International headlines bore the news of teen Namibian runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi — ranked second and third fastest in the world — being disqualified from competing in the 400 meter race at the Tokyo Olympic Games, for naturally occurring levels of testosterone.
The two teens were found to have testosterone levels that exceeded 5 nanomoles of serum testosterone per liter, the maximum level of testosterone female runners can have to participate in races up to 400 meters and under 1 mile.
But the larger story, more absent from the digital newsstand, invites a question almost maddening in its simplicity: what prompts World Athletics to “sex test” women athletes in the first place? Gender justice lawyer Shayna Medley says this trend, like many others, is brought full circle by the influence of racism in “science.”
“Black women are constantly having their gender called into question based on these eugenicist ideas of gender and race that are so intertwined,” Medley, a litigation fellow with the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Blavity. “Black women are the ones who are being forced to undergo these so-called sex tests in the first place, because of racist ideas about them being too masculine.”
Eugenics mark a system of beliefs that certain characteristics — or people — should be bred out of the human population.
One of the loudest eugenics advocates can be found in Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. The birth control advocate once urged “the gradual suppression, elimination, and eventual extinction, of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.” Her words are an alarming encapsulation behind the equally gut-wrenching notion — and practice — of eugenics.
While exclusion from track and field are a far cry from the mass forced sterilization of 7,600 mostly Black people in North Carolina, the same belief set — that certain biologies are superior to others — has now forced several Black women out of sports. And it’s proven that eugenics beliefs are still alive and well.
“Caster Semenya is an example of these racist ideas at play, along with these Namibian runners,” Medley said of the South African world champion who’d previously been at the center of the controversial sex testing policy. “I imagine there are probably white women that have high testosterone levels, and just don’t get scrutinized in the same way and asked to undergo these tests.”
While World Athletics refuted claims that a single group or athlete is the source of scrutiny, Semenya has said that she’d always felt targeted by the governing body, BBC reported. In 2009, she underwent two tests to confirm her sex. They were both taken against her consent. She was later encouraged to pursue hormone suppressing treatment.
In her appeal of the 2020 Swiss court ruling, which determined she could not run the 800-meter competition without testosterone-reducing treatment, she described the testing process as “atrocious and humiliating,” the Associated Press reported. Semenya said her 2010-2015 hormone suppressing treatment left her physically ill, depressed, and showing symptoms of a woman in menopause in her mid-twenties.
The ruling brought down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case of Semenya’s appeal would have a direct impact on 18-year-old Namibian runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi’s Olympic fate. CAS found that the discriminatory exclusion of women like Semenya, Mboma, and Masilingi was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate,” to protect “the integrity of female athletics,” BBC explained.
From high schools across the nation to the Olympic Games, heated debate about who should be allowed to compete swells to a boiling point. As some propose an interest in “fairness,” Medley hears the subtle screech of a misogynoir-like dog whistle, radiating out from the eye of the storm.
“We should ask: who are we protecting people from? Who is being protected in this scenario?” the Harvard Law lecturer posited. “There’s no basis for singling out a particular characteristic, whether it be hormone level, or a chromosome test. There are so many factors that are not binary that go into creating what we think of as biological sex. These sex tests are very much a smoke screen for these sexist and racist policies that aren’t really correlated with the interests that the proponents claim that they serve.”
And a smoke screen, biologist Shay-Akil McLean says, they are. While advocates on both sides of the issue debate fairness, McLean gets to the science of the issue. Spoiler: there isn’t any, he says.
“Euro-colonial thinking is the basis of the idea that gender is, one: a binary, and two: based on biological sex,” he explained. “Gender is not defined by hormones, nor are the hormones of humans determined by gender expression. So, to say that both Christina Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have natural testosterone levels that are too high makes no sense for that, among other reasons.”
Medley’s research finds that the eugenicist pseudo-science behind the sex testing has deep, historic roots.
In a forthcoming paper at the New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Medley explores the global impact left by The School of Evolution, a group of nineteenth-century eugenicists who claimed that not only was the sex binary a “function of race,” but that sexual dimorphism, or the phenomenon of visible differences between the sexes — think lions versus fish — was the marker of a more advanced race, and thus did not apply to non-white peoples. Black women, they asserted, were inherently androgynous.
