first black woman to qualify to represent Britain in the open water marathon, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) refused to approve the use of the caps designed for swimmers with hair ”in international competitions. Cap maker Soul Cap has learned that their caps do not “follow the natural shape of the head,” the company told the BBC.

FINA has since said it is “reviewing” the decision, “understanding the importance of inclusiveness and representation.”

Soul Cap founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed Salawudeen said their headgear plays a vital role in promoting racial diversity in competitive swimming and that rejection of FINA will discourage young athletes from practicing this. sport.

Pools have historically been linked to racial disparities in America. In the 1920s and 1930s, public swimming pools in the United States were mostly separate, leading many black Americans not to learn to swim.

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According to the USA Swimming Foundation, nearly 64% of African American children do not learn to swim, compared to 40% of white children.

Advocates have called for more affordable swimming lessons, access to swimming pools for underserved communities and increased representation in competitive swimming. This summer, only two of the 26 women on the US Olympic swim team are black, including Simone Manuel, who is the first African-American swimmer to win an individual gold medal.

Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi became the last black female athletes declared ineligible to compete in a race at the Tokyo Olympics due to naturally high levels of testosterone.

The 18-year-old Namibian sprinters have been tested in a medical assessment and their levels have exceeded the limit set by World Athletics’ policy on Athletes with Differences in Sexual Development (DSD), according to the Namibia National Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Association (NNOC-CGA).

The global governing body requires that female athlete’s blood testosterone levels be below 5 nmol / L (nanomoles per liter) to compete in certain women’s events, including the 400m.

The committee said none of the athletes, their families, coaches or the Namibian National Olympic Committee were aware of their condition prior to testing. Mboma and Masilingi will still be able to compete in the 100m and 200m events.

Namibia's Christine Mboma reacts after setting a new world record in a women's 400m race in Bydgoszcz, Poland, last month.

Tytus Zmijewski / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Namibia’s Christine Mboma reacts after setting a new world record in a women’s 400m race in Bydgoszcz, Poland, last month.

The same rule sidelined other black female athletes, including Olympic champion Caster Semenya and CeCe Telfer, a transgender black woman who was not allowed to compete in the women’s 400-meter hurdles Olympic trials last month. .

Semenya, a 30-year-old South African, was banned from participating in any 400m one-mile run after World Athletics ruled in 2018 that to ensure fair competition, women with high levels of natural testosterone should take drugs to reduce them to competition. in middle distance races.

The two-time Olympic 800m champion is hyperandrogenic, which means she naturally has high levels of the male sex hormone. Semenya refused to take medication to alter her testosterone levels and challenged World Athletics’ decision.

She took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, but that process is unlikely to be completed for months.

For Martin, the sociologist, these kinds of policies show that some people’s ideas about femininity continue to exclude groups of people and the need for more black individuals in sports leadership.

“We tend to focus on whiteness. We don’t necessarily think about the impact of the rules we might be implementing on other groups, because we think whiteness and whites are the norm, ”Martin said.

American hammer thrower Gwen Berry has faced widespread criticism from Republicans Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Dan Crenshaw and others after she turned away from the flag as she stepped onto the podium at the Olympic trials last month.

After qualifying for her second Games, Berry turned away from the flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed at the medal ceremony and draped a T-shirt with the words “athlete activist” on it. her head. Berry said he was told the anthem would be played before.

In 2019, Berry lost some of his sponsorships after raising his fist to protest on the Pan Am Games podium and was given 12-month probation from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She said it was meant to highlight social injustice in America.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has authorized team athletes to raise their fists, kneel and wear clothing promoting racial and social justice while participating in all future Olympic and Paralympic events in the United States. United States. But athletes can be subject to international fines during the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee will enforce a ban, known as Rule 50, which prevents athletes from protesting or demonstrating at the Tokyo Olympics.

Rule 50 states: “No form of political, religious or racial manifestation or propaganda is permitted at any Olympic venues, venues or other areas. The Rule strives to ensure that the focus at the Olympic Games remains on athlete performance, sport, unity and universality, according to the IOC.

Berry told CNN’s Don Lemon last week that she was unsure whether she would comply with the Rule 50 ban.

“It depends on how I feel. It depends on what I want to do at that time and what I want to do for my people at that time, ”Berry said.

“And I will do whatever happens to me and whatever is in my heart,” she added.


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