Namibia’s three-time Olympian and chairperson of the country’s Athletes Commission, Gaby Ahrens, says the withdrawal of sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from the 400m list of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics by World Athletics should not be viewed as a racial attack on the personae of African athletes.
The now-retired trap shooter, who heads the Namibia Athletes Commission (NAC), believes that just like all other international competitions governed by rules and regulations, it is the responsibility of the coach and his or her technical team to assess rules and regulations before entering athletes for competitions.
In 2019, World Athletics passed new regulations that require female athletes’ blood testosterone levels to be under 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) in order to compete in select women’s events, including the 400m. For an athlete with elevated blood testosterone levels higher than the required 5 nmol/L, as in the case of both Masilingi and Mboma, such athletes are required to lower their testosterone levels with medication, which World Athletics says ensures fair competition.
“The withdrawal of Mboma and Masilingi from the 400m list at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is heartbreaking for us all, especially for our athletes,” stated Ahrens.
“But like in all competitions governed by rules and regulations, no amount of emotions will change the rules while the game is underway. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the coach and the athletes to familiarise themselves with and abide by the rules before entering a competition.”
Ahrens, who represented Namibia at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 editions of the Olympics in the women’s trap events, says as painful and disadvantaging as it is, she does not believe that World Athletics – which is the world’s governing body for athletics – deliberately tailored those rules and regulations to disgrace and disadvantage African athletes, or athletes of colour in general.
“I honestly do not believe that this is deliberate victimisation of African athletes. The rules do not target African athletes, the rules target athletes with high levels of testosterone which gives them an advantage over other athletes. My advice to the athletes and their supporters is to focus on the events that they are eligible to compete in and have a fair chance of winning. What our girls need most now, especially so close to the Olympics, is positive encouragement and not all this bad publicity.” Vetumbuavi Veii, Namibia’s retired veteran sports administrator and former chairman of the African Union Sport Council (AUSC) Region 5, yesterday also weighed in on the issue, saying the rules are discriminatory and mostly target African athletes.
“During my tenure as chairman of AUSC Region 5, together with my colleagues, we strongly challenged those rules. I remember when Caster Semenya faced a similar problem, we took up the matter with the leadership of the African Union (AU) and said it must be addressed as a violation of fundamental human rights,” he charged.
“But the problem we have in Africa is our national Olympic committees. They will never challenge these things because they are fully funded by the same people who make these rules, so it is difficult for them to radically challenge the rules that discriminate against African athletes. With such national Olympic committees that are dependent on donor funds, how will Africa unite on this issue?”, he querried.
He then touched on the issue of New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, who is set to become the first-ever openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics. Hubbard’s inclusion in the Olympics has generated a fierce debate on gender, sexism and sport.
“They are allowing a transgender man to compete as a woman, but they have issues with our girls. It doesn’t make sense at all. That is why I’m saying the rules are targeting Africans and all athletes of colour, because how can you allow a man to compete with a woman, but can’t allow two young girls to compete against fellow women? These things must be challenged at the highest level.”
Athletics Namibia (AN), the country’s regulatory body for athletics, and the Namibia National Olympic Committee (NNOC), on Friday issued statements where they explained that as part of World Athletics rules pertaining to “Athletes with differences of sex development”, both Masilingi and Mboma underwent medical assessments in Italy, where they have been camping ahead of their participation in this month’s Tokyo Olympics.
“The results from the testing centre indicated that both athletes have high natural testosterone levels, which means they are not eligible to participate in events from 400m to 1600m. It is important to understand that both our athletes were not aware of their condition, neither the family members, the coach and the NNOC.
The NNOC and our medical officer Dr Ben Viljoen are in close contact with Dr Stephane Bermon, the medical officer of World Athletics, regarding the way forward in the best interest of our athletes.
The two athletes will be able to compete in the 100m and 200m events. Henk Botha, their coach, is positive to continue working with the girls on those events while we are consolidating the way forward,” explained the NNOC.
Both Masilingi and Mboma are currently facing the same predicament which derailed the career of South African 800m athlete Caster Semenya, who around 2017 and 2018 also tested high for levels of natural testosterone, and was banned from
competing in her favourite discipline.
To compete in those events, she was ordered to take testosterone-reducing drugs, but she staunchly refused.
Semenya argued that taking testosterone-reducing drugs could endanger her health, and that the rules are denying her and other athletes with differences of sexual development the right to rely on their natural athletic abilities.
In 2019, the South African runner took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but CAS upheld those rules. She lost a subsequent appeal, and has since taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights.
At political level, the country’s official opposition party the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) have also come out
strongly to condemn the actions of World Athletics, saying the rules are discriminatory, bigoted and border on racism.
Both the LPM and PDM, who called on African athletes to launch a wholesale protest by withdrawing from the upcoming Olympics, furthermore urged local
sports authorities to challenge the withdrawal of the two athletes at international courts, including at CAS. The sports ministry has also condemned the withdrawal of Masilingi and Mboma from the 400m race.