5 Famous Female Athletes Who Were Banned From Their Sport

When Tonya Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, she was stripped of her titles and banned from competing for life. "That was pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen to me," Harding said in an interview in 2014. "What am I going to do with my life now?"

A lifelong ban certainly sounds like harsh punishment for someone who devoted their entire career (and life) to a sport, though many argue that it was warranted, given the crime. There are a few main reasons why female athletes have been outlawed from sports in the past: doping (or using performance-enhancing drugs), failing a "sex test" (an antiquated test used to determine whether a female athlete has "appropriate" hormone levels), and being a "bad girl" (or committing a crime), according to Bonnie Morris, PhD, a women's history professor who specialises in women's participation in sports and war.

Harding fell into the "bad girl" category.

Sure, plenty of male athletes have also been banned from their sport after various misdeeds. But, in general, men in sports are applauded for being aggressive and/or competitive, while women like Harding who display the same traits are seen as troublesome (see: the long list of men in sports who commit crimes, and then go on to have illustrious careers). That's not to say that Harding's only crime was being aggressive and competitive (she did admit to knowing about the assault after it happened); it's just that her image was set in stone by the time the truth came out and it was time to dole out punishment.

Prior to her conviction, Harding was stereotyped in the press for being tough and a smoker, which fuelled her critics and was seen as transgressive. "At the time [of the Harding case], I felt acutely that a guy in the Olympics could have a bad boy image and be seen as kind of dashing," Dr. Morris says. "Women are not given the same leeway."

Ahead of the film, I, Tonya, which opens in cinemas 16th February, we wondered how many other female athletes have also been banned from sports for life. It's tough to give an exact number, but ahead are a handful of stories of other iconic female athletes who faced a similar fate to Harding.

East German Olympic Swimmers

Sport: Swimming

During the 1976 Olympics, the East Germany women's swim team swept the competition, winning 11 of the 13 events. In the mid-'80s, testing revealed that many East German athletes had been subjects of state-sponsored doping programs, and had unknowingly been fed anabolic steroids since they were teenagers, and told they were "vitamins." At the time, many high-power American athletes and coaches argued that the only way to make things fair would be to strip the East German athletes of their titles and ban them from the sport for life. For a while, that prospect was on the table. But 10 years later, the International Olympic Committee came to the decision not to revise the awards, and allowed them to keep their medals.
Tammy Thomas

Sport: Cycling

Tammy Thomas was poised to go to the Olympics for cycling in 2000, when her urine sample tested positive for elevated steroid levels. She wasn't allowed to go to the Olympics that year, but got by with a one-year ban from cycling. Then, in 2002, researchers analysed her urine and found anabolic steroids. Thomas was banned from cycling for life and was involved in a larger federal investigation into steroid use.
Marion Jones

Sport: Track and field

Marion Jones made history as the first woman to win five medals in track and field at a single Olympics in 2000. But in 2003, she was the subject of a federal investigation into steroid use, and denied using performance-enhancing drugs. In 2006, she failed a drug test. And one year after that, she admitted to lying to a federal agent and using steroids. As punishment, the International Association of Athletics Federations stripped her of her titles, and the International Olympic Committee removed her medals. Jones was banned from the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
Caster Semenya

Sport: Track and field

In 2009, a member of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF) said that Caster Semenya "is a woman, but maybe not 100%." The 800-meter track-and-field athlete from South Africa was often ridiculed for her outwardly masculine appearance, and many suspected she was taking steroids. Semenya was then subject to controversial and rigorous "femininity testing" to determine whether she had acceptable levels of testosterone in her body to race as a woman.

Leaked medical records showed she had three times the amount of testosterone as some women, and some suspected she was intersex. During the investigation, she was banned from competing for eight months. Afterwards, the IAAF argued that women who have higher levels of testosterone — aka hyperandrogenism — have an advantage.
Russia Women's Hockey Players

Sport: Ice hockey

Last month, the International Olympic Committee announced that Russia would be banned from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games for using performance-enhancing drugs. However, six members of the women's ice hockey team — Inna Dyubanok, Ekaterina Lebedeva, Ekaterina Pashkevich, Anna Shibanova, Ekaterina Smolentseva, and Galina Skiba — were banned for life because they had a past history of doping.
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