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Tokyo Olympics Controversies


Nikita Byrnes takes you through the black female Olympic athletes who were the subject of many restrictions during the Tokyo Olympics.

At the Olympic trials in June, 2021, US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100-metre race in 10.86 seconds, making her a gold-medal contender. However, Richardson tested positive for recreational marijuana use at the same trial event. As a result, she was given a one-month suspension from Team USA, barring her from competing in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Richardson gave a public apology on NBC’s breakfast news program, Today, afterwards. She stated: “I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, what I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision. I want to take responsibility for my actions. I’m not looking for an excuse.” Richardson also acknowledged that the reason for her use of recreational marijuana was as a coping mechanism for the recent death of her biological mother.

She wrote in a tweet afterwards: “I am human.”

American President Joe Biden made a statement about the suspension, saying “The rules are the rules, and everybody knows what the rules were going in. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules. And I was really proud of her, the way she responded.”

The suspension sparked a range of critiques from all over America and around the world. American politician and Democratic Representative for New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote in a tweet that the suspension was “rooted solely in the systemic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.”

Even conservative Donald Trump Jr. stated on Twitter that he believed Richardson should be able to compete. He cited his reasoning as being the fact that “weed has never made anyone faster.” Although there is no scientific evidence confirming that marijuana has any performance-enhancing capabilities, confirmed by the medical director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), it is on the list of substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This is because the list of banned drugs can include those that violate “the spirit of sport.”

However, it was seen as significantly unfair as the drug is legalised in 18 US states, including in the state in which it was consumed by Richardson. Furthermore, Ocasio-Cortez cited the other major American sports which have removed penalties for marijuana use which include baseball, hockey, and football.

Many compared Richardson’s suspension to the incident that took place in the same week, in which the International Swimming Federation (FINA) rejected Soul Cap swimming caps, designed for natural black hair and other diverse hair types. The Federation made a statement saying the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head.”

Co-founder and chair of the Black Swimming Association Danielle Obe argued that the ban on Soul Caps confirmed a “lack of diversity” in the sport. She said: “We need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for.”

The original swimming cap was designed by the infamous Speedo 50, created to prevent Caucasian hair from intruding upon swimmers’ faces during a race. The ban sparked outrage on an international scale because, as Obe stated, “[hair] is a significant issue for our community.”

While FINA stated that “athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require […] caps of such size and configuration,” the Soul Cap company had actually partnered with the first black female swimmer, Alice Dearing, to represent Great Britain at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It makes sense then, that the Federation would speak in the past tense, because they clearly are not up-to-date with their own forward-thinking community.

The founders of Soul Cap released a statement on Instagram, saying: “For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial. FINA’s recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport.” They also included the hashtag #SwimForAll.

Also, in this same week two female Namibian sprinters were ruled ineligible to participate in the women’s 400 metre running event at the Tokyo Olympics due to naturally high testosterone levels. The sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were considered Olympic medal contenders.

The sprinters’ elevated testosterone levels were detected during medical assessments in Italy, where they are training, as required by World Athletics. The 18-year-olds’ ineligibility was ruled on account of World Athletics’ policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD). These hormone levels are entirely natural, in this case, and neither the athletes nor their families were aware of this condition. Athletes in these situations are forced by World Athletics to lower their testosterone levels with medications, to ensure “fair competition.”

It seems to make sense when you consider the controversial but strict rules governing the differences between gender and sex in both national and international sporting arenas because of concerns of inherent advantages.

However, if any drug violates “the spirit of sport,” doesn’t asking athletes to dampen their natural talents through drug use also violate “the spirit of sport?”

These are natural testosterone levels.

Are the Olympics not about finding the most natural-born athletic talents, especially considering the excuses for the strict rules and exclusions as exemplified with Richardson and Soul Caps?

Make it make sense, as the kids say.

Seeing each of these bans occur in the same week and solely upon black bodies, and specifically black women, has made many feel that the regulatory bodies are exercising their power to confirm systemic racism within sporting industries. It feels restrictive and conservative. In a practical sense, these bans are mostly impractical. In a symbolic sense, it is clear that these are judicial exercises of power aimed at promoting exclusion and restriction, and pleasing conservative parties.


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