“Why aren’t there blacks in swimming? … “
“Because the sport doesn’t suit their physical characteristics … “
Above are two quotes from one person most would assume was speaking 80 years ago. Certainly, this sort of direct and unmitigated racism is of yesteryear, a time prior to a post racial America and one-world ideology that claims to recognize, support and celebrate the countless contributions of people of color, particularly Black people, to all sports. Maybe it was spoken by some ignorant sports commentator in 1932, the year African American runners Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett actually qualified for the Olympics in Los Angeles; however, they were not allowed to participate in the event because of their race. Or perhaps it was made years later in 1936 when Jesse Owens participated in track and field events at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and dictator Adolf Hitler cited his participation as a sign of weakness for a racially impure America. While both periods no doubt produced such rhetoric noted in the quotes above, the words were written just three years ago by then Italian Gymnastics Federation spokesperson David Ciaralli. Shared in a Facebook post, he was coming to the defense of Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito, who said Italians should have Black skin to beat African American gymnasts like Simone Biles. In an interview after Biles won the all-around title in the World Championships, Ferlito said, “I told Vanny [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin Black, so then we could win too.” Backing Ferlito, Ciaralli wanted to make it clear that her comments weren’t racist, as most people believed. He wrote, “Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going toward a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of color (well-known for power).” He closed his questioning of Blacks participating in swimming events with, “Is gymnastics becoming the same thing, to the point of wanting to be colored?”
Interestingly, while coming to Ferlito’s defense, Ciaralli sounded more racist than she. His comments highlighted an age-old claim made by racists that Blacks can’t possibly be more talented than Whites. Either they aren’t skilled enough to even compete, as he implied. Or the reality of their triumph must be some kind of magical, supernatural occurrence or dumb luck, as alluded to by Ferlito. Moreover, Blacks aren’t good enough. Not ever. And when and if they do win, it’s only because they’re Black.
While long-lived and continuously disseminated through White supremacist ideology and a media that constantly promulgates such material, three Black women participating in this year’s Olympic Games are making it harder for the opinions to remain relevant. Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Simone Manuel stand as living, breathing, tossing, jumping, vaulting and spinning proof that there’s no magic behind Black skin that makes gathering Olympic gold look like a birthright. These sister gymnasts put in the work — hours and hours and then more hours of training and uncompromising drive to make it to the top. And who are these young women? Beyond the stereotypical and marginalizing images shared of them through the media and detractors, they are Olympians, the quintessential definitions of starting from the bottom, locating one’s purpose, setting out on a vision quest and reaching the goal.
Gabby Douglas, gymnast, 20
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Virginia
From 2012’s Fierce Five to 2016’s Final Five, Gabrielle Christina Victoria “Gabby” Douglas is no doubt a household name and America’s darling. She, like teammate Laurie Hernandez, won her fi rst gold medal at 16. And she became the fi rst African American to become Olympic all-around champion.
How she made us proud at the 2016 Rio Olympics: Won the gold medal for the women’s team all-around. Then the court of public opinion weighed in, both in support and criticizing her for not placing her hand over her heart while the national anthem played (by the way, the whole hand over the heart thing is for the Pledge of Allegiance, not the Star-Spangled Banner):
How dare Gabby Douglas not put her hand on her heart for the American National Anthem!!!! — Bryan (@RealBryanIV) August 9, 2016
Imagine what these racists would say if #Gabby Douglas had raised her fi st in the air during the National Anthem. No law says hand over heart — Tracy Bates (@TracysActivism) August 10, 2016
Simone Biles, gymnast, 19
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Three-time all-around world champion (2013-15) and now Olympic gold medalist Simone Arianne Biles has won more golds than any female gymnast at a single World Championship; she has 10. This year was her first time at the Olympics and she dominated and executed, flawlessly. And this girl just made her debut in 2013.
How she made us proud at the 2016 Rio Olympics: Biles won gold medals in women’s team all-around, women’s individual all-around, women’s vault, and women’s floor exercise. She took home a bronze medal for women’s beam.
Then the media weighed in: NBC journalist disses Biles’ parents
“Three-time reigning world champion Simone Biles has won 14 medals, including 10 gold, since 2013. The gymnast, 19, spent time in foster care with her younger sister Adria before her maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, adopted her in 2001. Shanon Biles, the girls’ biological mother, terminated her parental rights. She struggled with alcohol and drug abuse while living in Ohio,” wrote ro editor Yvette Caslin.
“This fact apparently annoys Al Trautwig, a sports commentator with the MSG Network, NBC, NBC Sports Network, and USA Network. He’s NBC’s gymnastic announcer at the Rio Games. Trautwig referred to the Biles on Sunday’s, Aug. 7, 2016, NBC primetime broadcast and failed to acknowledge her parents. When a woman tweeted Trautwig to say that he should call them her parents, he tweeted, ‘They may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents.’ “
Simone Manuel, swimmer, 20
Manuel was born in Houston and began swimming at the age of 5. She attends Stanford University and swims for the Stanford Cardinal women’s swimming team. At Stanford, Manuel is a two-time individual NCAA champion: winning the 50- and 100-yard freestyle in 2015.
How she made us proud at the 2016 Rio Olympics: In the Rio 2016 Olympics, Manuel tied a Canadian swimmer in the women’s 100-meter freestyle as both women touched the wall at the same time in an Olympic-record 52.70 seconds. The U.S. was not favored to win, since an American hadn’t won gold in the event since 1984. Manuel also won a gold medal in the women’s 4x100m medley relay, and silver medals for the women’s 50m freestyle and women’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Then the media weighed in, again: “Despite her stunning accomplishment, NBC did not air Manuel’s medal ceremony. Instead, the network chose to air seven hours of old footage that showed the Russian gymnastics team,” wrote ro scribe Mo Barnes.
And again, Manuel was disrespected by a racist news headline after her Olympic victory, as noted by ro editor A.R. Shaw.
“Simone Manuel deserves to be honored for becoming the first Black American woman to win an individual swimming event at the Olympics. However, one newspaper decided to tarnish her historical moment by failing to mention her name and only focusing on her race. Moments after Manuel made history, the San Jose Mercury News published her story with the headline, ‘Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.’
“It’s unacceptable for an editor at a major publication to allow such a headline to be published.
“The disgusting headline was immediately blasted on social media,” Shaw wrote.
@mercnews Apologize? Why did you write it in the first place? NO ONE in that newsroom thought it was wrong? Straight BS.
— Valencia (@VeeeKaaay) August 12, 2016
@mercnews And that was AFTER you demeaned her in your now-deleted tweet. Stop acting as if female athletes need male athletes for context.
— Txnewsprincess (@txnewsprincess) August 12, 2016
Yes, #BlackGirlMagic is officially a thing, and it continues to manifest itself in all sectors of life. And it’s not because Black women have somehow hit the popularity lottery and are simply reaping the benefits of being the current flavor of the month. It’s actually quite the opposite. Despite everything that is consistently stacked against Black women, they have shown up and shown out whenever the opportunity has presented itself — over and over again.
That’s what makes them magical.
And that’s what makes the Rio Olympics all the more compelling. It’s the Black women there (Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Gabby Douglas and others) who have announced to the world that Black girls are magical and there’s nothing that anybody can do to stop it.
Now how cool is that?
Story by Calaya Reid
Additional reporting by A.R. Shaw, Yvette Caslin, DeWayne Rogers and Mo Barnes
Cover image by A. Ricardo/Shutterstock.com