Structural racism in sport: the 2021 edition

There’s a meme going around social media that’s quite telling:

The pattern is quite obvious; these decisions are consistently singling out and penalizing Black women athletes for their excellence. I have written about Caster Semenya’s trials in the last two years. In this post, I noted the decisions against Semenya amount to “a fear of successful women, and the way these sports bodies manage that fear is to other-ise and marginalize those who do not fit an outdated image of women in sport through legal challenges and unfounded medical policies.”

In another post, I wrote, “we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements.”

In the past couple of months, decisions against Black women athletes have ramped up as outlined in the image above. The disqualification of Sha’Carri Richardson for cannabis use astonished followers of the Olympics, given that it has no performance-enhancing attributes at all. We have also seen other decisions, now reversed, prohibiting athletes from bringing their infants to the Games and disqualifying others who had recently given birth.

Female athletes who don’t fit the mold get short shrift, unlike male athletes who get praised for their natural genetic advantages (can I bring up Michael Phelps again?). In figure skating, Tonya Harding was too working class, while Suraya Bonali was too athletic. Go back to the late 80s, and you’ll find Florence Joyner Griffiths, the world’s fastest woman at the ’88 Olympics having her achievements questioned by male athletes including Ben Johnson who was himself disqualified for using banned substances.

Despite the deeply frustrating and outright discriminatory incidents of the last months, I have been uplifted by the growing protests and successful challenges to decisions that discriminate against athletes who identify as female and those who resist being categorized as non-female based on shoddy science. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport came out hard and fast this week:

The rules of sport are meant to create a level playing field. In this respect, the rules are failing. They fail to create sport environments that recognize the dignity and even humanity of some of its most spectacular participants. Sport is beginning to creak and crack under the weight of the decisions made by sport organizations, and so the decision-makers are reaching a crisis point: do we begin to make different decisions, or do we continue making the same ill-advised and exclusive choices that brought us here, and allow sport to collapse under the weight of them?

The CCES concludes the structural racism and sexism embedded in these recent decisions and applied against Black women athletes needs to end. Not doing so is a choice, and the result is exclusion, a significant lack of visibility, and a dilution of excellence in sport arising from artificial limits.

Morgan Campbell, Senior Contributor with CBC Sports, pointed out the contradiction in the guidelines and how decisions designed to deal with the problem sports bodies have with Caster Semenya end up being applied against individuals who have elevated hormone levels that are still less than the lowest levels found in men :

After several false starts, the testosterone guidelines were codified in 2018. And while World Athletics leadership never specified that the rule targets Semenya, they apply only to the races in which Semenya excels, even though the group’s own research found the strongest correlation between natural testosterone and performance in women’s pole vault and hammer throw. That neither of those two events has a testosterone cap tells you World Athletics rule-makers understand that correlation doesn’t always equal causation.

These days I’m questioning if we should be allowing sports bodies to decide who is female based on a list of permissible ranges of body chemicals. The human body is a marvel of moving parts; as individual humans, we bring different levels of strength, skill, talent, and ability to the playing field. If the Olympics seeks those who are faster, higher, and stronger, then we need to set a new bar for excellence that isn’t based on stereotypes and biases.

MarthaFitat55 lives, works, and sports in St. John’s.

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