Blackness and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

By: Haillie M.

Chances are you may have heard something about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, be it on social media, the news, or in conversations with friends and family. There are two main streams of the Tokyo Olympics debate: the first concerns the participation of transgender athletes in the Olympics, and the second concerns the treatment of Black athletes in the Olympics.

The two issues do intersect. Concern about transgender athletes competing in the category that aligns with their identities stems from biological differences between the sexes. Testosterone, the predominant sex hormone in cisgender men, affects the body in ways thought to be conducive to higher athletic performance. With more testosterone in your body, it’s easier to build muscle mass, and testosterone also contributes to factors such as bone density and fat distribution, which can equate to being stronger, running faster, and muscles repairing themselves faster after exertion. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) changes your hormonal profile, especially over time, but it’s still unclear whether or not lower testosterone and higher estrogen as a result of HRT would reduce an ‘advantage’ granted by undergoing a masculinizing puberty.

Chasing Equity

The debate really exploded in 2018, when World Athletics (an international athletic governing body previously known as the IAFF) changed their rules regarding testosterone levels in female competitors. Athletes with DSDs (disorders of sexual development) or androgen sensitivity were required to take hormones to lower their testosterone levels in order to compete in any races between 400 metres to one mile. Otherwise, they would need to compete in longer-distance races. These rules came about after investigations into South African runner Castor Semenya, an athlete with a DSD who had recently broken a series of speed records. She challenged the new laws, but ultimately failed. Accusations of antiblackness stem from the fact that the laws only came about, well.. seemingly in response to Semenya. To this day, the testosterone caps in women’s racing only apply to categories she was competing in. 

Castor Semenya at Summer Olympics Games 2016 in Rio. Patrick Smith / Getty Images.

These testosterone levels affected two other athletes in the 2016 Rio Olympics: Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi, and Margaret Wambui from Kenya. This year, two runners from Namibia, Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma also are unable to participate due to naturally higher testosterone levels. No matter your stance on whether or not women with high testosterone should be allowed to compete in female categories, the question that many are beginning to ask is: why do all the runners affected by these rules happen to be Black women? 

The trend is troubling, and it follows a well-established tradition of Black women, especially dark-skinned Black women, being masculinized in society. Eyebrows also raised at the fact that it was Mariya Savinova who sparked the first investigation into Castor Semenya, who she lost to at the 2009 world championships. “Just look at her,” Savinova said. Ironically, in 2017, Savinova was found guilty of doping with oxandrolone, an androgen (any hormone, natural or manmade, that aids in the development and maintenance of male characteristics).

Sink or Swim?

Alice Dearing at Manchester International Swimming Meet 2021. Clive Rose / Getty Images

The controversy of Blackness at the Olympics is not solely limited to running. People are also questioning the Federation International de Natation’s (FINA) decision not to allow swimmers to use Soul Caps. Swim caps are useful because they protect hair from water, which can be drying and damaging to anyone’s tresses due to the chlorine and salt. They also keep hair out of the face, which can be a huge plus to a casual swimmer, so of course it would be an important factor to an Olympic-level athlete. However, ordinary swim caps often can’t accommodate the voluminousness of Afro-textured hair, especially if it has length. That’s why swim caps like the Soul Cap can be so beneficial- they stop swimmers at all levels from having to decide between their hair or the sport they enjoy.

The decision was made on the basis that the cap “does not follow the natural form of the head”, but many have questioned this logic. A cap that doesn’t follow the natural form of the head offers no advantage to the wearer. If anything, a larger swim cap would increase drag and take away from a swimmer’s speed. What reason is there to ban it? Critics of the decision point out that rules such as these will make it harder to repair existing damage that already exists between the Black community and swimming. British Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing stated in 2019 that she could understand why Black girls would quit swimming over their hair. In addition to this, myths that Black people have too much bone density or too much muscle mass to swim, swimming pool segregation in earlier decades, and slaveowners forbidding their slaves from learning to swim to prevent escape attempts have created a sizable ‘swim gap’- according to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children don’t know how to swim, compared to 40% of White children.

Fantastic Gymnastics

Simone Biles at Summer Olympic Games 2016 in Rio. Wikipedia Commons

This year, people have also become aware of the fact that the extremely difficult gymnastic stunts that four-time Olympic gold medalist, Simone Biles, executes are deliberately not scored very highly. Many gymnasts, even at the Olympic level, shouldn’t attempt them because they have the potential to be highly dangerous, perhaps even fatal if attempted by a less skilled athlete. As a result, Biles has been maintaining a position at the top for some time, which some may feel is unfair. Additionally, as Insider words it, “Rewarding harder, more perilous skills with significantly higher payouts incentivize athletes to take risks”. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) claims that it is a protective measure. Encouraging athletes to put themselves in harm’s way would be irresponsible.

Conclusion

The question that Biles’ situation makes people ask, and what all these controversies are boiling down to is: at what point does an advantage become unfair? At the Olympics, we get to watch the best of the best compete. In all competitions, watching someone win isn’t enjoyable if we know they’re winning due to an unfair advantage. Where do we, as lawmakers, spectators, and competitors draw the line? Do we draw it at high testosterone levels, like many Olympic runners, or at natural remarkable talent, like Biles? Perhaps we should say ‘enough is enough’ when confronted with a body that naturally produces low levels of lactic acid, like Michael Phelps? Apparently, it should be drawn at a larger swim cap meant to accommodate large hair. Competitive sports are exclusive by nature, because they demand exceptional performance, and most people wouldn’t disagree that it should remain that way. But how exclusive is too exclusive? Are some of the rules currently in place about more than athleticism?

And most of all, should that be acceptable?

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