A Gold Medal in Misogynoir

Statue of the Olympic rights against a sunset.

The Olympic Games have not yet begun and Black women athletes are already in a losing position in the face of prejudice. These athletes, some of the world’s most prolific and promising, are experiencing a myriad of abuses rooted in misogynoir. Coined by scholar Moya Bailey, “misogynoir” describes the specific hatred of and prejudice toward Black women. It is 2021 and that hatred lives on, as evidenced by the many events preceding this year’s Olympic Games.

The troubling trend of misogynoir in this year’s Olympic Games spans social media, news coverage, and even official rulings. This misogynoir was made crystal clear the week of July 5th—within the course of a few days, several major shakeups occurred concerning the upcoming Games. In short:

  • United States sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from competing after testing positive for marijuana;
  • Runners Caster Semenya (South Africa), Beatrice Masilingi (Namibia), Christine Mboma (Namibia), and others were banned from competing for naturally having “too much” testosterone;
  • United States hurdler Brianna McNeal received a five year ban from the Court of Arbitration of Sport/Athletics Integrity Unit after a series of events beginning with her abortion recovery;
  • and FINA (the international federation for water sports) banned the use of swim caps designed specifically for Afro textured hair.

Rules are not value-neutral and neither are their enforcement. The rules “broken” by Richardson, Semenya, Masilingi, Mboma, and McNeal are not devoid of discrimination and neither is FINA’s new rule concerning larger swim caps. These rules have dismissed many Black women athletes from competition, or (in the case of the swim caps) created needless obstacles for competition. The question must be asked: what values are these rules reinforcing or condoning?

The one month suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson reinforces an anti-Black history of marijuana prohibition in the United States. In the 1930s, people lobbying against marijuana spread racist and xenophobic lies about the drug. One such claim was that Black people forget their place and become violent under the drug’s influence. There remains a strong stigma concerning Black people and drug usage.

After the news of Richardson’s suspension broke, the misogynoir was particularly strong when Australian journalist Claire Lehmann suggested that Richardson must also be using performance enhancing drugs because of her long nails and hair. There was no kindness in Lehmann’s response to Richardson’s suspension. There was no grace or understanding that Richardson made one bad choice in the midst of grief after learning that her birth mother had died from a reporter. Lehmann immediately jumped to suspicion and pathologized Richardson’s aesthetic. In doing so, Lehmann loudly associated aesthetics of Black femininity to proof of dishonesty.

The banning of Caster Semenya, Beatrice Masilingi, and Christine Mboma reinforce a white-supremacist understanding of “womanhood” designed to specifically exclude Blackness. The World Athletics Organization claims that the testosterone limit for women athletes keeps the competition fair. But how is it fair to punish athletes for what is natural to their bodies? Compare this ruling to the response to United States swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps’ physique put him at a natural advantage over other swimmers. Phelps was not banned or told to undergo surgery to diminish that advantage. He was celebrated for the physiology that enabled him to dominate the sport. Unlike Phelps, Semenya, Masilingi, and Mboma are banned from competition until they “correct” their testosterone levels with medication.

The five-year ban of Brianna McNeal condones the policing of Black women’s emotional responses by white men. McNeal missed a doping test during her recovery from an abortion. The Athletics Integrity Unit specifically charged McNeal with tampering after she edited a date on her doctor’s form. She explained that she was disoriented in abortion recovery and thought the doctor had mistaken the date. In a statement on Instagram, McNeal described her experience with the disciplinary board as one of interrogation and stigmatization where she was criticized, judged, and never offered sympathy. She wrote of the two disciplinary hearings, “[I] listened to white European men tell me how my experience doesn’t match with their perspective.” What is it about the white male perspective that should dictate the correct behavior from a (Black) woman in healing?

Lastly, FINA’s ban of larger swim caps excludes Black women from participation. The swim caps in question, Soul Caps, are designed to cover Afro-textured hair which is more voluminous than straight hair in its natural state. FINA justified their decision, saying that to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.” In this statement, FINA suggests the athletes who require a Soul Cap (mainly Black women) are not competing at the international level. They are both ignorant to the needs of Black swimmers and ignoring the swimmers currently competing internationally. Soul Cap has even partnered with one such swimmer, Alice Dearing. FINA is enforcing an environment where Black swimmers are second-class.  

The events detailed above are just four of the more recent instances of misogynoir in sports. With the Olympic Games beginning July 23rd, there are certain to be more. The competition is supposed to be a unifying event, but until Black women athletes are protected and respected, the Olympic Games is not acting as a unifying force. The Games are instead acting as a tool of misogynoir, in which they (unfortunately) have earned a gold medal.

Take Action! Watch the Olympic Games with a critical eye, be mindful of the misogynoir perpetuated through coverage and official rulings.