Barred from the 400 meters, Namibia’s Mboma Wins Silver in the 200
TOKYO – As Christine Mboma of Namibia moved from fifth place to a silver medal in the final stretch of the women’s Olympic 200 meters on Tuesday, she started screaming in what seemed like a mixture of effort and exhilaration .
At just 18, Mboma was second behind Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica in 21.81 seconds, the fastest time ever for a woman under 20.
She called her performance the “best race” of her young life. Yet Mboma was unable to compete in Tokyo in what may be her best event, the 400 meters, due to restrictions placed on women with a rare genetic condition that results in naturally high testosterone levels.
Her moving performance in the 200-meter reignited a complicated debate – and no doubt added to some public confusion – about who should be allowed to compete in certain women’s running events.
And while World Athletics, the world’s sports governing body, has defended its rules, critics said Tuesday’s 200-meter run raised questions about the scientific accuracy and validity of restrictions on athlete eligibility. in the women’s 400-meter-per-mile races.
Mboma and her Namibian teammate Beatrice Masilingi, who finished sixth in the 200 meters, set three of the world’s four fastest times this year at 400 meters. Last month, however, they were declared ineligible for the 400 at the Olympics by World Athletics. On Monday, Masilingi called the decision “very cruel”.
The Namibian Olympic committee said in a statement in July that Mboma and Masilingi had naturally high levels of testosterone and were unaware of it until they underwent a medical evaluation at a training camp in Italy. Both sprinters were declared ineligible for the 400 meters, under the rules for athletes with so-called sexual developmental disabilities, or DSD, the Namibian committee said.
World Athletics rules require that affected athletes who wish to compete in women’s 400-meter-per-mile running events – events that require a combination of speed and endurance – must first reduce their high testosterone levels below the normal male range.
Mboma and Masilingi qualified and entered the Olympic 200 meters, which is not governed by testosterone restrictions.
World Athletics rules do not limit athletes who simply have naturally high levels of testosterone. They govern intersex athletes with a sexual development disorder known as 46, XY DSD. These athletes have an X and Y chromosome in each cell, the typical male model; genitals which are usually neither male nor female; and testosterone in men, which doctors say suggests testicular tissue or internal testes.
Mboma’s silver medal raised a question: Does the supposedly significant physiological advantage gained by intersex athletes end at 399 meters? Or is the science that World Athletics relies on to enact their restrictions flawed and in need of reassessment or expansion to include other running events?
“This shows that this is not an evidence-based regulation,” said Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, who has long questioned the scientific basis of restrictions. “This is about World Athletics’ perception of who is strictly speaking a woman and who is not.”
Jackie Brock-Doyle, director of communications for World Athletics, defended the rules of the governing body. Ten years of evidence indicates that significant performance benefits for athletes with disorganized sexual development exist from 400 meters per mile, and not in shorter or longer events, she said.
“We think we got it right,” said Brock-Doyle.
Supporters of the restrictions have often noted that the three 800-meter medalists at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, led by gold medalist Caster Semenya of South Africa, were athletes with impaired sexual development. Not so in the women’s 200 meters in Tokyo, where Thompson-Herah, the winner in 21.53 seconds, became the first woman to win the 100 and 200 meters in back-to-back Olympics.
Tuesday’s result, said Brock-Doyle, demonstrated that “we want to be inclusive and we want to find ways for people to be competitive no matter who they are.”
Brock-Doyle said World Athletics will revise its rules “if we see significant progress in anything that no longer appears to be fair.”
World Athletics admits its restrictions, implemented in 2018, are discriminatory, but says they are “fair, necessary and proportionate” so that female athletes can participate on an equal basis in terms of strength, muscle mass and oxygen transport. capacity.
Critics have argued that it has not been precisely determined how much benefit high testosterone levels provide; that treating athletes to lower testosterone levels is unnecessary and may have side effects; and that the restrictions disproportionately affect athletes from developing countries. The World Medical Association said the restrictions were based on “weak evidence” and urged doctors not to help them enforce them.
American Gabby Thomas, bronze medalist in Tuesday’s 200-meter final, was asked about the rules and the presence of Mboma and Masilingi in the race.
“It’s hard to have an opinion on this when I don’t really know their biology,” said Thomas, who majored in neurobiology and global health at Harvard. “I don’t know how decisions are made. So I do my best to stay out of this.
Noting that she had won a medal, Thomas added, “I’m happy with that.”
Mboma declined to comment on his 400-meter ban, saying: “I just keep my head down and focus on the 200-meter. Now I have a medal. Happy.”
Reporters asked her if she could have won gold in the 400. There was a long pause and she appeared to nod. Mboma then said she believed she could have won a medal.
“I could have,” she said.
Jerome Longman reported from Philadelphia.
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