Selective Standards: Are African Athletics Under Siege?
Updated: May 5, 2019
Are African Athletes being unfairly targeted by recent decisions of courts, the IAAF, marathon organizers, and even self-inflicted issues? It’s hard to tell, but recent events suggests we carefully weigh the evidence. - Idy Uyoe
There were TWO (2) transgender athletes at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, though their names, sport or countries were not revealed. But why not let us know who they were? Why conceal it, especially if the essence of competition is fair play and equity, or does that not matter in certain instances? This assumes a greater significance in light of recent arbitration rulings which more or less seemed focused on one particular athlete.
On Wednesday, May 1, 2019, the Court of Arbitration of Sport, CAS, upheld a regulation by the International Association of Athletics Federations, that female athletes with differences in sex development, DSD, must take medication to reduce testosterone levels to acceptable standards within six (6) months of competition. Many believe this ruling directly targets Caster Semenya, a South African who has owned the 800 meters for the better part of a decade, and has posted world class times in the 1,500 meters. The IAAF accepted the ruling for the 800 meters, but ignored the CAS recommendation for a stay of action for the 1,500.
And here’s where some see a problem.
By accepting the CAS ruling for banning runners from the 800 meters, yet rejecting the CAS recommendation of maintaining status quo the 1,500 pending further review of data, it becomes increasingly hard to reconcile the selective standards of applications of the CAS rulings and recommendations. There are some that feel the IAAF should allow a measure of deference for the 1,500 meters pending concrete evidence to support its position.
It is also worth noting that another African, Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba, who won Silver behind Semenya at the Rio Olympics, revealed recently she also has the same condition as Semenya.
So the bigger question here is this: Is it worth compromising your genetic identity and authenticity, for the purpose of winning an athletic event or medal? I believe we're far closer to the beginning of an ethical discussion, than we are to a satisfactory resolution of an issue far bigger than sport.
When viewed from the prism of the fan, it’s easy to see where African Athletics as a whole, is facing challenges in terms of maintaining its brand equity, whose value has traditionally been in the distance races. Again, it is hard to ignore the evidence.
In March, the IAAF council ratified the decision to drop the 5,000 meters from the Diamond League circuit, having earlier removed the 10,000 meter. This seemed like a direct “shot’ at the dominant East African runners who consistently sweep these distances, with relative “ease.” What’s even more surprising is the announcement that the longest Diamond League race will now be 3,000 meters, a distance that is not even contested at the World Championships, and historically, has not been on the Olympic Program since the 1924 games in Paris. And now this is suppose to be the new “long distance” standard, because someone said “boo?” I realize event organizers are going for a smaller foot print for their Diamond League competitions, but there is a significant portion of the Athletics fan base that believes this measure was taken, in part, to attenuate the dominance of Africans in the longer distance races. I don't know for sure, but it has that feel to it.
CALLING OUT RACISM
Then just last week, the organizers of the Trieste half marathon in Italy, tried to ban African runners from participating under the thinly veiled guise of protecting African athletes from exploitation. According to race organizer, Fabio Carini, “This year we have decided only to take European athletes to make the point that measures must be taken to regulate what is currently a trade in high-value African athletes.” Oh, really? Then why were Canadians, Americans and South Americans runners allowed to register for the race if this were true? Of course they reversed this stand after public shaming and being eviscerated across social media. But of equal note and consequence, is what was NOT said. Is it possible that event partners would have maintained their respective sponsorships, had the backlash not been swift and severe? I have yet to see a brand disassociate from this event, nor issue a public condemnation of this blatant display of racism towards African marathoners.
And finally, there is the self-inflicted issues from our Athletics family. We have seen recent reports of two African legends of unequaled stature, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Mo Farrah (yes, I consider Mo Farrah to be African, and I am proud to call him my Brother), are engaged in a bitter public dispute amidst accusations and counter accusations of theft, a situation that should have been handled quietly and privately. These are two great champions that set the standard for a generation, and it was disappointing to watch media outlets extend the news cycle of this story far longer than necessary. I hope the two camps can move to a neutral corner and sort this out amicably, away from public view.
But despite all of these challenges, I personally believe better days are ahead for African athletics. Athletes from the continent remain an important facet of the success of the Olympic Games, anchoring the entire second week of the Olympic program, usually closing the Games with a win in the marathon. As we look towards the future, sponsors and marketing partners will continue investing in the growth of Athletics, a sport made better by the performance, grace and sportsmanship of its African Athletes, its African Champions.
- Idy Uyoe (Follow me on Twitter @idysports and subscribe to our YouTube Channel, Idysports)
The opinions expressed are my own and I regret any errors in the text above, and accept full responsibility for any inaccuracies.