Ms. Geek Speaks: Black Women and the Olympics

There’s a theme going around. I’ve read articles and saw this meme.

Let’s start with the easiest one: Sha’Carri Richardson. I don’t follow track, but when I initially saw a photo of Sha’Carri Richardson, I thought she seems cool–someone to bring glamor back to track because although I don’t like long nails, I did like Flo Jo’s style. But Richardson failed a drug test. She’s not the first one to fail a drug test and one of those people who was penalized for use of marijuana was Michael Phelps although not for the Olympics.

There was some confusion about this as expressed in this meme:

According to a USA Today article:

Phelps did use marijuana in 2008, months after that year’s Olympics. But his situation and Richardson’s can’t be compared because the timeline of when both athletes used the drug are vastly different.

During 2008, marijuana was NOT prohibited during the out-of-competition time, the USA Today article explains, citing the New York Times. However, Phelps did receive repercussions.

The athlete was suspended for three months from competition by USA Swimming, which also withdrew its financial support for Phelps through May 2009.

The sanctions only kept Phelps from competing until mid-2009. He competed in the 2012 London Olympics and didn’t face any drug-related suspensions.

Richardson got a one-month suspension compared to Phelps three-month suspension.

Moving on to Caster Semenya of South Africa, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who, like Namibian athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, is affected by an IAAF rule change, we have to look back into history to see if it really is about them being Black. For the 30-year-old Semenya, this might mean she won’t make another Olympics. There’s still time for the two 18-year-old Namibian athletes.

The issue of hyperandrogenism had already been raised in the case of Dutee Chand of India. Chand is Asian and if you consider her a Black woman, then you’ll probably want to reconsider the notion that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has no Black members. Chand appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), represented by a Canadian law firm in 2015. There is some speculation that the new rule change targeted Semenya, but have also been applied to the Namibian athletes. The rule changes is part of a process started in the 1950s: sex verification testing. This was not a reaction to Black athletes, but to high performing women athletes from the Soviet Union.

There had been problems earlier. High-jumper Dora Ratjen competed as a woman, but was later identified as a man although later information suggests Dora who became Heinrich had ambiguous genitalia.

In the 1980s, Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez Patiño was disqualified because her chromosome test results were abnormal. In 2006, Asian Indian Santhi Soundarajan lost her 2006 Asian Games silver medal when she failed her sex verification test.

The testing began because after suspicions about German female athletes arose, other concerns were raised by Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc female athletes. We do know that East German athletes were part of a “state-sponsored doping program.”

While the previous athletes will not be making the Olympics, Simone Biles will. She is not being penalized for her performances; she isn’t being rewarded for the difficulty of some of her movies.

Biles does have a therapeutic use exemption for her ADHD medications. A study does show that “the use of ADHD medication can help athletes in their performance.”

Studies show that some amphetamines can mask the fatigue felt during intense exercise. Fatigue is still experienced however, but the intensity of it is reduced. This allows for the athlete to perform at a higher level for an extended period of time with less resting time.

Simone Biles performs a Yurchenko double pike on vault.

The Yurchenko should never be mentioned without the thought of Julissa Gomez, particularly if you pair it with the destination of Tokyo. The Texas-born Gomez was competing in Tokyo for the World Sports Fair in May 1988, several months before the Olympics. During a practice run for her Yurchenko vault, she slipped and hit the vaulting horse headfirst. She was paralyzed from the neck down, but an accident during her hospitalization resulted in her falling into a coma. She died three years later in 1991. She was 18.

Gomez was 15 at the time of her accident.

In 1980, Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina was 20 when she broke her neck attempting to perform the Thomas salto. The Thomas salta was eventually banned, first for women and then for men. Competing for Puerto Rico at the 1989 world championships, Adriana Duffy broke her neck on the vault and has been paralyzed from the waist down since.

Other catastrophic injuries are hard to ignore because people like Tim Daggett providing sports commentary. Daggett snapped his tibia and fibula at the 1987 world championships when he landed his vault. That’s a photo you can’t unsee. More recently 22-year-old Samantha Cerio broke both legs in 2019 at the NCAA Regionals in Baltimore. These two were adults, but for a while women’s gymnastics was dominated by teen-aged girls.

After being taken to task for not protecting young female gymnasts (USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal), the conservative approach of judges also protects young gymnasts. By not giving higher points for difficulty, young gymnasts will not be pressured to perform dangerous moves.

The moves named after Biles may not continue to be allowed in competition. That is not necessarily because Biles is Black. Kurt Thomas who first performed the Thomas salto is not Black. The Korbut (standing on t he high bar and going to a layout backflip to regrasp the high bar) is named for Olga Korbut. The Mukhina (standing on the high bar, moving to a layout backflip with a full twist to regrasp the high bar) like the Korbut has been banned since 1985.

The Women’s Technical Committee did comment on Biles’ balance beam dismount, writing:

In assigning values to the new elements, the WTC takes into consideration many different aspects; the risk, the safety of the gymnasts and the technical direction of the discipline. There is added risk in landing of double saltos for beam dismounts (with/without twists), including a potential landing on the neck.

Reinforcing, there are many examples in the Code where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.

Moving on to the swim caps for Black hair, there’s been some debate online whether this is in the best interest of the competitors. Even if it is in the best interest of the swimmers, swimwear might be banned. Consider Speedo’s LZR Racer. This swimsuit was made to reduce the drag of skin.

Other recommendation for reducing drag include shaving all hair, wearing a dome cap and double-capping. Looking at the Soul Cap, I have to wonder about increased passive drag because passive drag is an issue for competitive swimmers. The Soul Cap uses the slogan, “Big Hair Deserves Big Care,” which seems contrary to the practice in swimming is to cut down on hair. The quote on caps (“The shape shall follow the natural form of the head.”) is taken from the FINA full regulation (FINA Requirements for Swimwear Approval” in effect from January 2017). The quote is not a direct reaction to the Soul Cap as some article had made it seem.


Since the testosterone issue was raised I was trying to remember the name of the Japanese athlete who tested positive for testosterone, but was eventually found to have an unusual constitution. His name is Eiji Shimomura. The actual test was for anabolic steroids, but the Japanese Olympic Committee retested him and found that Shimomura had a naturally high level of testosterone. Subsequent testing for steroids were changed to prevent this false positive.

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