Following the withdrawal of Namibian athletes, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from the Tokyo Olympics 400m event, the international equality-in-sport charity, equitysport have made a statement.
equitysport remains deeply concerned by the continuing and pervasive inequalities that disproportionately impact certain groups of women within the global sporting ecosystem at a local, regional and international level; and the lack of accountability in the global autonomous regulation of sport by private transnational bodies.
On 2 July 2021, just weeks before the start of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it was reported in the international press that the Namibian athletes, Christine Mbomo and Beatrice Masilingi both born and raised as women, have been withdrawn from the 400m event after it was revealed they had failed the World Athletics sex-testing eligibility criteria (1,2,3,4).
The Namibian National Olympic Committee said that the tests have revealed that Mboma and Masilingi both have “naturally high testosterone levels”.
Cultural ideologies have long impacted the participation of women and girls in sport, including via the active weaponisation of contemporary science to justify rule making in favour of societal norms – for example the supposed health risks of women physically exerting themselves as a mechanism to deny participation in sport in the 1800’s (10).
With binary, two sex classification in the vast majority of sports, the question of what determines sex in sport has long been a question with which sport has had to grapple.
Sex-testing, also referred to as femininity or gender verification testing began in the 1930’s as an ad-hoc, suspicion-driven evaluation of women athletes based on their physical appearance. In the 1960’s this practice evolved into mandatory universal certification of all women athletes seeking to compete in international competition (that were governed by World Athletics, formerly the IAAF; and/or the International Olympic Committee, IOC).
In the absence of a true single marker for the determination of the male or female sex (5), the processes, methods and criteria used for sex-testing in sport over the years have changed from chromosomal karyotype and specific gene testing to assessing endogenous testosterone levels (6).
In 1999, World Athletics and the IOC officially stopped mandatory sex-testing (7), reverting back to suspicion-driven evaluation of individual athletes that targeted women whose bodies were perceived as masculine (5,6).
These regulations have come under significant scrutiny for their impact on athletes’ rights to non-discrimination, as well as the continued use of a single biological marker for determining sex (8). In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the World Athletics hyperandrogenism regulations on the basis that they were unjustifiably discriminatory.
In 2018, World Athletics issued new eligibility regulations for the female classification, which only apply to women with particular variations in sex characteristics – referred by the governing body as DSD (Differences of Sex Development) – and which would require those athletes to reduce their blood testosterone to a level specified by World Athletics.
We, at equitysport, believe that these regulations and the requirement for certain athletes to engage in medically unnecessary interventions deny athletes born as women an equal right to participate in sport. We fully support the position of the United Nations Human Rights Council that the current sex-testing apparatus and criteria set by World Athletics and the IOC risk violating the following rights:
- The right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- The right to work and to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work.
- The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
- The right to sexual and reproductive health.
- The right of everyone to be free from arbitrary interference with their privacy.
- The right to respect for the dignity, bodily integrity and bodily autonomy of the person.
We, at equitysport, remain sympathetic and understanding of the need for governing bodies in sport to maintain a “level playing field” (albeit a rather nebulous concept) and to construct an ecosystem that protects all of its participants. We also note that two-sex classification sports find themselves at the centre of a major cultural and ideological shift regarding sex and gender in wider society and is being forced to answer many complex questions long before other institutions.
However, no sport has the power to decide what human rights can or should be overruled, over-riden or altered, whether as a public authority, exercising state powers, or as a private body exercising private or contractual powers (9).
We are all born and possess the same rights, regardless of where we come from, what our gender, sex or race might be, what religion we follow, or our social, cultural or ethnic background.
In sport, any ruling that has a negative impact on a person’s full enjoyment of their human rights, or risks violating those same rights is illegitimate and wrong. We believe that in years to come, the targeted, goal-post shifting marginalisation of a particular group of women in the sport of athletics will be remembered as a stain on the conscience of global sport.
To demand that any human being makes physical alterations to their body as a precondition to participating in sport is morally reprehensible and undermines the integrity and value of the guarantees made to all people through the Olympic Charter.
equitysport also remains concerned that the World Athletics DSD regulations and application of those regulations seem to be disproportionately impacting athletes from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with the most high profile cases of the last decade including:
- Caster Semenya (South Africa)
- Annet Negesa (Uganda)
- Margaret Wambui (Kenya)
- Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi)
- Santhi Soundarajan (India)
- Dutee Chand (India)
- Christine Mboma (Namibia)
- Beatrice Masilingi (Namibia)
We are confused by the dogged determination of World Athletics to administer their sex-testing apparatus in the shadows, refusing to provide up-to-date and transparent (non-identifying) information on how these regulations are being applied in practice, such as the number of tests, the distribution of testing around the world and the decision making process that is being utilised to warrant each and every test.
Sport is often conveniently binary, but as our world continues to evolve and grow, so too, must sport. The very relevance, and longevity of sport as anything more than a distracting form of entertainment, will depend on its ability to include rather than exclude, to build bridges and facilitate inclusivity rather than to demand conformity to arbitrary definitions of yesterday’s stereotypes.
The value system that forms the foundation of all sport is a manifestation of our most optimistic idealism, but if we are to remain true to those values, we must not be content to see their gradual erosion. In this case, and many others that sport will face over the coming decades, we must apply the very best of our energies and skills, reject the weaponisation of the selective application of science and embrace the potential power of sport as an instrument for the promotion of peace, development, solidarity and human rights.
We must find better answers.