Opinion | The Olympics depend on Black women, but don’t support them


Image via Wikimedia Commons, Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

American gymnast Simone Biles competes on the beam in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Staff Columnist

When officials cleared Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva to compete in the Olympics after testing positive for a banned medication, I couldn’t help but think of Sha’Carri Richardson.

I remember watching the moment that Richardson crossed the finish line, her bright orange hair trailing as she pointed to the clock. I remember her name in the headlines as the nation celebrated her time of 10.64 seconds. And I also remember the subsequent outcry when it was announced soon after that she would face a one-month suspension for testing positive for marijuana in her bloodstream.

This suspension excluded her from qualifying for the Olympics, following a pattern of Black female athletes seemingly facing a double standard in elite sports.

The news of her suspension was deeply upsetting, as Richardson was favored to win a spot on the podium. While marijuana is partially banned in the Olympics because it is said to enhance performance, there is no science to support this.

Compare this with the case of Valieva, and the double standard clearly stands out.

Samples submitted by Valieva in December tested positive for three substances — Hypoxen and L-carnitine, which are not banned, and trimetazidine, which is. Her results were not released until Feb. 8, a day after she had led the Russian Olympic Committee to a gold medal. One expert said the combination of the three substances “seem to be aimed at increasing endurance, reducing fatigue and promoting greater efficiency in using oxygen.”

The IOC has denied any double standard, saying that Richardson’s positive result was received before competing — yet Valieva had a positive result for a substance which has actually been proven to have performance-enhancing properties, unlike marijuana. In Valieva’s case, officials ruled she could compete because banning her “would cause her irreparable harm,” yet there was no real mention of harm to Richardson in the official statement on her suspension.

It seems that the IOC is doing everything it can to protect Valieva, but when it comes to Black athletes like Richardson, they’re left to fight on their own.

After the announcement that Valieva would be able to compete, Richardson tweeted, “Can we get a solid answer of her situation and mine? My mother died and I can’t run and I was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is that I’m a young black lady.” The tweet brings to mind all the other countless times that Black female Olympians have received unfair scrutiny in the games.

Brianna McNeal was suspended last summer from the Olympics for five years, after “tampering within the results management process.” The 2016 Olympic champion was suspended as a result of her missing a doping test two days after an abortion procedure.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Switzerland, upheld her five-year ban and disqualified her from participating in all events from February to August 2020. The court also declared she should give up her medals, prizes and money won during that time.

American track and field olympian Brianna Rollins-McNeal jumps over a hurdle in the 2013 World Championships in Athletics, held in Moscow.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons )

During the same time period, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi’s fast track to Olympic medals abruptly ended when they were banned from competing in the women’s 400 race at the Tokyo Games. The pair recorded four of the five international top times for the 2021 Games, but were banned because their natural testosterone levels were “too high.”

Ahead of the Tokyo Games, the International Swimming Federation banned swimming caps designed for Black hair. The caps were deemed to not follow “the natural form of the head.” Nevermind the fact that regular swim caps may deter Black athletes from participating in the sport, or that this comment excludes Black women from being seen as “natural.”

The same differences that are celebrated for other athletes are disparaged on Black women’s bodies. Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian has a disportionately long wingspan, giving him a longer stroke. He is also double-jointed.

This flexibility has been said to virtually turn his feet into flippers. These genetic abnormalities  have been praised during the Olympian’s career. Meanwhile, Black athletes like Mboma and Masilingi are disqualified from competing and have been crudely asked to prove their gender.

The IOC has even seemingly placed limits on the soaring achievements of Black female athletes. In May 2021, Simone Biles successfully executed the Yurchenko double pike — a feat no other woman had ever attempted in competition.

Despite this, the judges gave her a low score. Biles disputed claims that the low scores were to deter other athletes from the dangerous moves, and instead took it as IOC officials not wanting the field to be too far apart. If Biles continued to complete the almost impossible moves, other athletes wouldn’t stand a chance in competition.

The IOC’s power seems to have become a barrier for Black women competing.

Gwen Berry, one of the most powerful hammer throwers in the world, received backlash from the IOC when she raised her fist on the podium to stand up against racial injustice at the 2019 Pan American Games. Berry’s demonstration violated the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee prohibition on athlete demonstrations. She was then chastised by the IOC and lost roughly 75% of her sponsors.

During the Tokyo Games, the IOC enforced Rule 50.2, a ban preventing athletes from any form of protest or demonstration in Olympic venues. The IOC ensures that any athlete who followed in Berry’s footsteps and violated the rule would be left without a future.

Black women Olympians have become the face of Team USA. From Biles to Berry, Black women trump the competition. But as we gather around the TV every two or four years, we must keep in mind the seeming double standard that Black women are forced to navigate in the Olympic games.

The disparity between the treatment of Richarson and Valieva is not an isolated incident, but one that seems to follow a pattern that has been occurring for years. The IOC has shown Black women time and time again that they support the medals the athletes take home, but not always the women who win them.

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].