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What These Olympic Governing Bodies Are Doing to Black Women Is Not OK

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates winning the Women's 100 Meter final

We need to talk about the Olympics and their outdated rules.

Despite her incredible 100-meter victory at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, it was announced this week that sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson—the country’s fastest woman—would not be participating in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Shortly after those trials, Richardson tested positive for THC (the main active component of marijuana). While she shouldn’t need to justify the use of a non-performance-enhancing drug that is legal in the state where she used it, she has said that it helped her cope with the recent death of her biological mother.

The positive test came with a one-month suspension, which meant Richardson was going to miss the 100-meter race (even though her suspension technically ends right before the event), although she could still qualify for relays—except USA Track & Field unveiled its official roster Tuesday evening and Richardson isn’t on it, for any event.

Brianna McNeal won the gold medal in 100-meter hurdles in 2016, but she too will be absent from this year’s Olympic games. McNeal has been suspended for five years after missing a drug test and “tampering within the results management process.” McNeal originally submitted documentation for an unnamed medical procedure but after being pressured to release more details, she revealed to the New York Times that she had had an abortion. She says she thought her doctor got the date of her procedure wrong so she changed the date on the paperwork by one day, hence the “tampering.”

Moreover, McNeal said she faced judgmental scrutiny from World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, who she says made it clear they didn’t believe her claims that she messed up the date because she was traumatized from the procedure. (While most people do not experience abortion as a traumatic event—contrary to the popular anti-abortion narrative—McNeal says she was feeling guilt and grief because of her Christian faith.)

World Athletics didn’t believe she was affected by the procedure because she “continued to post on social media and compete in the weeks afterward.” They also “chastised” her for seeking support from a spiritual advisor rather than a psychiatrist.

“I told them, ‘Oh, really? For me, growing up in the Black community, that’s how we cope with everything — we go to church and we talk to our pastor or spiritual adviser,” McNeal told the Times. “I just feel like they have not been compassionate at all.”

On Twitter, she wrote that she sat through hearings where she “listened to white European men tell me how my experience doesn’t match with their perspective” and that “instead of being met with some sort of compassion and understanding, I was being interrogated and stigmatized.”

There are so many more stories like this.

Simone Biles keeps seeing the goalposts moved as her incredible feats in gymnastics are repeatedly undervalued specifically because she is so skilled.

A swim cap made especially for Black hair was banned from the Olympic games because it doesn’t follow “the natural form of the head.” In reality, the fact that traditional swim caps don’t work with a lot of Black swimmers’ hair is thought to be a major reason why Black athletes are so underrepresented in the sport. (That ban is currently being reconsidered thanks to massive backlash.)

Multiple Black women have been banned from track and field events because they have higher-than-average, naturally occurring testosterone levels. High testosterone is a major boon for male athletes, yet women are penalized for it. The science is also still out on just how much of a benefit testosterone gives athletes.

From an article at Popular Science:

One study of professional male triathletes found no relationship between testosterone levels and performance. Another, looking at professional cyclists, found the same lack of correlation. Yet another, comparing cyclists, weightlifters, and controls to each other on a cycling test, found a negative correlation between testosterone levels and performance. A study of teenage weightlifters found no relationship between boys’ testosterone levels and their performance, and a negative correlation among the girls—meaning they performed better when their testosterone was lower.

Still, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, and the U.S.’ CeCe Telfer—the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA title—have all been forced out of this year’s games because of their testosterone levels.

Oh, and the entire Nigerian women’s 4×400 relay team was disqualified for not placing cones in the right spot during trials.

There are plenty of people who will respond to these stories with an argument that “rules are rules.” Sha’Carri Richardson especially is hearing that a lot. But rules change. Kim Gaucher, a Canadian basketball player, was told she could not take her three-month-old baby to the Olympic games because Tokyo banned athletes from bringing guests—including a breastfeeding baby.

The International Olympic Committee eventually said that Gaucher and other nursing parents could bring their babies—because rules change when they need to. The rules holding these women back are not rooted in science and they are outdated. Rules and laws around marijuana usage disproportionately affect Black people and people of color. Regulations around testosterone are based on unscientific, eurocentric views of gender. A swim cap was banned specifically because the people in charge of making these rules don’t understand the needs of Black athletes.

Black women have been dominating in the lead-up to the Olympics and it’s abhorrent that they are being so specifically targeted by these outdated rules.

(image: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.