Barbra Banda, a rising star in women's soccer and the captain of Zambia's national team, was ruled ineligible for this summer's Africa Cup of Nations by "gender verification" tests, according to Zambian soccer authorities and multiple reports.
Banda, a 22-year-old forward, scored two hat tricks at last summer's Olympics and has excelled for her Chinese club, Shanghai Shengli. But she was mysteriously "unavailable" for Zambia's women's AFCON opener on Sunday due to what Zambia's soccer federation (FAZ) called "medical reasons."
Reports soon emerged that pre-tournament tests had revealed natural testosterone levels that exceeded limits set by governing bodies. Andrew Kamanga, the FAZ president, said in a statement Wednesday that the rules are those of the African soccer confederation, CAF, and in line with regulations developed by FIFA, the sport's global governing body.
CAF has distanced itself from Banda's absence, and did not respond to Yahoo Sports' request for comment. But Kamanga told BBC Sport Africa: "All the players had to undergo gender verification, a CAF requirement, and unfortunately she did not meet the criteria set by CAF."
An official CAF document requires team physicians to attest that players have "been examined ... to verify their gender," and that the players "do not show any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics and are therefore presumed to be of female gender."
In 2011, FIFA outlined similar "gender verification" regulations that required soccer federations to "actively investigat[e] any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics" — which are physical traits typically associated with one sex but not directly involved in reproduction. Entire women's national teams have been required to confirm, via team doctors and personal medical documents, that they are women. If necessary, the regulations state, a medical officer can call for "a physical examination performed by an independent expert."
Rights advocates and scientists have criticized the requirements, calling them invasive and discriminatory — and devised primarily by Western men, based on traditional Western gender classifications, but applied across global populations.
"These policies and procedures violate the athlete’s privacy, and the tests themselves violate bodily autonomy," Katrina Karkazis, an Amherst professor who has studied sexuality and testosterone, told Yahoo Sports.
They also completely exclude certain athletes like Banda, who, as a woman, likely would not be allowed to compete in men's soccer either. "For FIFA men's competitions, only men are eligible to play," FIFA's regulations state.
Those regulations — although currently under review, according to FIFA — have not been walked back. And CAF's are similar, if not stricter, according to Zambian officials.
Last fall, the International Olympic Committee updated its guidance to discourage "invasive physical examinations" and "policies that require women to modify their hormone levels to compete." Those, the IOC said, are "disrespectful" and "potentially harmful," and "can have serious adverse impacts on their health."
IOC officials said they'd heard directly from athletes who explained that old regulations, which mandated testosterone suppression, "generated severe harm to their health." In one high-profile case, South African runner Caster Semenya recently told HBO that testosterone suppression drugs "made me sick, made me gain weight," gave her panic attacks, and made her worry about heart attacks.
"It's like stabbing yourself with a knife every day," Semenya said. If she wanted to compete, she "had no choice" but to take the drugs. She instead gave them up and, by extension, gave up her Olympic dreams.
According to Zambian officials, Banda and other players faced a similar choice. FAZ spokesman Sydney Mungala told ESPN that, in the aftermath of Banda's breakout performance at the Olympics, she was told that her testosterone levels were above CAF's threshold, and was offered medication to lower them. "Our medics engaged the players and they weren't willing to go through with it," Mungala said, citing the potential side effects.
BBC Sport Africa reported that Banda had taken medication, but still did not meet testosterone requirements.
Banda's hormone levels have not affected her participation in professional leagues. She played for DUX Logroño in Spain as a teen, then moved to Shanghai. She is now reportedly the subject of interest from Real Madrid, among other top European clubs, and could make a move this summer.
"The players being denied an opportunity to showcase their skills on African soil have been free to play at FIFA- and International Olympic Committee-organized competitions that deploy a less stringent standard,” Kamanga, the FAZ president, said in his statement.
But Banda will not appear at the African continental championship for her national team. Nor will three lesser-known teammates who, according to reports, have also been deemed ineligible by the "gender verification" process. Their "opportunity," Mungala told ESPN, "has been lost."
Banda has not commented publicly on the situation. While sidelined, she has been telling her teammates: "I am with you all the way."
FIFA spokespeople did not immediately respond to questions about the governing body's rules. FIFA has said it is "currently reviewing its gender eligibility regulations," and consulting medical, legal, scientific, performance and human rights experts, but it has not commented on Banda's case.