The 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil, has resulted in a lot of firsts. Nine countries are celebrating their first ever gold medal, including first-time entrant Kosovo, whose sovereignty the Olympics committee recognised only two years ago. The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) was also formed to ‘bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis’. Despite not having won any medals, their significance lies in their representation. The ROT acts as a symbol of hope to those who have been forcefully displaced from their home country that the dreams of these displaced athletes will happen despite all the unfair hardships, injustices and atrocities they have experienced.
But representation isn’t enough. Acknowledging and eradicating racism are never as simple as showing athletes of colour victorious, defeating everyone else under almost-equal circumstances. The politics of respectability holds athletes of colour to a higher standard than white counterparts for the same mistakes. The incident of Michael Phelps laughing during the national anthem back in the 2012 Olympics didn’t receive the same amount of criticism and bullying as when Gabby Douglas didn’t put her hand on her heart during the national anthem.
In an amazing display of white-bro privilege, Ryan Lochte managed to reduce Brazil in the media to its criminal and corrupt components
In an amazing display of white-bro privilege, Ryan Lochte managed to reduce Brazil in the media to its criminal and corrupt components. As if the general Brazilian population are in cahoots with the same corruption they suffer from on a daily basis. (This Brazilian government has evicted hundreds of poor families and destroyed a whole neighbourhood for the Olympics). Whilst doing so, Lochte simultaneously garnered sympathy even after the Brazilian police have exposed his lying bum by releasing footage of Lochte and his cronies vandalising a petrol station during the time when they were supposedly robbed at gunpoint.
Fortunately, this comparison didn’t escape social media and various opinion journalists. Whereas Douglas was treated with contempt, Lochte’s actions were dismissed as a ‘kid’ who ‘had fun’ and ‘made a mistake’. The difference in the way these athletes have been perceived defines a combination of racism and misogyny, in which a 20-year old Black American woman is expected to act in a much more overtly respectful and controlled way than a 32-year old, white, male athlete. Forgetting to respect a simple tradition is shameful and traitorous, despite the hundreds of hours Gabby has trained to represent and make her country proud.
The politics of racial pluralism matters because we need to highlight the struggles Olympic athletes of colour face before, during and after the Olympics.
In sports, representation of different ethnicities and skin colour goes beyond Olympian athletic skills, but within the existing systematic disadvantages that keep athletes of colour from focusing in their training, in the same manner enjoyed by their fellow white athletes. Simone Manuel’s victory in the Olympics becomes historic within the context of American segregation, the consequences of which in swimming still linger today. Acknowledging racial pluralism is a matter of respect and camaraderie, of good sportsmanship that underlines how athletes of colour, especially those representing Western countries are to be valued and celebrated.
The politics of racial pluralism matters because we need to highlight the struggles Olympic athletes of colour face before, during and after the Olympics. We cannot forget how the 1969 Olympics Black Power salute resulted in Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos being ostracised by most of the US sporting establishment and criticised for symbolising concerns that intrinsically shaped their racial identities.
Let’s not forget how Norman Smith was barred from participating in the 1972 Olympics and, alongside his family, experienced severe discrimination and financial constraints in Australia for simply supporting Smith and Carlos.
Engaging in pluralism will keep us from forgetting various hardships that athletes of colour face and will allow us to understand how systematic oppression in terms of race and ethnicity exists even in the world of sports.
Featured Image: (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)