A Namibian teen whose high testosterone prevented her from competing in her preferred event won Olympic silver Tuesday in the women’s 200-meter race, teeing up another round in the ongoing dust-up over fairness in female sports.
Christine Mboma, 18, stunned the field by sprinting past two of the favorites, Jamaican track icon Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and U.S. phenom Gabby Thomas, to place second behind Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah, who repeated her 2016 gold-medal performance. Thomas won the bronze.
It was the first Olympic medal for a Namibian athlete since 1996, when four-time medalist Frankie Fredericks won two silvers at the Atlanta Games, and the first podium appearance for a Namibian in a women’s event.
Namibia President Hage G. Geingob tweeted his congratulations for Mboma’s “brilliant achievement,” saying that as an “outstanding ambassador of our country, you have flown the Namibian flag very high.”
That feel-good story comes with a footnote.
The pair tested positive in early July for hyperandrogenism after bursting onto the international women’s track scene with sizzling times.
Their levels blocked them from competing in their preferred event, the 400m race, but even so, they were able within a matter of weeks to switch to the women’s 200m, which has no limits on naturally occurring high testosterone under the World Athletics rules.
Bahamas sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who won gold in the 400m in the 2016 Olympics but finished last in Tuesday’s final, asked afterward why Mboma and Masilingi were permitted under the rules to run in the 200 but not the 400.
“I have no comments on it,” Miller-Uibo said. “The only thing really is [the ban] was for a few events, and I think everyone was trying to figure out why just the few events and not straight across the board.”
Said Fraser-Pryce: “If they’re allowed, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Remember her name: CHRISTINE MBOMA…— Tuva Wʊlf (@ShadowsOfWolf_) August 3, 2021
•Olympic Silver medalist in 200m
•New personal best for 200m
•New national record for women’s 200m
•New African Record for women’s 200m
•New World Record for U20 women’s 200m pic.twitter.com/eu5wlgw8hd
The two Namibians were reportedly born with what doctors and sports regulators call Differences in Sexual Development (DSD) and therefore fall under a different set of eligibility rules in certain events.
In 2019, World Athletics capped testosterone levels in serum for DSD athletes at 5 nanomoles per liter, still higher than the average female testosterone level, for distances from 400m to one mile in what was referred to as the “Caster Semenya rule.”
World Athletics said the decision was made not to exclude Semenya, the South African who won the 800-meter race in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but to address the disproportionate number of DSD athletes in the distances covered by the regulations.
“This frequency of DSD individuals in the elite athlete population is around 140 times higher than you will find in the general female population, and their presence on the podium is much more frequent even than this,” said the organization on its website.
The rules cover athletes like Semenya born with a 46 XY DSD, who typically have female or ambiguous genitalia and subsequently identify as female, but produce male-level testosterone.
Such runners may opt to lower their testosterone by, for example, taking birth-control pills, but must keep their levels under the limit for at least six months before competition.
The Namibians had less than a month before the Olympics.
“It is really unfair because you cannot expect everyone to be the same, everyone to have the same abilities, we are born with different abilities, we can’t be the same. It doesn’t make sense,” Masilingi told BBC Sport Africa in an Aug. 1 interview.
Namibian National Olympic Committee president Abner Xoagub decried the World Athletics decision to exclude Mboma and Masilingi from the 400m, saying they were tested last year and both had XX chromosomes, the Namibian reported.
“These ladies have XX chromosomes, they are females and conform to all female biological requirements,” Mr. Xoagub said in a voice clip, according to a July 6 report in the Namibian.
The World Athletics rules only cover DSD athletes with XY chromosomes, not XX chromosomes.
Duke University Law School professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman, who has written extensively on the issue and testified at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport on Semenya, said World Athletics only excludes such athletes when it has “overwhelming evidence from its own events that their male sex-linked advantages are category defeating.”
“In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, it has not rested simply on the abundant evidence of the performance gap between male and female athletes generally,” she said in an email. “This exacting evidentiary standard is what has permitted Mboma, Masilingi, and other DSD athletes still to compete in female events by – in this case – dropping down from the 400 meters to the 200 meters for the Tokyo Games.”
“Of course, their significant overrepresentation in the final where they took two of the eight lanes available for females, and on the podium where they took one of the three spots available for females, will contribute to the event-specific evidence World Athletics will surely consider as they review the rule going forward,” Ms. Coleman said.
Semenya, 30, lost her challenge to the World Athletics standard before the Court of Arbitration for Sport but filed an appeal in February with the European Court of Human Rights, which has yet to rule on her case.
• This article was based in part on wire-service reports.
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