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Explained: Will Namibian runner Mboma’s silver medal in 200m at Tokyo force a rule change?

Namibia's Christine Mboma had switched from the 400 m to the 200 m just before the Olympics because regulations put a cap on testosterone levels in women athletes. Her silver medal-winning performance may raise questions about the science behind the rules.

Written by Nihal Koshie , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 14, 2021 3:13:59 pm
Silver medalist Christine Mboma of Namibia celebrates at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Reuters Photo: Phil Noble)

Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah scorched the track to win gold in the women’s 200 m to make it a double, following victory in the 100m. The athlete who finished second also made news.

Namibia’s Christine Mboma had switched from the 400 m to the 200 m just before the Olympics because regulations put a cap on testosterone levels in women athletes if they want to compete in certain events at the international level. Mboma’s silver medal-winning performance may raise questions about the science behind the rules.

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How good was Mboma on the track?

The 18-year-old has been extremely fast in the 400 m. In April she broke the U-20 world record — recording a new mark at 49.22 seconds — and set the seventh fastest time in the one-lap race. On Tuesday, she proved to be a force to reckon with in the 200 m too, as she broke the U-20 record in the final when she clocked 21.81 seconds. Mboma was trailing in fifth place with 50 m to go yet she glided past the experienced and decorated Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryse and the USA’s Gabrielle Tomas, who was the second fastest woman ever coming into the 200 m final.

The Namibian’s timing was also the 20th best-ever. The significance of someone who was banned from running a particular race (400m) because of high but naturally occurring testosterone levels, but still managed to win a medal in another event after a last-minute switch would not be lost on anyone, including World Athletics.

Christine Mboma of Namibia crosses the finish line to win the the silver medal next to Gabrielle Thomas of the United States who won bronze. (Reuters Photo: Aleksandra Szmigiel)

What regulations resulted in Mboma being disallowed from running the 200 m?

In 2019, World Athletics introduced what is called ‘Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development – DSD).’

These regulations required women athletes to have testosterone levels below five nanomoles per litre if they wanted to participate in events between the 400 m and a mile in international competition. Mboma was told by the national Olympic committee that she would not be able to compete in the 400 m in the first week of July.

Who do DSD regulations apply to?

According to World Athletics, DSD regulations are for those who are legally female (or intersex) but have male chromosomes (XY) and not female chromosomes (XX). They have testes and not ovaries and their circulating testosterone is in the male range (7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L) which is much more than the female range (0.06 to 1.68 nmol/L). This is what the world body goes by.

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Why do the rules only apply to events between 400 m and a mile?

When the regulations came out, critics said it was being used to target two-time Olympic champion in the 800 m Caster Semenya of South Africa. World Athletics have said that testosterone levels which are in the male range give an advantage in all events in the women’s category. Yet, they disallowed DSD athletes from competing internationally only in events between 400m and a mile, claiming science determined that these events are where the greatest advantage lies.

Will Mboma’s win result in an expansion of the restricted events list?

Mboma winning silver is bound to generate debate.

Former 200 m sprinter-turned coach, Marcon Urbas is one of the first to react. He was quoted by Spanish sports daily Marca as saying: “I would like to request a thorough test on Mboma to find out if she definitely is a woman. The testosterone advantage of Mboma over other participants is seen with the naked eye. She has the parameters of an 18-year-old boy, at that age my (personal best) was 22.01…”

World Athletics had left this window of possibility open to add more events to the restricted list. In 2019, when the regulations came into force, World Athletics had stated: “The revised regulations expressly confirm that the IAAF Health & Science Department will keep this under review. If future evidence or new scientific knowledge indicates that there is a good justification to expand or narrow the numbers of events affected by the regulations, it will propose such revisions to the IAAF Council.”

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