Olympic Discrimination Against Black Women

Author: Hanan Ali | Editor: Elizabeth Qiu

These are opinion pieces authored by Women in Politics Club officers. They do not represent the views of the club nor Churchill as a whole. We hope you bring our new perspectives!

Soul Cap

For black female swimmers, the challenges that come with unique hair have been dismissed and overlooked. Luckily, in 2017, a new swimming cap, coined by the name “Soul Cap”, was released to the world by creators Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen.

The Soul Cap website describes it as an “extra-large swimming cap created for swimmers who struggle with their hair.” These swim caps better accommodate the hairstyles that many African American women have, such as afros, and thick, curly hair. Since natural Black hair is often drier than White hair, it is important to protect it from the pool water that contains bleach, which can cause severe damage.

Many well-known black swimmers—such as Alice Dearing, who qualified to compete on Britain’s swim team—use the Soul Cap. Dearing’s hair is voluminous and would not be preserved in the average swimming cap. In addition, the chemicals in a pool such as chlorine can induce critical damage that can only be treated with extensive time and money. Despite the circumstances, Dearing had been prohibited from using the cap in her first Olympic challenge, the Women’s 10K Marathon Swim.

FINA, a global federation that oversees international competitions in swimming, disproved the use of Soul Caps in the Tokyo Games. Their rationale was that there was no former scenario during which swimmers needed “caps of such size and configuration,” and that the Soul Cap didn’t follow “the natural form of the head.” With that being said, it is a thought-provoking concept—whose head shape is considered “normal,” and whose isn’t?

Black people have had a complex, long-standing relationship with water. In the Jim Crow era in the United States, Black swimmers faced exclusion and bans from pools, and the pools that did accept swimmers of color were often not tended to properly. The dominance of White athletes in swimming is not a coincidence—it is the result of unacknowledged institutional racism. 

Danielle Obe, the chair and a founder of the Black Swimming Association, an organization created to address the need for increased diversity in aquatics, has stated that in order to increase the visibility of Black swimmers, inclusion is a must. 

“We want to be included, all we’re asking for is to have the option to have a piece of equipment that has been designed to cater to the issue of our hair, which is a significant barrier to participation in aquatics as a whole,” Ms. Obe said. “If FINA was aware that was a major barrier for our community, I think that decision would have been made slightly differently.”

An Unfair Approach to Testosterone Levels

Track stars Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma were under the radar prior to the 2021 Olympic games. However, due to the problematic nature of their treatment, they have been receiving an increased amount of attention.

As they returned home from their training in Italy, Beatrice, Christine, and their coach, Heck Botha, learned the news that because their recent test results from endogenous testosterone levels exceeded the World Athletics-mandated limit, they were barred from participating in the Women’s 400M race at the Tokyo Games.

The athletes were surprised by this phone call. These kinds of examinations were a new concept to them, since tests for hormone levels were a relatively new practice and most commonly used with transgender athletes, while both of these athletes were biologically female.

Unfortunately, this situation is a recurring one. In 2018, Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, and Margaret Wambui of Kenya were banned from participating in the Olympics. All of these athletes were supposed to participate in the 800M event in Tokyo, but were flagged because of their testosterone levels.

World Athletics ruled that “to ensure fair competition, women with high natural testosterone levels must take medication to reduce them to compete in middle-distance races”. However, requiring someone to take medication to alter their body, affect their mood, and interfere with their talent, is very controversial. 

“I would ruin the way my body develops because that’ll be something that rearranges everything – how my body functions and everything. I wouldn’t want to be involved in any other things because this is the way my body functions in its normal way. And if I try something else, I might get caught somewhere else, and something might go wrong with my body,” says Masilingi.

This set of regulations was launched by World Athletics as an acknowledgment of the situation of Castor Semenya:

2.3 To be eligible to compete in the female classification in a Restricted Event at an International Competition, or to set a World Record in a competition that is not an International Competition, a Relevant Athlete must meet each of the following conditions

2.3.1 she must be recognised at law5 either as female or as intersex (or equivalent);

2.3.2 she must reduce her blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L6 for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives); and

2.3.3 thereafter she must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (i.e., whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to maintain eligibility to compete in the female classification in Restricted Events at International Competitions (or to set a World Record in a Restricted Event at a competition that is not an International Competition) — (Source: World Athletics)

There has been an excessive spotlight shone on women from developing countries in cases of high testosterone levels. This can be traced back to the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who fought against similar regulations in court and won in 2015. The cases of Castor Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, Margaret Wambui of Kenya, Beatrice Masilingi, and Christine Mboma are unfair as these women have XX chromosomes and are biologically female. This conclusion feels troubling, and will undoubtedly not age well. 

Sources

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-57748135#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20Caster%20Semenya%20was,in%20middle%2Ddistance%20races%22

https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/561610-five-women-banned-from-tokyo-olympics-events

https://www.npr.org/sections/tokyo-olympics-live-updates/2021/07/28/1021503989/women-runners-testosterone-olympics

https://apnews.com/article/2020-tokyo-olympics-swimming-soul-cap-ban-d6c88141801f7262f69eefbc05f0128a

https://www.dezeen.com/2021/07/16/tokyo-2020-olympics-ban-on-soul-cap-designed-for-afro-hair-under-review-following-backlash/

https://www.sportingnews.com/ca/athletics/news/olympic-swim-cap-ban-2021-swimmers/1sypmtl7pz0b91x2otkelvaip6

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