On a day in which Michael Phelps won his 22nd gold medal and Simone Biles cemented her legacy as the best gymnast ever by winning the all-around gold by a record margin, it was another American, Simone Manuel, who broke down the most significant barrier.
Last night in Rio de Janeiro, swimmer Simone Manuel won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, setting a new Olympic record for female swimmers. She tied for first place with Penny Okesiak of Canada.
Media outlets another significance of the significant win. Manuel thus became the first African American woman to ever win an individual swimming medal at the Olympics, and joined fellow American Simone Biles: a gymnast and African American girl from Texas who became the first African American female to win Olympic gold in gymnastics on the same night.
When asked to frame the event in terms of racial politics back home, she told USA Today, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality.”
The Mercury News, a California newspaper, took down the above tweet after registering numerous complaints.
“This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” While she wept emotional tears, Manuel said, “I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it.”” It means a lot to me,” Manuel said after winning the gold medal. “This medal is not just for me. It’s for some of the African Americans who have come before me and been an inspiration. I hope I can be an inspiration to others, so this medal is for those who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find the love and drive to get to this point.”
According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African Americans are not able to swim at all, while African American children drown at a rate three times higher than white children. Among black children, 68.9 have little or no swimming ability, according to the same source. One reason is that many public pools in the United States were either forbidden to black people or were not built in African American neighborhood. During the Civil Rights movement, some public pools suddenly became private so as to avoid integration. In the 1950s, racial tensions were so high that when Dorothy Dandrige -- a popular African American entertainer -- sought to cool herself off at a Las Vegas pool, the owners of the hotel where she was staying actually drained the entire pool so as to prevent her from using it. Yet another reason is that chlorine used in swimming pools damages the hair of those who use hair straightening products.
While racist restrictions on public swimming places have been eliminated, some evidence of racism within Olympic circles is still evident. In 2013, for instance, David Ciaralli of the Italian Gymnastics Federation sought to defend prejudiced statements made by an Italian gymnast, Carlotta Ferlito, against Simone Biles, he resorted to the antique slur that black people are unable to swim. Ciaralli said, “Why are there no black swimmers? Because their physical features don’t suit the sport.” He then added that black people do not make good swimmers because they “don’t have the buoyancy.”
Manuel, when prodded by journalists by the racism issue, said, “It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot.”
“Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’”
Lia Neal joined Manuel as the first two African American women to join the USA Olympic swim team simultaneously. Other black American women who have been notable at the Olympics are tennis phenoms Serena and Venus Williams, along with Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys. Joining them is the Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Ashleigh Johnson on the water polo team.
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