Recent Olympic rulings show dehumanization of Black women in sports

These recent decisions are presented as race-neutral, but those affected do not conform to narrow, white ideals

Published July 6, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Sha'carri Richardson and Florence Griffith Joyner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sha'carri Richardson and Florence Griffith Joyner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With the Tokyo Olympics just weeks away, there are mixed feelings about the long-awaited return of the postponed competition. Amid ongoing criticism of the Olympics' role in displacing locals and this year potentially spreading COVID, criticisms of the games as a racial justice issue escalated over the weekend.

Beyond the Olympics' disappointing and undeniably racist policy barring athletes from protesting or sharing vaguely political messages at the games, a recent set of rulings and decisions by athletic governing bodies have demonstrated the unfair ways that Black women athletes are being treated.

Hair cap ban 

On Friday, the International Swimming Federation banned hair caps that are used by Black women because they're suited for natural hair or braids in competition, according to HuffPo. Black women have spoken out extensively on the discrimination they face in workplaces and schools for their hairstyles. In many cases, Black children have been sent home from school or further punished for their hairstyles, while adults are denied jobs and other opportunities due to racist, anti-Black standards of professionalism.

The International Swimming Federation's refusal to allow swim caps that support natural hair is the latest example of how Black women are excluded from and punished in the workplace. The message is that Black women must conform their hair to fit the accepted swim caps available – or not compete.

Testosterone testing

Also on Friday, CNN reports that two Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were barred from competing because their natural testosterone levels were higher than the limit accepted by a World Athletics' policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD), the Namibia National Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Association (NNOC-CGA) said.

This is not the first time that Black women athletes have faced this discrimination. Olympic champion Caster Semenya has been banned from competing in any race since 2018, when World Athletics ruled that women with high natural testosterone levels are required to take medication to reduce their testosterone, to be allowed to compete. Semenya has refused to take this medication, and brought her case before the European Court of Human Rights, but it's unlikely a decision will be made before the Olympics.

CeCe Telfer, a Black transgender woman athlete from the U.S., has also been barred from competing in the Olympics. Telfer, Semenya, Mboma and Masilingi's cases all reflect the ways womanhood is policed and defined along racist, transphobic parameters that falsely define womanhood as white, cisgender womanhood. The argument of the athletic governing bodies that exclude these women from competition is that their exceptional talent would be unfair (an argument made to discourage other gymnasts to try what Simone Biles has achieved). Here, once again, we see how Black women athletes are not just discouraged, but punished and excluded for their greatness, where nearly all other athletes are encouraged and celebrated. 

Drug rules

Finally, on Friday, U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was suspended after testing positive for marijuana, reports the New York Times, a decision that's drawn some of the most media attention because Richardson was seen as a gold medal favorite. As of Tuesday, July 6, USA Track and Field left her name off of its Olympics roster, which seems to indicate that she won't compete in the relay event, in addition to missing her spot in the individual 100-meter race. Even President Biden was asked about her case this weekend, to which he expressed support for Richardson, but said that "the rules are the rules." Yet, rules aren't inherently neutral — more likely than not, rules are an extension of a status quo of racism, and are often written by people who have never faced the sort of marginalization that their rules create. 

While marijuana is widely legal, and widely used by people of all races and backgrounds today, that wasn't always the case. And while plenty of legal weed businesses are helmed by white people, prisons across the country are still filled with Black and brown drug offenders, sentenced for marijuana use. There will always be racist implications to who is and isn't punished for drug use across lines of race and class. Richardson's case is just another devastating example of this. 

It also can't be emphasized enough that there's no real reason for her suspension from running. Marijuana is in no way a performance-enhancing drug, and is legal almost everywhere. Yet, racist ideas about real or rumored drug use among Black women have long fueled their demonization and dehumanization. Richardson has often been compared to Florence Griffith Joyner, the U.S. Olympic runner from the 1980s who was frequently the subject of racist rumors alleging she used steroids, as a way to discredit her talent, and her title as the fastest woman of all time, prior to her tragic death in 1998. Neither Joyner nor Richardson have used performance-enhancing drugs, and the rumors and policing they've faced reflect the ongoing racism Black women athletes face, as a means to discredit, dismiss or punish their greatness.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of Richardson's suspension is her own story, explaining her reasons for using marijuana to cope with the loss of her biological mother – news, by the way, that she learned from a reporter during an interview. Richardson should not have had to share the deeply personal story of her loss to be seen as sympathetic, or worthy of respect, support, and recognition as a human being. The fact that she felt she had to is an indictment of a racist rulemaking system, which polices and scrutinizes Black women to the extent that they aren't even regarded as human beings.

While all of the decisions above have been presented as race-neutral on the surface, once you dig deeper and look at the indidual instances of who's being affected, it's clear that they specifically perpetuate anti-Blackness and the inherent white supremacy that belies most rulemaking. These rules punish Black women for their natural bodies, and not conforming to expectations of womanhood and femininity that center white women. They set cis white women's bodies as the standard. With the Olympics just weeks away, it will be hard to celebrate or find joy in the competition, knowing the misogynoir at the heart of its governing institutions.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Olympics Racism Sha'carri Richardson Sports