In my previous article, Marijuana and PEDs: Untangling the Perplexing Connection 2021, I advocated for a change to the policy on marijuana prohibition created by The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the IOC-affiliated committee in charge of regulating PEDs among Olympic athletes. And though I disagree with their policy, there is some semblance of coherency rooted in the idea that looking out for fairness is a good thing overall.
However, with their recent decision to punish Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, two Namibian track and field stars destined for Olympic greatness, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gone too far in their twisted reasoning regarding fair play. Both Mbomba and Masling, to their dismay, were told that their mandatory blood test they took revealed they had too high a level of testosterone, a hormone associated with performance, thus landing it on the list of banned Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).
Testosterone and Performance
There’s just one problem. The testosterone levels of Mbomba and Masling are completely natural, courtesy of their genetics. Their punishment? They are being asked to take medication to reduce their testosterone levels in an effort to level the playing field, or face restrictions regarding the kinds of events they will be allowed to participate in the upcoming Summer Olympics.
The IOC offered the following justification for their decision: “According to the rules of World Athletics, this means that they are not eligible to participate in events from 400m to 1600m,” according to the committee. “It is important to understand that both our athletes were not aware of this condition neither did any family member, their coach or the NNOC-CGA [Namibia Olympic Committee] were aware of it. … Both Christine and Beatrice will be able to compete in the 100m and 200m events.”
Shocked and dismayed, Masilingi pushed back, stating, “I would ruin the way my body develops because that’ll be something that rearranges everything – how my body functions and everything, I wouldn’t want to involve any other things because this is the way my body functions in its normal way. And if I try something else, I might get caught somewhere else, and something might go wrong with my body.”
With this decision, the IOC has fallen headlong into the proverbial rabbit hole of Alice and Wonderland. Strike that. This decision, and the twisted reasoning behind, belong firmly in the realm of the short story, Harrison Bergeron, by the satirist and social commentator Kurt Vonnegut.
In this dystopian science-fiction piece set in 2081 (we’re apparently ahead of the game), society is controlled by The Handicapper General’s Agency (run by H-G men), an organization that ensures everyone is “equal” through the creation and harsh enforcement of handicaps. If you’re too beautiful, you wear an ugly mask. If you’re gifted with excellent eyesight, your vision will be diminished through mandatory eyeglasses that severely reduce your vision. If you have acute hearing, you’ll be saddled with a set of headphones that blast dissonant sounds at an unbearable volume, thus making you functionally deaf.
Then, there’s the extreme case of Harrison Bergeron, the protagonist of the story, a 14-year old boy who is afflicted with a set of incredible skills and talents, putting him head and shoulder above most other people. His punishment? Well, here is an excerpt that says it all:
The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H–G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
And to offset his good looks, the H–G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle–tooth random.
Unfortunately, Mbomba and Masling are not an isolated incident in this increasingly Vonnegut landscape. The IOC capped testosterone levels for women’s events over 400 meters but below 1600 meters in 2019, a rule that limited the careers of South African runner Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, and Margaret Wambui of Kenya. All three, who were medalists in the 800-meter race at the 2016 Olympic games, have refused to take drugs to lower their testosterone levels, thus avoiding the HG/IOC literal prescription, but as a result, are barred from reaching their full potential as gifted athletes.
Oddly, perhaps ironically, the IOC is supposedly a bastion of inclusivity. Here is a statement from Fundamental Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
And here is an excerpt from the IOCs resolution opposing racism:
This is in the DNA of the Olympic Games and the IOC as an organisation. Our founder Pierre de Coubertin said: “We shall not have peace until the prejudices that now separate the different races are outlived. To attain this end, what better means is there than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”
Apparently, the IOC needs to re-read their own resolution. Activist and journalist Ruby Hamad had this to say about Semenya’s treatment by the IOC: “The efforts to bar Semenya also demonstrates how easy it is to undermine women, in particular racialized women, by shifting the goalposts and requirements for entry into womanhood.”
Beyond the allegations of racism and sexism is the sheer irrationality of the logic employed by the IOC. Dr Richard Holt, professor in diabetes and endocrinology at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Southampton, points out that, “There are a number of genetic polymorphisms – slight changes in the genes – that will actually determine whether somebody has that innate ability to be able to compete at the elite level.”
Holt’s statement gets at the fact that there is simply a lack of conclusive scientific evidence around testosterone and athletic performance. In the article The complicated truth about testosterone’s effect on athletic performance, the author Sara Chodosh writes:
One study of professional male triathletes found no relationship between testosterone levels and performance. Another, looking at professional cyclists, found the same lack of correlation. Yet another, comparing cyclists, weightlifters, and controls to each other on a cycling test, found a negative correlation between testosterone levels and performance. A study of teenage weightlifters found no relationship between boys’ testosterone levels and their performance, and a negative correlation among the girls—meaning they performed better when their testosterone was lower.
In other words, testosterone is not the ultimate predictor of competitive success, and people should not be punished for their God-given talents, because it is an absurd notion to think this way. As Vonnegut warned us in his novel Breakfast of Champions, there is “ no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.”
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