World Athletics regulation created in toxic place where sexism and racism overlap

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

At a track meet in Poland last week, Christine Mboma won the women's 400 metres in 48.54 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. If you hadn't heard of her before that blazing fast run, that's normal. Mboma's an 18-year-old phenom from Namibia and a newcomer to the European circuit where established stars compete, and her clocking set a new world record for runners under 20.

It also came two months after another Namibian teenager, Beatrice Masilingi, ran 49.53 over 400 metres at a small meet in Zambia. That time still stands as the seventh fastest worldwide this season — it's 1.3 seconds faster than any Canadian has run in 2021.

Those two times, run so close together, by runners so young and from the same country, raised eyebrows. Namibia, after all, isn't a track and field powerhouse like Kenya. The country has produced exactly one Olympic medallist — sprinter Frankie Fredericks, who finished second to both Donovan Bailey (100 metres) and Michael Johnson (200) in Atlanta in 1996.

Namibia teenagers out of Olympic 400m over high natural testosterone levels

The results also raised suspicions among officials at World Athletics, who dispatched doctors to Namibia so the two 18-year-olds could undergo "medical assessments." Those tests revealed neither runner was doping, which both already knew. But the examinations found that both women's bodies produce enough natural testosterone to violate World Athletics' convoluted rules on the hormone.

Women — and only women — whose levels of natural testosterone exceed a limit World Athletics established in 2018, are barred from events between 400 metres and one mile, and faced with a choice. They can take drugs to lower their natural testosterone, courting a long list of side-effects to comply with World Athletics' guidelines. Or they can switch events, even if it places them at a competitive disadvantage.

Mboma and Masilingi opted to drop down to the 200 metres, and the median sports fan, who might associate words like "testosterone" and "permissible limit" with intentional, illegal doping, thinks good-faith rule enforcement caught a pair of cheaters. From a distance, World Athletics appears to have restored competitive integrity to a high-profile event ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Except there's a qualitative difference between anabolic steroids and naturally produced testosterone. Mboma's and Masilingi's default hormonal settings are no more an unfair advantage than Kawhi Leonard's giant hands, or keen eyes in Major League Baseball, where the average player sees with 20/13 vision. If you can picture MLB forcing left-handers with 100 mph heat and 20/10 vision to play first base, arguing their natural tools were unfair to regular players, then you can understand how arbitrary, targeted unfairness of World Athletics' testosterone guidelines. And if you realize a rule against sharp-eyed southpaw pitchers would create an artificially shallow talent pool in MLB, you can recognize the women's testosterone rule at World Athletics curates the field but diminishes the on-track product.

Mboma and Masilingi, then, are resigned to their second-best event, collateral damage in World Athletics' ongoing, and ultimately successful, campaign to neutralize South African 800-metre runner Caster Semenya. 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. If the simple presence of natural testosterone, and not the confluence of a constellation of attributes and skills, boosted women's pole vaulters above their peers, World Athletics would regulate that event the same way it does the 800. The rules only apply to Semenya's races, as if a hormone general enough to show up in every vertebrate on the planet is also specific enough to distinguish between the flat 400 and the 400-metre hurdles.

Neither Caster Semenya, far left, or Francine Niyonsaba, far right, are permitted to run in their preferred event of 800 metres because of their testosterone levels. (2017 Getty Images)
Pretext to shut out Semenya

But the rule is less about testosterone than about using the hormone as a pretext to shut out Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion, and the fastest half-miler of her generation, along with peers who ran faster than rule-makers thought real women should. The 2018 guidelines have also chased the other two medallists from Rio, Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya's Margaret Wambui, away from their preferred race.

Semenya and Niyonsaba both moved to longer distances. Niyonsaba qualified for Tokyo in the 5,000 and 10,000, while Semenya fell short at 5,000. Wambui hasn't run a significant race since 2019, and recently called for World Athletics to create a third gender category rather than force women like her to choose between their best event and competing drug-free.

If you've noticed that high-profile runners on the wrong side of the testosterone rule are all Black women from Sub-Saharan Africa, hold on. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was tripped up by an early version of the rule, and regained her eligibility in 2015, with help from Toronto-based lawyers. Broadening our scope, we still see a rule that disproportionately affects women of colour from the global south.

If we're willing to extend benefits of doubts, we can view the trend as an unfortunate coincidence. Otherwise, we can view the testosterone rule as one more half-baked regulation created in the toxic place where sexism and racism overlap. Its mechanism is different, but its spirit is the same as the FINA rule outlawing swim caps designed to fit Black women's hair, or the IOC cracking down on podium protests and Black Lives Matter gear.

Either way, these rules send a disturbing message to young female athletes in general, and Black girls in particular.

Olympic champion Semenya faces uncertain future after failed bid in alternate distance

Run fast, but not too fast, lest you exceed some gatekeeper's expectations, trigger their suspicion and move them to act against you. Show too much speed and officials might ask you to take drugs to slow yourself down. But not marijuana. They'll ban you for that, too.

Big picture, spectators lose. We won't get to see how teenage prodigy Mboma stacks up against established pros like Allyson Felix and Shaunnae Miller-Uibo in their preferred event.

The sport loses. Olympic finals should pit the best against the best, and that can't happen if the owner of the world's fastest time can't even line up.

And Mboma and Masilingi lose the most. Even World Athletics would acknowledge neither of them has cheated. They were simply written out of the rules, which is even more demeaning.