Jul 6, 2021 - Podcasts

Controversy ahead of the Olympics

With the Olympics less than three weeks away, we saw three big headlines over this last weekend — all having to do with restrictions that have primarily affected women of color and intersex people. And it’s left many fans wondering whom these Olympic rules are actually serving.

  • And, infighting in the vice president’s office.
  • Plus, Noah Feldman — and you — on what freedom means in America now.

Guests: Axios' Ina Fried and Margaret Talev, and Harvard University constitutional law professor Noah Feldman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected].

You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, July 6. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: What you need to know about recent stories of infighting in the Vice President’s office. Plus, Noah Feldman on what freedom means in America now.

But first, controversy ahead of the Olympics is today’s One Big Thing.

The Olympics are less than three weeks away and over this past weekend we saw three big headlines -- all having to do with restrictions that have primarily affected women of color and intersex people. It’s left many fans wondering who these Olympic rules are actually serving.

Axios’ Ina Fried is covering the games for us this year and is here now with the big picture. Good morning, Ina.

INA FRIED: Hi, Niala.

NIALA: Can you catch us up on these stories?

INA: Sure, so there's a few different stories, as you mentioned, the authority that regulates swimming initially said that it would not allow the use in competition of a head cap designed specifically for those of African descent with natural hair, that's bigger or longer than the hair that most swim caps are designed for. They're actually revisiting that decision now.

In the second story, Sha'Carri Richardson is not going to be able to compete at least in her primary event because she tested positive for marijuana. And in the third story, two Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have been basically disqualified from the Olympics because their natural testosterone levels are above the level that has been set for sprinters. And these rules were basically made in the wake of Caster Semenya who is unable to compete because of these same rules

NIALA: Can you remind us about who Caster Semenya is?

INA: Caster Semenya is a South African middle distance runner. She's won two Olympic gold medals and three world championships in women's races, the 800 meters, but she's always been under a cloud of scrutiny for her biology. She's what we call intersex meaning that she has some of the characteristics we typically associate with women and some we typically associate with men and she has naturally high testosterone levels. And in recent years, the world's sporting authorities have created rules that would force her to take medication if she wanted to compete at that level to lower her testosterone to what they consider normal.

NIALA: Does this matter beyond the Olympics?

INA: I think it matters in terms of recognizing the rules we create when we base them on a standard - and often that standard is whiteness, often it's maleness, often it's richness - that we are excluding, that we aren't creating a level playing field. The playing field isn't level. It never is, especially in elite sport. Elite sport is based on natural, unfair advantages. So we really have to look at the impact of some of these rules and how equitable they are.

NIALA: Axios’ Ina Fried. Thanks Ina.

INA: Thanks.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with leaks out of Vice President Harris’s office.

Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

There's been a series of stories in the last week about dysfunction and infighting in the office of Vice President Kamala Harris. President Biden's office has so far kept a pretty tight lid on things, but with this recent set of leaks from the Harris team, I wanted to ask Axios’ Margaret Talev, what should we make of all of this?

MARGARET TALEV: What is clear is that there is tension between the Vice President's office and other elements inside the Biden administration and the West Wing itself. And what's also clear is that Kamala Harris and her chief of staff Tina Flournoy have their detractors and those detractors are talking. What's less clear is how fundamentally these tensions are impacting her ability to do her job or her relationship with the President himself and I think it's too soon to say.

NIALA: Has president Biden said anything about these news stories?

MARGARET: It was really interesting, Niala. When Axios wrote about the story last week, Jonathan Swan, and I reached out to the White House and we heard from both the White House chief of staff Ron Klain and from Cedric Richmond, who's a senior advisor to the president. If they are coming out in strong defense of the vice president, the message that President Biden wants to convey to the public is that the vice president has his confidence. And we have Klain here saying the president's trust and confidence in her is obvious when you see them in the Oval Office together.

NIALA: Margaret Talev Axios’ managing editor for politics. Margaret, thank you and thanks for filling in for me last Friday.

MARGARET: Thank you. It was my distinct pleasure.

NIALA: Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, our team has been thinking about the concept of freedom, what it means to each of us, and how that's changed. And we asked you what freedom means to you and so many of you weighed in. Thank you for all the responses. Here are a few of some of the reasons.

BECCA LUITEN: Hi, Niala, I really liked your question about freedom. For me, freedom is about the ability to make choices. However, it's not just choices for my own needs or my own desires. It's about making choices that benefit the people around me.

ANTHONY SMITH: Hello, my name is Anthony and I am from Tampa, Florida. The 4th of July in 1776 was just pretty much a kickoff party for more slavery. For another hundred years, the 4th of July was pretty much celebrated in the face of those who had no freedom. I think it's weird that we still try to celebrate this holiday with its weird shadow of history. Being even more proud about Juneteenth recently, it serves me no purpose to really acknowledge this as a holiday.

SCOTT CRAIG: Hi, Niala. When I think about what freedom means for me in 2021, I can't actually help but think about 2020. Last year served to reinforce for me that freedom comes with a sacrifice. I think that our country tends to export a notion of freedom that puts a lot of emphasis on the word free.

NATALIE TROSCLAIR: Hi, Niala. It's Natalie in New Orleans. Freedom to me is the ability to be whoever you choose to be without any pushback or opinions regarding your decision.

JULIAN WICKS: Hi, Niala. As an Air Force veteran, it saddens me that my fellow Americans seem to take their freedoms for granted. We live in the greatest country in the world right now, yet too many people misunderstand their privileges that come with this freedom. And don't forget it's freedom. Not free to be dumb.

NIALA: For more on the changing conversation around what freedom in the U.S. means, I'm joined by Axios’ resident legal expert, Harvard's Noah Feldman. Hi Noah.

NOAH FELDMAN: Hey, Niala thanks for having me.

NIALA: Noah, Julian, that Air Force veteran, who we ended with was saying freedom doesn't mean freedom to be dumb. And I actually wanted to start with that because I took that to mean, we tend to think about freedom and how the constitution defines it as what we can do versus what we can't do.

NOAH: Well, that's a great place to start. It's always interesting when you talk about freedom to compare freedom and liberty, and maybe we're just using them to mean the exact same thing. The Declaration of Independence actually never uses the word freedom even once. It does use the word liberty once. Now you might say they didn't mention freedom because they didn't want to bring that topic up, given the existence of slavery and that might be part of the answer. The idea of liberty does have these two sides. It has liberty in the sense of freedom from, that is to say we're free from the government making us do stuff we don't want to do, or forcing us to do stuff that we don't want to do. And there's also freedom to, or the liberty to, and that's the idea that we have the liberty to participate in self-government and to make autonomous choices as a collective and also as individuals.

NIALA: But do you think there is a clear definition when you add up the Constitution, the Supreme Court, all of these opinions and laws?

NOAH: You know, the idea that there could be a perfectly agreed upon definition of liberty is certainly unrealistic. As citizens of a single republic, thinking about our Independence Day, to aspire, even though we know we'll never get there to aspire to having enough shared values around questions of liberty that we could be a mutually respectful of one another and function collectively, and also to have institutions like a Supreme Court that you might not like what they decide in every case, but they at least exist to answer that question for a given historical moment in time. As someone who studies the Constitution, I think of freedom and liberty as a process, not an end state. And I think of our whole constitutional guarantee of liberty as a guarantee of a process of becoming more free rather than a guarantee that we actually are free already.

NIALA: Noah Feldman hosts the Pushkin podcast Deep Background. Thanks, Noah.

NOAH: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios.com -- and you can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

If you want more news before tomorrow - tune into our afternoon podcast Axios Re:Cap.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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