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Elaine Thompson-Herah took gold, but it was Christine Mboma’s home straight that caught the eye. The 18-year-old from Namibia was sixth out of the bend and pipped American Gabi Thomas to an Olympic 200m silver medal. And it was this finish that had World Athletics president Sebastian Coe wondering if the DSD guidelines need to be reassessed.
Mboma and Namibian training partner Beatrice Masilingi (who finished sixth in the final) are classified as Difference of Sexual Development athletes. Essentially, they have a rare condition whereby they naturally produce more testosterone in their bodies than women without the condition.
As such, World Athletics brought in a ruling in 2018, stating DSD athletes must reduce their blood testosterone period to a level below five nanomoles per litre for at least six months by use of hormonal contraceptives. If not, they are prohibited from taking part in events between 400m and a mile in distance.
Mboma and Masilingi were training for the 400m before being told they would be unable to participate last month, which is why they entered the 200m. But the manner of Mboma’s late dash gives Coe the feeling that the advantages of their testosterone levels were almost as clear in the sprints.
“It was pretty observable that the last 30 or 40 metres were impactful,” said Coe on Wednesday. “But, actually, I think that vindicated the decision about 400. If you are finishing a 200m like that, you extend the runway … That in a way supports the judgement that was made.”
It is barely 24 hours since Mboma’s silver was hailed as not just a success for Namibia but for her outright given the cloud she is racing under, which is not of her volition. She has done everything that was asked of her.
Success, though, was always going to darken that cloud. It was telling, too, that Coe felt Mboma continuing on this upward trajectory could cause greater problems. Despite not specialising in 200m until a few weeks ago, she has set and reset the 200m Under-20 record in Tokyo.
Could she break the 200m record set by Florence Griffith Joyner, which has stood since 1988? “I think it’s possible,” answered Coe. Would that make this situation a bigger issue? “Probably”.
Of course, figures of what is acceptable and what distances are prohibited were not plucked out of thin air. But to the broader public, the arbitrary sense of what races can be run, and where and when they can run them, purveys. It is no different among athletes out here in Tokyo.
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“It is tough,” said Thomas when asked about the athlete that bumped her down to bronze. “It is hard to have an opinion on that when I don’t know their biology or how decisions are being made, so I do my best to stay out of it.”
Coe, a former British double Olympic champion, reiterated the track governing body’s stance. And he also ceded that, even with all the research, blindspots are still being discovered.
“The reason we went from 400 to 800, 1500 and a mile was that these were the distances our health and science team – we did 10 to 12 years of longitudinal study – advised scientifically, biomechanically, physiologically were the ones that were most impacted.
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“We’ve never said that there may not be advantages at lower levels elsewhere. But that was what we settled on. We wanted to be focused about it.
“You’re never going to satisfy everybody. But what I did want to do was find a navigable route through, which was testosterone control. Some athletes have decided to follow that regime. Other athletes have decided to go distances either side. I still think it’s the right decision.”
“None of these are optimal judgements,” he added. “Was it right to do what we did at the distances? Yes, and I think the 800m yesterday was a very good example of that. This is just continually monitoring.”
Part of that continual monitoring is likely to end in bad news for the Namibian pair, and other DSD athletes who have been adhering to a standard that looks set to change for the second time in two years.
Open classification – essentially, the men’s competition – is speculative talk that may be ramped up. Coe, though, will leave that to his successors. “At the moment we don’t and I think that’s the right approach.”
The subject will never not be contentious. The profile of the Caster Semenya case opened up the conversation even if it has subsequently closed some of her avenues. Mboma and Masilingi – more so Mboma with that silver around her – are going to be the latest case studies and collateral.
Perhaps this is where there needs to be more duty of care. Both teenagers spoke maturely about their situation, the dismay of having a special moment co-opted by a controversy that might make it their last. And, like it or not, Coe’s words – and any subsequent alteration to the rules – will affect them more than others.
“I don't think duty of care and making the right judgement for the sport are mutually exclusive,” said Coe when their general wellbeing was raised.
“We’ve taken very seriously in the last few years the need for confidentiality. It’s a complicated landscape and there is always a risk of stigma. And I think we’ve done that pretty respectfully and we’ll just have to monitor it.”
“My responsibility, as uncomfortable as it is, is always to do whatever I can to maintain the integrity of competition and that level playing field. Where we are sitting at the moment, we are not making any hard and fast judgements. But that may come in the fullness of time.”
When that time comes, we may still not have a better gauge of the rights and wrongs of this matter. But we will know of some who will be wronged, rightly or not.
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