What Olympic Swimmer Simone Manuel’s Win Means for Black Americans
by G. Brown
There’s been a lot of negative buzz about how the media is showing its true colors in covering the Rio Olympics. Most of the complaints have been about the blatant sexism of sports anchors and reporters like the Chicago Tribune article that referred to two-time bronze medalist Corey Cogdell as “Wife of a Bears’ lineman” because no matter what she had accomplished as an Olympian, she’s only important because of what her husband has accomplished. Then there’s the NBC announcer who said 19-year old Katie Ledecky “swims like a man”. Another announcer came to her defense saying, “She doesn’t swim like a man, she swims like Katie Ledecky.”
But where you have sexism, you can bet racism is bound to make an appearance as well. The San Jose Mercury News had to apologize for what it called an “insensitive” headline that made Simone Manuel’s record breaking gold medal win sound like ‘meh, some Black chick swam.” Here’s the original headline before outrage on social media forced the paper to change it.
Notice that Manuel’s name wasn’t even mentioned…she was simply labeled “African-American” and the paper implied that Michael Phelps was gracious enough to “share” his history making night with her. Wow! No one is denying that Phelps shouldn’t be celebrated for winning 22 Olympic gold medals—more than anyone ever. But Manuel rewrote history as well as the first African-American woman to win gold ever in an individual swimming event. The 20 year did something that Blacks weren’t even allowed to do at one time…swim in the same pool as White people. Social media quickly embraced the significance of Manuel’s accomplishment with memes like “never forget”.
The story about what happened to the Hollywood star began legend by the time it was retold in the 1999 HBO biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” which starred Halle Berry. Though the story has never really been confirmed, we know in some form it was happening to Blacks whether famous or not. Jim Crow laws in the south made it clear that even a toe or pinky finger of a Black person could not touch the water of a Whites only pool. Americans were barred from most public pools and lakes. Pools were drained or completely abandoned if a Black person dare try to share it. With the rise of the Civil Rights movement, Blacks began to challenge the “Whites Only” law of segregation that meant no mingling of races at restaurants, schools, movie theaters, on buses and in public swimming pools. Nobody grasped the magnitude of this historic win more than Manuel herself who said, “The title of Black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records.” Manuel went on to say, “Coming in the race I tried to take the weight of the Black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the Black swimmer.'”
Isn’t that supposed to be the true purpose of the Olympic games…where race and gender aren’t supposed to matter and everyone is equal? The way the media has covered Manuel shows us that perhaps the ideology of the games is still a dream whose time has not yet arrived. But athletes like Manuel, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Michelle Carter who was the first woman to ever win gold in the shot put are all redefining the games. With each breast stoke, each back handspring and and each somersault are chipping away at stereotypes like the myth that Blacks don’t have the buoyancy to swim. Like Charles Chapman the first Black to swim the English Channel or the nameless slave who swam 60 hours when his ship wrecked in 1679, Blacks keep proving that their strength, endurance and determination will take them beyond where bigotry and racism says they can’t go.