Athletics

Explained | Why Christine Mboma’s 200m silver at Tokyo Olympics rankles many

Christine Mboma of Namibia poses with her silver medal in Athletics Women's 200m at Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on August 4, 2021.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: She was stopped from running the quartermile a few weeks before the Olympics but Christine Mboma winning the silver in the 200m in Tokyo, behind Jamaican Elaine Thompson-Herah, has raised a lot of questions about fairness in women’s sport. The Namibian beat stars such as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Gabrielle Thomas and her time, 21.81s, was a new under-20 world record.

The 18-year-old and her compatriot Beatrice Masilingi, who was fifth in that race, had run the world’s fastest times in the 400m in April but World Athletics removed their entries from the list of eligible athletes in the event for the Olympics. However, they were allowed to run the 200m.

Why were Mboma and Masilingi stopped from running the 400m?

When suspicions grew over the fast times, tests followed. They revealed that the two have differences in sexual development (DSD), which help them produce high levels of testosterone giving them an unfair advantage over normal female athletes.

To make women’s sport a level-playing field, World Athletics had laid down eligibility regulations for female classification in May 2019 but the regulations only apply for select events, from the 400m to the mile. The two teens opted to run the 200m. The regulations apply only for international events and not national or local meets. South African Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800m (2016 and 2012), is the most famous DSD athlete who has been stopped from running in Tokyo.

Which athletes fall under the DSD regulations?

The World Athletics’ DSD regulations only apply to individuals who are: legally female (or intersex) and who have one of a certain number of specified DSDs, which mean that they have: 1) male chromosomes (XY), not female chromosomes (XX); 2) testes, not ovaries; 3) circulating testosterone in the male range (7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L), not the (much lower) female range (0.06 to 1.68 nmol/L) and 4) the ability to make use of that testosterone circulating within their bodies (i.e., they are ‘androgen-sensitive’).

Why do the regulations only cover events between 400m to the mile?

Though World Athletics considers that 46 XY DSD athletes would have an advantage in all events based on their levels of testosterone in the male range, the evidence it had when the regulations were finalised indicated that track events from 400m to one mile were the ones where most performance-enhancing benefits can be obtained from elevated levels of circulating testosterone.

What if a DSD athlete wants to run any of the restricted events?

In that case, they will have to lower the level of testosterone in their blood to below 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) (for that is the highest level that a healthy woman with ovaries would have) for a period of six months, and maintain it below that level while they continue to compete at international level in such events.

Now, why should Mboma’s case worry World Athletics?

Mboma’s stunning 200m run has made normal female athletes feel that World Athletics has not done enough to make it a level-playing field. They think that other events too, like the 200m, should also be included in the list of banned events for DSD athletes. Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who won the 400m gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics but finished last in the 200m final, spoke about it after her Tokyo loss. “The only thing really is (the ban) was for a few events, and I think everyone was trying to figure out why just the few events and not straight across the board,” she said.

Renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker, told CNN after Mboma’s silver show: “World Athletics won the case at the Court of Arbitration when Caster Semenya challenged the policy and they won it because their principle and their theory were so strong but they did not have much of good evidence for it. And the reason we have this clumsy situation where an athlete can be illegal in the 400m but allowed to run the 200 is because that policy evolved in a very messy and paradoxical way. They probably have advantages as a result of these male hormones....but the problem for sport is that they can’t include the 200m because of the way the policy developed over time. It’s going to be really interesting to see what they are going to do with that (the Mboma rise) next.”

Who are the other top athletes who have been stopped by the DSD regulations?

All three 800m medallists at the 2016 Rio Olympics – Semenya, Burundi’s silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba and Kenyan bronze winner Margaret Wambui – were DSD athletes. Semenya ran the 5000m in an attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but failed to make the cut.

Dutee Chand, currently India’s fastest woman, was banned by the IAAF’s earlier regulations for female athletes with hyperandrogenism. Chand is now running freely since the 100 and 200m do not come under the regulations now in place. And a couple of athletes have either moved from their favourite event to shorter sprints or have quit the scene altogether, which means that there could also be other DSD cases in India.

Why is the subject so important but still a very sensitive one?

“People have known for long that the male-female differences in sport are so large that if we didn’t have a closed, protected category for women, there would basically be no women in the Olympic Games,” says Tucker. “But when you have individuals who have this DSD, there’s an ethical dilemma because sport gets to tell what gender or sex they are.”


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