The Olympics first opened its doors to women in 1900 and, for the most part, things have been slowly but steadily improving. Originally, women could only compete in sports that were considered to be compatible with their femininity and fragility. These included tennis, figure skating, horseback riding, and other sports considered to be of the ‘leisure’ category. Thus, events such as the discus throw, high jump, or the 100-meter dash were off the table.
Women did not need their femininity protected and were equally capable of participating in more strenuous sports, so they obviously were not very fond of being excluded. After pressuring the International Olympic Committee through organizing Women Olympiads, and after many ups and downs where women were re-excluded from track and field events, the Olympics finally required all sports to include both men and women in 2007.
You know, only a hundred years or so. But who’s counting? And anyway, it’s not like there’s any inequality remaining. They surely must have fixed all their problems given that they had an entire century to do so. Right?
I don’t even know where to start. The fact is, the Olympics are still not kind to women, especially Black women. My history recap pertains mostly to the struggle of white women to enter the Olympics. The first Black woman to compete in the Olympics, Tidye Pickett Phillips, did so in 1932, 32 years after the first white woman.
American Sha’Carri Richardson captivated the hearts of many with her orange hair and long pink nails, the latter of which were picked out by her girlfriend. She also happens to be absolutely dominant on the track; running 10.86 seconds in the 100-meter dash, she currently holds the American record in that event. Yet she was absent from the Olympics 100-meter dash because of a positive drug test coming back…for marijuana.
At around the same time, Shelby Houlihan, a white American runner, was almost allowed to compete in the U.S. Track and Field trials for the 5,000 meter run after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone. She claims she ate a pig offal burrito, which led to the allegedly erroneous result. I like this answer because one would have to eat over a pound of pig offal to come close to testing positive. That’s not an obscene amount (though I do wonder how it would fit in a tortilla), but what’s even more interesting is that her lawyer told the press that she actually ate a carne asada burrito, which is steak, and last I checked, steak is not pork. Nor does it contain nandrolone.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is legal in many states, as well as Canada and Uruguay. The United States Anti-Doping Agency bans the substance because it meets all three of its criteria that make a substance ineligible; marijuana poses a health risk to athletes, enhances performance, and violates the spirit of the sport. USADA states that marijuana is considered to be performance-enhancing and mentions that this classification is due to human and animal studies but does not cite its sources beyond some basic information from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. There is a source from 2011 written by scientists that work for the World Anti-Doping Agency, a governing body that works closely with the USADA, but critics have called into question the study’s accuracy.
Other scientific studies, meanwhile, have at best inconclusive results over whether or not marijuana can enhance performance. Most studies agree that marijuana inhibits performance by lowering an athlete’s stamina and peak performance.
I’ve heard many people say that Richardson knew the rules and that she chose to break them. This is a logically sound argument, but one that ignores the fact that the existing rule doesn’t make any sense. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) shouldn’t be able to punish an athlete for non-performance-enhancing drug usage. Most athletes won’t even use marijuana before competing because they know it will worsen their performance. It seems silly to punish them for doing something that can only harm their chances, not help.
Richardson accepted responsibility for her actions and said that she used marijuana in order to cope with the death of her biological mother, news she found out from a reporter. But she shouldn’t have had to take responsibility. The rule should have never existed in the first place, being based upon flawed science and anecdotal evidence.
The IOC’s issues with track and field don’t end there. Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia were disqualified from all races between 400 meters to 1600 meters. Why? They refused to take medication in order to lower their naturally elevated levels of testosterone and are now unable to compete. World Athletics, which is the governing body that determines rules related to track and field competition, has a rule in place that women that produce more than 5 nmol/L of testosterone need to lower it through hormone medication in order to compete.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this rule should not exist. Michael Phelps can have naturally low levels of lactic acid and a freakish wingspan and be considered a miracle meant to swim, but a Black woman with a similar-level genetic advantage needs to be barred…for some reason. To give other athletes a ‘fair advantage.’ Cool. Should we just make the Olympics about average people, then? Make sure there’s no one too tall because that would be a genetic advantage, right? And definitely no one with naturally high stamina. Why don’t we watch Joe Shmoe run the 100-meter dash instead of the best in their sport? Seems much less interesting to me, but hey, you do you, World Athletics.
The IOC can say all they want about prioritizing gender equity, but the fact is, they continue to look the other way when governing bodies create rules that seek to punish Black women for excelling in sport. Actions speak louder than words, and right now, they’re not even opening their mouths.
Black women deserve equity in athletics. IOC, why don’t you pick up the microphone and explain yourself? Or better yet, actually, change these ridiculous rules. I thought you were all about being “Faster, Higher, Stronger—Together.”
What happened to “Together?”
Cameron Bonnevie can be reached at email@example.com.