Along with all the buzz and excitement around the Olympics, come the controversies, too, as athletes vie for chances to reach the pinnacle of a sport. Here are a few athletes who found themselves in the middle of a controversy in the runup to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
When New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard created history by becoming the first openly transgender athlete to qualify for the Olympics, the news was met by equal parts of excitement and controversy. People batting for more inclusion at the Games – and in sport in general – savoured this significant moment. The New Zealand Olympic officials who made the call on “a highly sensitive and complex issue” said she met the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) criteria to compete as a woman and had earned her right to respect and inclusion.
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However, the decision has its share of critics, including among former and current athletes, who say the 43-year-old Hubbard has an unfair advantage. They point to the biological advantages that those who have undergone puberty as males experience, especially in a power sport such as weightlifting. “For athletes, the whole thing feels like a bad joke,” said Belgian weightlifter and rival Anna Van Bellinghen. “Anyone that has trained weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones: this particular situation is unfair to the sport and the athletes.”
Hubbard will compete in the women’s 87kg weightlifting category. Although she is ranked 16th in the category, she has a reasonable chance at a medal due to the International Weightlifting Federation’s rule that allows only one lifter per category from each country. Hubbard, who suffered a career-threatening injury in 2018, won a silver at the 2017 world championships and gold at the 2019 Pacific Games.
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American track sensation Sha’Carri Richardson was supposed to be one of the hottest medal prospects in Tokyo. She has been compared to track legend and 1988 Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner, who holds both the 100m and 200m world records, which she set in 1988.
The 21-year-old Richardson, who rose to fame in 2019 when she broke the 100m world junior record with a 10.75s sprint at the NCAA Championships, ran a 10.72 in Florida in April, becoming the sixth-fastest woman in 100m history. She followed it up with a 10.86 at the US Olympic trials, qualifying for the Olympics where she would line up in a highly competitive and exciting field featuring Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Dina Asher-Smith.
However, Richardson was handed a one-month suspension on July 1 and her result at the trials were invalidated after she tested positive for marijuana use. She said in an interview with NBC that she had used marijuana to help cope with the death of her biological mother a week before the trials in Oregon. Although marijuana is legal for recreational use in Oregon, it is on the World Anti-Doping Authority’s list of prohibited substances.
Since Richardson’s one-month ban ends on July 28, she would have had a chance of making the women’s 4x100m relay event, but was left out by USA Track and Field.
Gwen Berry, an American hammer-throw specialist, was mired in controversy during the US Olympic track and field trials in Oregon when she turned away from the flag as the American national anthem played while she was on the podium. She then draped a T-shirt bearing the words “activist athlete” over her head.
Berry had finished third in the trials, and with the fourth-best throw of the season (76.79m), she is a medal prospect at Tokyo.
The 32-year-old said the playing of the national anthem while she was on the podium was “set up.” “I feel like they did that on purpose, and I was pissed, to be honest. It was real disrespectful. I know they did that on purpose, but it’ll be alright. I see what’s up,” she said.
Berry is not new to podium protests and her commitment to using sport to advance a cause bears more significance when seen in the context of rule 50 of the IOC that prohibits any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Games. She did not indicate backing down from raising her voice in an interview with The Washington Post . “Me being able to represent my communities and my people and those who have died at the hands of police brutality, those who have died to this systemic racism, I feel like that’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. And that’s why I was here today,” she said.
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Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have turned in four of the top five times in women’s 400m this year – performances that put both 18-year-olds in prime positions for medals at Tokyo. However, their promising run came to a sudden halt when they were both banned from competing in Tokyo due to their naturally high testosterone levels.
The news came as a shock to both athletes who had never been tested before and had no reason to think they were ineligible to compete. The requirements set by World Athletics in 2018 for women’s events of between 400m and a mile state that testosterone levels of athletes have to be below 5 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) for 12 months.
The regulation has been one of the most contentious issues in sports over the past few years, with critics calling it discriminatory and dehumanising. Two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya will not be able to defend her 800m crown in Tokyo due to the rule. The South African runner had contested the regulation at the Court of Arbitration for Sport after being banned from competing in 2018 for naturally high testosterone levels but lost the legal battle. She has appealed the decision in the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.
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Indian discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur raised eyebrows in March when she recorded a throw of 65.06m, beating Krishna Poonia’s nine-year-old national record of 64.76m. The 25-year-old, who has qualified for Tokyo, managed to better her record with a 66.59m throw during the Indian Grand Prix 4 at Patiala on June 21.
Among those watching closely was a fellow discus thrower and former Asian Games gold medallist Seema Punia. The veteran, who has qualified for her fourth Olympics, demanded a hyperandrogenism test for Kamalpreet after her drastic improvement in performance within a short period.
It is unlikely that any test will hamper Kamalpreet’s chances as the current World Athletics female eligibility rules do not apply to field events, but she was left “mentally disturbed.” “When a player comes up the ranks and performs better, the others try to pull him or her down. That’s the case here. The AFI (Athletics Federation of India) get such cases regularly and they are backing me to focus on my training,” she said.
Kamalpreet’s best throws before this year were 61.04 in 2018 and 60.5 in 2019.