Two 18-year-old cisgender sprinters from Namibia, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, have been banned from running in the Olympic 400-meter dash because they have a “natural high testosterone level.” They’re now the two latest African women to be banned from track events because they don’t fit into the World Athletics organization’s definition of womanhood.
The organization capped testosterone levels for women’s events over 400 meters but below 1600 meters in 2019, a rule that limited the career of cis lesbian South African runner Caster Semenya.
The rule affected all three medalists in the 800-meter race at the 2016 Olympic games: Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, and Margaret Wambui of Kenya. All three runners have refused to take drugs to lower their testosterone levels.
All of the banned women are Black cis women from Africa.
Mboma was banned from some events at the Olympics one day after she ran the 400-meter dash in 48.45 seconds at a meet in Bydgoszcz, Poland. She holds the under-20 world record in the event and is the seventh-fastest woman in the event in history.
Masilingi was banned soon after she won a meet in Switzerland by running the 200-meter dash in 22.67 seconds.
“It is important to understand that both our athletes were not aware of this condition neither did any family member, their coach or the NNOC-CGA [Namibia Olympic Committee] were aware of it,” the Namibia Olympic Committee wrote in a statement following the announced ban on their runners.
The NNOC-CGA added that both runners will compete in Olympic 100-meter and 200-meter events. The ban on female track competitors with high testosterone levels in 400-meter to 1600-meter events was developed to include the events Semenya competes in but exclude shorter and longer events.
In 2018, World Athletics (previously called the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF), the international body governing track-and-field events, instituted a rule to establish testosterone limits for female athletes. The rule went into effect the next year.
The federation began more closely examining the body’s hormone levels in 2009 after Semenya ran so fast that the IAAF suspected her of cheating. The group said it detected a “rare medical condition” in the out athlete that gave her an “unfair advantage.” However, others criticized its rule as having undertones of European racism and imperialism.
“As trans writers and activists have been telling us for quite some time, the concept of binary sex, that there are only two non-overlapping sexes and one is either one or the other, is not as clear cut as many claim,” wrote journalist Ruby Hamad in a 2019 column. She is the author of White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color.
“The efforts to bar Semenya also demonstrates how easy it is to undermine women, in particular racialized women, by shifting the goalposts and requirements for entry into womanhood.”
Others have said the rules discriminate against intersex athletes. Intersex people are born with any number of chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, or genital features that cause their bodies to physically manifest some combination of stereotypically male or female biological features.
Someone can have intersex features without identifying as intersex, and there are intersex people of all genders. It’s unclear whether any of the women targeted by the ban identify as intersex.
Semanya challenged the IAAF’s ban in court. In May 2019, The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge. In February 2021, she filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights. It has yet to be decided.
Semenya said she took medication to lower her testosterone levels from 2010 to 2015. “The medication caused a myriad of unwanted side effects like weight gain, fevers, a constant feeling of nausea and abdominal pain,” the AP wrote.
She has said that the ongoing battle to compete has “destroyed” her “mentally and physically.”