Simone Biles and Simone Manuel share more than a first name. They now both have Olympic gold medals in the premier events of their respective sports of gymnastics and swimming.
They also have a shared history as black stars in sports that in the U.S. have been dominated mostly by white athletes. The hierarchy of whiteness is not exclusive to these sports by any means, but how that’s transpired and been reinforced, is specific to their sports.
[Photo from Aweesomely Luvvie’s blog here: The Simones Sprinkle Black Girl Gold Dust at the Olympics. You can also order her book: I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual]
For women’s gymnastics, the long dominant ideal for American participants was the slender, pale visage of Eastern European competitors such as Nadia Comaneci in 1976. Then there was Mary Lou Retton, almost the physical opposite of Comaneci, short and powerful. She popularized explosiveness as a desired attribute in her sport but her bubbly youthfulness and 1000-watt smile offset the negativity her muscular and powerful physique might have engendered.
Because, make no mistake, female athletes who win with more power and strength than grace and beauty always have to ‘make up’ for that in some way to be celebrated by the American public.
And that goes 10 times for black women athletes.
Florence Griffith Joyner’s stylish outfits, long nails, and makeup may have been who she was, but it was also the feminine counterbalance to what made her a great sprinter: her powerful legs and amazing speed.
Serena Williams knows a thing or two about how unacceptable mainstream (mostly white) fans react to muscular and dominant black women. All of the successful black women gymnasts before Simone Biles have faced similar criticism, even when power wasn’t the most notable aspects of their performances.
And if it’s not that, it WILL be something else. People have a thirst for knocking down black women who win. The women’s gymnastics all-around competition was notable less for the U.S. team’s dominant performance than for the bogus kerfuffle around Gabby Douglas not putting her hand over her heart when the national anthem played. WTF? And this after some people were criticizing her hair. The smallest detail will not go unexamined or uncritiqued. What should have been a night of joy (and hopefully still was for Douglas) was filled with self-righteous fingerwagging.
The context of Simone Manuel’s gold medal performance in the 100-meter freestyle was something else entirely. It’s true that many fans don’t associate top-level international swimming competition with black athletes. Of course, that’s not a surprise given the history in the United States of black patrons being excluded from swimming pools across the country from the late 1800s through the 1950s and 1960s.
This wasn’t an occasional ban but part of the widespread exclusion of black patrons from public leisure activities across the U.S. Public swimming pools, bathing beaches, amusement parks. In many towns and cities black residents either could not use municipal pools at all, or had one day a month where the pool was open to their use. And immediately after the pool would be drained and refilled to make it usable by the white public.
Beaches on the east and west coast, and along lakes, operated similarly. Or there would be a small and less desirable section of rock and sand cordoned off for black bathers.
One of the guys I write about in my book is Bill Willis, a lineman for the Cleveland Browns. His older brother, Claude, taught swimming at the ‘colored’ YMCA in Columbus, Ohio. Bill’s sons thought Claude knew everyone in town because almost every black person in Columbus seemed to know him and would say hi to him at the store, the park or wherever. They thought he must be a big name in town.
But, in reality, he was known simply because he was the guy who taught most of the black youth in Columbus how to swim. The students remembered him, but so did their parents.
Only perhaps three adult generations have come of age where black patrons were (mostly) allowed access to municipal pools. The percentage of black youth who learn to swim is likely still lower than that of white kids–and why would black parents of previous generations prioritize swimming when it was a site of such blatant racism?–so the emergence of black athletes at the top of sport is a testament to these athlete’s skill and talent given the historical and cultural weight their pursuit carries.
After tying for the gold, Simone Manuel talked about police violence and about always being known as the black woman who did X or Y. She acknowledged feeling the weight of representing blackness when she raced, a burden that many feel places additional pressure on them, despite it coming from fans sincerely wanting the best for them. It’s a double-edged sword few white athletes experience, and rarely experience due to their race.
Both Biles and Manuel deserve to be celebrated for their achievements as dominant and amazing athletes and as black women who have succeeded where their work and themselves are hyper- and publicly scrutinized.
It may be several more generations of athletes before black Americans taking gold in gymnastics or swimming isn’t surprising or notable because of race. Due to both Biles’ and Manuel’s accomplishments we’re a step closer to that.