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Despite proving their talents, Black women athletes are still subjected to harsh scrutiny

"We don't necessarily think about how the rules that we might implement impact other groups because we're thinking about whiteness and White people being the norm."

Despite proving their talents, Black women athletes are still subjected to harsh scrutiny
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ (L) Gwendolyn Berry at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images) (R)Caster Semenya at the Khalifa International Stadium on May 03, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Francois Nel)

As the world gears up for the Tokyo Olympics, a wave of recent penalizations and severe criticism against Black women athletes is calling attention to the unfair treatment they're subjected to. Just in the past few weeks, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) — the governing body for aquatic sports — made headlines after refusing to approve the use of a swimming cap designed to accommodate natural Black hair during international competitions, US hammer thrower Gwen Berry came under fire for protesting during the playing of the national anthem, and two Namibian sprinters were ruled ineligible to compete in a race at the Tokyo Olympics due to naturally high testosterone levels.



 

According to CNN, experts point to these incidents as evidence that sports policies don't necessarily take into account athletes of color and the dehumanization that Black women and girls experience. Lori L. Martin, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University who studies race and education through a sports lens, explained that although policies and procedures associated with sporting events are often seen as "race-neutral," they may impact people differently based on their race and gender.



 

Consider the Soul Cap, for example. Just days after British swimmer Alice Dearing became the first Black woman to qualify to represent Great Britain in the open-water marathon, the FINA refused to approve the use of the Soul Caps in international competitions. The federation reportedly told the company that the caps — which are specifically designed for swimmers with "thick, curly, and voluminous hair" — do not "follow the natural form of the head." After the comments sparked criticism from many swimmers, with some saying it would discourage Black people from the sport, FINA issued a statement announcing that it is "reviewing the situation" and "understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation."



 

Meanwhile, policies concerning specific biology are also standing in the way of Black women in sports. Last week, 18-year-old Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, became the latest Black women athletes ruled ineligible to compete in a race at the Tokyo Olympics due to naturally high testosterone levels. The Namibia National Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Association (NNOC-CGA) said in a statement on Friday that the two athletes were tested during a medical assessment and were found to have testosterone levels exceeding the limit by a World Athletics' policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD).



 

Female athletes' blood testosterone levels are required to be under 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per liter) to compete in select women's events, including the 400m. Although Mboma and Masilingi will still be able to compete in 100m and 200m events, the NNOC-CGA said that the committee, the athletes, their families, and coaches were all unaware of their condition prior to testing. This same rule has also sidelined Olympic champion Caster Semenya and CeCe Telfer, a Black transgender woman who wasn't allowed to compete in the women's 400-meter hurdles US Olympic trials last month.



 

Semenya, a 30-year-old South African who is hyperandrogenous (has naturally high levels of the male sex hormone), has been banned from competing in any race from 400m to a mile. This is in accordance with a 2018 World Athletics ruling that to ensure fair competition, women with high natural testosterone levels must take medication to reduce them to compete in middle-distance races. However, Semenya has refused to take any medication to alter her testosterone levels and has taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights.



 

Martin, the sociology professor, stated that such policies show how some people's ideas about womanhood exclude groups of people and highlight the need for more Black individuals in sports leadership. "We tend to center whiteness. We don't necessarily think about how the rules that we might implement impact other groups because we're thinking about whiteness and White people being the norm," Martin said.

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