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Tokyo controversies: It’s 2021, why can’t the Olympics get it right?


by Sarah Finnan
23rd Jul 2021

Tokyo 2020 / Instagram

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From banning female runners for their natural testosterone levels to separating breastfeeding athletes from their children, the 2020 Olympics have barely begun and it's already marred in controversy

Already of great interest given the year-long build-up to the previously postponed event, the competition has been clouded in much controversy and it seems to me (and many others) that organisers just can’t get it right this year. From the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) decision to ban “afro” caps to Sha’Carri Richardson’s removal from Team USA, there has been plenty of negative coverage to speak of so far… and most of the Games haven’t even begun yet. 

Expected to attract millions of viewers across the competition’s two-week-long run, some fans have decided to boycott watching the Games in light of recent controversies, but despite small ripples disrupting the Tokyo 2020 media circus, said controversies have had little other impact on this year’s proceedings and competition is expected to go ahead as planned from today. 

Fastest woman no more 

Dubbed one of the ones to watch at this year’s event, fans all around the world were already looking forward to track champion Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic debut… but that was short-lived as the athlete was banned from competing at Tokyo 2020. Why? For testing positive for marijuana – despite it being legal in the state of Oregan where she was for the Olympic trials at the time. 

Addressing the uproar surrounding the positive test, Richardson tweeted to say “I am human”, later admitting that she had used it as a coping mechanism in light of her mother’s recent death. “I was definitely triggered and blinded by emotions, blinded by badness, and hurting, and hiding hurt,” she told NBC at the time. “I know I can’t hide myself, so in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.” Informed that her biological mother had passed away by a reporter, Richardson said that that combined with the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics had taken its toll on her and she was simply trying to make it through what was a very trying time for her personally. 

However, while international regulators relaxed the threshold for a positive marijuana test from 15 to 150 nanograms per milliliter in an effort to ensure that only in-competition use is detected, the US Track and Field (USATF) took no prisoners with their decision. Describing the situation as “incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved”, it was later revealed that Sha’Carri would not be competing over in Tokyo in light of the positive test. There have been widespread debates over whether marijuana should be considered a performance-enhancing drug over the years, but it’s clear that very little movement has been made on the matter if such discussions are still happening. 

Not only was Sha’Carri Richardson banned from competing, but two Namibian athletes – Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi – were also ruled ineligible to compete in the 400 metre run due to naturally high levels of testosterone in their blood. Both relatively unknown before their breakout performances this year, Mboma recorded the seventh-fastest time ever recorded for a woman in the 400 metre run at her race in Poland earlier this year, while Massilingi’s time of 49.53 seconds was the third-fastest time of 2021. Spurring World Athletics to conduct “medical assessments” of the two athletes, results indicated that they both had high natural levels of testosterone in their bodies… something neither athlete was aware of prior to this. 

According to the global governing body’s requirements, female athletes’ blood testosterone levels be under 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per liter) to compete in select women’s events (including the 400 metres). Deemed ineligible to compete, this is a stark contrast to the global reaction to US swimmer Michael Phelps’ genetic differences which were lauded by fans around the world. 

Widely considered to be one of the greatest swimmers to ever live, Phelps produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete meaning that his fatigue levels are therefore half those of his competitors. Not only that, but he also has a disproportionately vast wingspan and double-jointed ankles. Instead of these naturally occurring genetic features impeding him though, they were celebrated. “He was born to swim”, they said. “Isn’t he great?”, others noted. Why then was the same thinking not applied to Mboma and Massilingi? The obvious answer being because they’re not cisgender white males. 

Ban on Afro swimming caps 

Of course, you could also say that there are racist underlings at play in the decision to ban Mboma and Massilingi too which brings us to the whole issue of the Olympic ban on Afro swimming caps. Yes, you really did read that correctly. In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has never been more at the fore, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) really decided that they couldn’t possibly allow Soul Cap – a brand of swimming cap specifically designed to fit over natural hair – to be used at the Olympics. According to them, the caps didn’t fit “the natural form of the head” and to their best knowledge, the athletes competing at international events had never used or required “caps of such size and configuration”. 

Speaking to The Guardian following the ruling, Danielle Obe, founding member of the Black Swimming Association, said that it did nothing but underline the inherent systemic and institutional inequalities around the sport. “We believe that it confirms a lack of diversity in [the sport],” she said. “Aquatic swimming must do better.”

The original swimming cap, designed by Speedo 50, was created with Caucasian competitors in mind, designed to prevent hair from flowing into the face when swimming. But, the caps weren’t suitable for afro hair, which “grows up and defies gravity” according to Obe. “Inclusivity is realising that no one head shape is ‘normal’”, she added. 

“If the [official swimming bodies] are talking about representation, they need to speak to the communities to find out what the barriers are that are preventing us from engaging. Hair is a significant issue for our community,” Obe continued with FINA’s decision only drawing further attention to this. 

Not family-friendly 

You might think that the Games are family-friendly but such is not the case for athletes, as highlighted by Spanish synchronised swimmer Ona Carbonella – a breastfeeding mother – who said that she is disappointed and disillusioned that she cannot bring her nursing infant with her to Tokyo. 

Due to compete in her third Olympic Games, the athlete admitted that she ultimately felt she was forced to choose between her family and her sporting goals. Taking to Instagram to express her frustration at the situation, Carbonella shared a video of herself breastfeeding her son, in which she can be heard saying, “A few weeks ago, some female athletes started posting about this on social media. The subject was to choose between family and breastfeeding or to participate in the Olympic Games. We were told this was not compatible.” 

Detailing how the “extremely drastic measures” that the Olympic committee had imposed made it impossible for her to bring her son with her, the Spaniard continued to say that the only resolution would be to wait for the end of the pandemic so that “the reconciliation of motherhood and elite sport is no longer something extraordinary and practically impossible to carry out”. 

Not the only one forced to choose between competing and being with their family, more recently, it emerged that paralympian Becca Meyers was forced to withdraw from competition after her requests to bring her carer along with her were denied. Already having won multiple gold medals when competing in Rio, the swimmer – who is deaf and blind – was refused permission for her mother to accompany her to Japan with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) reportedly claiming that Meyers didn’t need a trusted PCA and that one person could fulfill the role for the whole team. 

Making the very difficult decision to pull out of competing, Meyers took to Twitter to say that she is “heartbroken” to have to forgo this year’s Games. 

“I’ve had to make the gut-wrenching decision to withdraw from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. I’m angry, I’m disappointed, but most of all, I’m sad to not be representing my country. 

“The USOPC has denied a reasonable and essential accommodation for me, as a deaf-blind athlete, to be able to compete in Tokyo, telling me repeatedly that I do not need a Personal Care Assistant (PCA) “who I trust” because there will be a single PCA on the staff that is available to assist me and 33 other Paralympic swimmers, nine of whom are also visually impaired.”

Going on to state that USOPC has approved her having her mother with her at all previous international meets since 2017, the athlete said that while she understands circumstances have changed due to Covid, having a trusted PCA is “essential” for her to compete. 

“So, in 2021, why as a disabled person am I still fighting for my rights? I’m speaking up for future generations of Paralympic athletes in hope that they never have to experience the pain I’ve been through. Enough is enough,” she finished. 

While the excitement of the Games is definitely a welcome distraction from the turmoil of the past year, there are plenty of contentious topics that still need addressing so it’s important not to gloss over the important stuff and glamourise the event. That’s not to take away from competing athlete’s hard work, but merely to point out that much work is still needed to ensure it’s a welcoming environment for competitors of all backgrounds.

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