Maximilla Imali and Evangeline Makena. Two Kenyan heroines who, instead of being celebrated for their talent, are being punished because their bodies produce more testosterone than the average woman.
Rather than travelling to Japan to compete in the recent World Relay Championships, they were forced to stay home. That’s because, earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled against Caster Semenya, the South African 800 metres superstar, saying that she, and other female sprinters, could only compete if their testosterone levels were artificially reduced to a range that is closer to average.
I work with professional athletes and none of them are average. They are all exceptional.
In a world of seven billion humans, to be one of the top few thousand athletes in the world takes a combination of unbelievably hard work, a supportive community, healthy eating, a good environment for training and, yes, genetics that allow you to be competitive.
That last one is a prerequisite, but genes aren’t fate. Being born a certain way doesn’t mean you’ll be great at a sport; just that you have the potential to be great.
My husband played for the Kenyan national basketball team. I love him and believe in his talent, but I know he wouldn’t have played at that level if he were of average height. He’s all of 2.1 metres tall, and everywhere we go people always ask if he plays basketball. Still, just being tall isn’t enough. It took years of training and practice for him to get to that level.
In the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the United States, the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world, the players average around 1.8 metres tall. That’s taller than the average man in America.
It is fair that these women are allowed to play women’s basketball and it is fair that Imali, Makena, and Semenya be allowed to run in women’s races.
In both cases, their genes make them far out of the range of what would be considered average for a woman. Yet in one case they are celebrated and in the other punished.
The South African government has taken a clear position of standing up for their athletes, saying: “These regulations trample on the human rights and dignity of Caster Semenya and other women athletes.”
I hope Athletics Kenya and the Kenyan government can strike the same chord and fight for the rights of two of the country’s greatest female sprinters.
And to Imali and Makena: Thank you for the inspiration you give me, my daughter, and other women around Kenya. I’m sorry you are being punished for being exceptional. Please don’t stop.