McLean’s doctoral studies in ecology, evolution, and conservative biology grant him insight into the historical responsibility born by the western world in the proliferation of anti-black pseudo science. While he explains that statistical averages describing normal testosterone levels in women bear “no material reality,” he teases at another dimension to the issue — if not the Olympic Games, what better stage exists as a shrine to naturally occurring human variation?
Researchers at the ACLU invoked the living legacy of Michael Phelps, praised for his unique physicality, while Black girls like Mboma and Masilingi stand persecuted for theirs.
“In men, particularly white men, variations in athleticism are celebrated,” Medley said. “In white men, someone who is taller than average, or has longer arms than average — those abilities are celebrated, that’s a common component in Olympic athletes. Of course, it’s a combination of natural ability and hard work and training, but this idea that in the face of naturally occurring variation, Black women are being asked to alter their bodies to compete because of some false idea of fairness, we don’t see that same attitude in men’s sports.”
Athletics South Africa condemned the CAS ruling to uphold World Athletics’ discriminatory decision against Semenya — casting the ruling against the bloodied backdrop of the nation’s apartheid history, BBC reported.
McLean, who specializes in the intertwined natures of race and racism, anthropological genetics, and human health, echoes the contempt held by the South African body. He, too, finds the ruling inseparable from both colonial and patriarchal thinking.
“Sociologist Patricia Hill-Collins talks about this in her books Black Feminist Thought and Black Sexual Politics. Collins’ work does a great job demonstrating how anti-black racialized doctrines are always simultaneously patriarchal doctrines,” the scientist, who also holds master’s degrees in sociology and biological anthropology, explained. “Thus, the racialized status of Blackness is considered aggressive, active, strong — and those are considered masculine qualities through the lens of Euro-colonial binary gender and race/ism.”
As McLean illuminates, this problematic perception of Blackness, anti-blackness, and masculinity are muddied waters — phenomena too entangled to be understood independent of each other. Naturally, one need not turn to the most elite sports arenas on the globe to see them being weaponized against Black athletes.
In a study on the inclusivity of high school athletics programs, researchers at The Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) found that Black girls in high school face the same obstacles as their heroes, with the “female opportunity gap” being twice as large in “heavily minority schools” across the nation, where lack of school resources leaves female student athletes holding the short end of the stick.
When Black students’ limited access to green spaces is considered, the implications of Black girl students also being left out of school sports are compounded, PRRAC found. What’s more, performance on standardized tests as well as health outcomes — from self esteem, to propensity for illnesses like osteoporosis and breast cancer — are statistically better for girls involved in sports.
McLean is calling a flag on the play.
“Underfunding sports for girls in high school is the result of white supremacist patriarchal logic that denies Black girls basic agency and autonomy on an institutional scale,” McLean said. “Decreasing the likelihood of a Black girl to be able to participate in sports directly affects that child’s health physically, mentally, and socially. Black schools being twice as likely to have underfunded girl sports (if they have any sports programs for girls at all), is a facet of racist and patriarchal domination that is mirrored in every other part of settler American society.”
Meanwhile, on the world stage, some athletes like Kenya’s 800m Olympic medalist Margaret Wambui, believe that World Athletics should create a third category for athletes that fall outside of the restrictive and binary sex standards upheld by the committee — a slippery slope, Medley finds, but perhaps one worth considering.
“What do the athletes want?” the legal scholar questioned. “There is some legitimacy, perhaps, to considering co-ed teams, or teams for people that identify as non binary and want to compete on a third team. But we should be concerned about any third option that people are forced into based on these tests, which we should do away with, and be cautious of the ways that the third option might be wielded to enforce that testing in racist ways.”
“The bottom line is, athletes should be able to compete on the team that they identify with,” she continued. “A co-ed or third option could be viable, but filtering people into that based on some kind of hormone or sex test will always be reinforced in these eugenicist ways.”
Blavity reached out to World Athletics for comment but has not yet received a response.