Namibian female sprinters are victorious at World Under-20 Athletics Championship amidst bans over discriminatory tests

"Caster Semenya lines up" by zeetha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

South Africa's Caster Semenya (third from the left) and Kenya's Wambui (second from the left) were two of the four African female athletes affected by the 2018 female eligibility regulations. Photo by zeetha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The World Under-20 Athletics championships took place in Nairobi from August 17–22nd at the Kasarani Sports complex. Coming on the heels of a delayed Summer Olympics Games in Tokyo, the world athletics meet was a showcase of young talent looking to move up the age bracket to match — if not better — their older peers.

While Kenya largely dominated at this year’s World Under-20 Athletics Championships, two Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi stole the show. The duo bettered their Olympics performance achieving a 1-2 finish at the Championships in Nairobi to give Namibia a Gold and Silver in the women’s 200m sprint. Mboma won the 200m race with a new championship record of 21.84 seconds, with Masilingi second in a personal best time of 22.18 seconds. 

Who's Eligible and who is Not?

The championships in Kenya were held against a backdrop of controversy after the World Athletics (formerly the IAAF), which governs international athletics, implemented the Difference of Sex Development -DSD Eligibility Rules (DSD Regulations) published in 2018 targeting women athletes with high testosterone levels. World Athletics petitioned the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) to uphold the new rules and created a set of briefing notes to support their motion. The court released the following ruling:

The Panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory but that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics in certain events and protecting the “protected class” of female athletes in those events.

The briefing notes explained the rationale behind excluding high-testosterone female athletes from some events, including the single-lap 400m, 800m, and the 1500m races. The notes explained the “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.”

Though the policy has just recently been implemented, concerns were raised in 2016 at the Rio Olympics after South Africa’s Caster Semenya won gold in the 800m and was diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, a medical condition characterized by high levels of androgens in women.

In April 2021, World Athletics introduced new rules for female classification, which meant that four female athletes would be disqualified from the 800m and 1500m races; South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, Nigeria’s Aminatou Seyni, and Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba — all from Africa. All four athletes were middle-distance runners. At the Tokyo Olympics, Niyonsaba chose to switch to both the 5,000 and 10,000m races before being disqualified on a technicality after stepping out of her lane. 

In July 2021, at the Tokyo Olympics, Christian Mboma went on to win a Silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in the 200m women’s race, with Masilingi placing sixth. This was only the second time that an athlete from Namibia ever won an Olympics medal (the first being Frankie Fredrick‘s silver at the 1996 Summer Olympics). After this resounding victory from the Namibian women's team, they remained favorites to win in the under-21 event held in Nairobi.

Testosterone: an unfair competitive advantage?

Under the controversial World Athletics rules, the two sprinters are classified as having differences in sexual development (DSD) with naturally high testosterone levels. This rare physiology is deemed to give them an unfair competitive advantage in track events from the single-lap event of 400m all the way to the 1500m race.

Scott Cacciola and Jere Longman discussed the new rules in a New York Times article

Mboma’s silver medal raised a question: Does the supposed significant physiological advantage gained by intersex athletes begin after 399 meters? Or is the science relied on by World Athletics to institute its restrictions flawed and in need of re-evaluation or expansion to include other running events?

‘It shows this is not an evidence-based regulation,’ said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado who has long questioned the scientific basis of the restrictions. ‘It’s about World Athletics’s perception as to who is properly a woman and who is not.’

In early July, before The Olympics Games began, the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) in Namibia released a statement supporting the two Namibian sprinters, Christian Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, accusing World Athletics of sexism and racism. This came after the athletic body decided to exclude the two female athletes from the Tokyo Olympic Games.

The Women’s Leadership Centre objected to the tests conducted on women athletes and accused them of targetting women from Africa. In the statement, WLC's program manager Liz Frank questioned why men did not have to undergo the same tests:

It is sexist as there is no testing of male athletes to check for high levels of testosterone. Surely not all men have the same level. Surely there is an ‘average level’ for men. Then why are male athletes whose testosterone levels are much higher than this level not excluded from competing until they artificially bring their levels down.

The female eligibility regulations released in 2018 had stated that “any athlete who has a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD)…and who is androgen-sensitive” would have to meet certain criteria to be eligible to compete in restricted events in international competitions. These include providing legal recognition that the athlete is either female or intersex (or equivalent); reducing her blood testosterone level for a continuous period of six months; and maintaining the low testosterone levels during and out of competition. The latter is possible with hormonal contraceptives, which most of these athletes, including Caster Semenya, have refused to comply with. 

These rules have meant that women athletes need to have lower testosterone levels (below five nanomoles per litre) if they want to participate in events between 400m to 1500m in any international meet. Because of this, Namibia’s two sprinters Mboma and Masilingi were ineligible to compete in their specialities — the 400m — opting instead for the shorter 200m.

The rules and gender verification regulations have been called discriminatory, especially since they only target women. Human Rights Watch details this in a 2020 report titled “‘They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport': Human Rights Violations in Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes.” The 120-page report reveals discrimination, privacy and dignity violation, as well as increased surveillance both on and off the track. The report documents the experiences of women athletes from the Global South who have been affected by the new sex-testing regulations. 

Human Rights Watch found that “global regulations that encourage discrimination, surveillance, and coerced medical intervention on women athletes result in physical and psychological injury and economic hardship.” The report also gives detailed recommendations to each of the stakeholders — the World Athletics, IOC, national health and sports ministries, and the World Anti-Doping Agency. 

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