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Rowbottom: Manuel’s Courage and Testimony Point to New Strategies for Changing Racism

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Simone Manuel at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo: Reuters

By Mike Rowbottom |

Simone Manuel’s description of the racism she endured in her early years as a club swimmer was immensely sad to hear.

Speaking onon a webinar organized by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Foundation entitled Race, Sport & Social Change: Learning with Team USA, the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming – she shared the 100 metres title at Rio 2016 and was in the victorious US 4x100m medley relay team – piercingly described her bewilderment and sense of loneliness.

Thankfully, as she went on to say, she had a loving family to whom she could return, and with whom she could discuss the slights and experiences of her day, and thereby “release” all her emotions.

She recalled: “You talk to them and say? ‘Am I crazy? Is this what I think it is or is it not?’

“And you go through a whole two-hour practice having an event happen and wondering ‘what do I do?’ Because you have no-one else to talk to, no-one else to reach out to, because you are the only one.

“To give an example – when I was younger on my club team no-one would talk to me at practice. 

“And I was the only black individual in the group. No-one wanted to be my dry-land partner, swimmers would pass up a chance to get into my lane at practice.

“And so I felt like that behaviour was rooted in racism. I felt like if I was a different colour I would have friends to talk to, I would have people who wanted to be my dry-land partner, I’d have people want to pop in my lane and swim with me.”

Her comments echoed testimony given earlier this year in a similar webinar. This time organised by Panam Sports, the speaker was John Carlos, the 200m sprint bronze medallist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

During the medal ceremony, Carlos and his fellow black American Tommie Smith, the gold medallist, stood with heads bowed and a single black-gloved fist in the air to draw attention to the racism and inequality they saw back home and around the world.

It became the quintessential image of sporting protest.

Carlos recalled how, initially, he wanted to become an Olympic swimmer, until he had a discussion with his father, who pointed out why that would not be realistic.

He said: “My dad said, ‘son, I know you want to go to the Olympics as a swimmer. But you are not going to be able to go.’

“When I asked why, he put his palm on his hand. ‘Merely because of the colour of your skin,’ he said. ‘When you go to the pool, you see the mothers calling their kids out of the water because the black kid jumped in’.

“I realised right then we had a really serious problem.”

Carlos, within whom the blaze of anger at injustice still burns hot and bright, concluded his participation by saying: “All we wanted was an even playing field. Here we are, 53 years later, and we are still at ground zero.

“The question is when are we as a society going to wake up and act like the right people, the way we were intended to act on this earth?”

Manuel revealed that she had thought seriously about quitting swimming, saying: “I didn’t feel it was the sport for me, because I didn’t feel that I fitted in but also I knew that I was being treated differently because of the colour of my skin.”

History attests that she thought better of it – and the 24-year-old from Sugar Land in Texas already has 11 world golds to set alongside her Olympic medals.

Her profile in the sport has offered her a platform to try and influence society and to offer advice to others who might find themselves in a similar position to the one she was in, and which, often, she still finds herself in.

She had some clear advice for fellow athletes wishing to effect social change via means such as social media.

“Be authentic to yourself,” she said. “It has to be something you are passionate about, because you know you are going to receive backlash, but at the end of the day you can put that on the back-burner and know that you did the right thing because it’s true to who you are.

“Lately I’ve been having conversations with my parents where they have encouraged me not to respond to the negative comments because you are ending up giving them power over your energy. 

“And as athletes fighting these battles and being an activist it’s so important for you to conserve your energy and to put it into things that are giving you the same energy back.

“This movement isn’t just a movement, it’s a marathon.

“We are going to be fighting for a long time. You need to be pacing yourself. And make sure you are doing the right things to effect change but also to keep yourself healthy and mentally stable as well.”

Appearing with her on the webinar were two academics with a deep insight into the issues she was discussing.

Dr. Kensa Gunter is a certified mental performance consultant and President-elect of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, while Dr. Judi Brown Clarke is the vice-president of Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer at Stony Brook University.

The latter won 400m hurdles silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“When you have a jersey on, when you’re seen at the pool, or the track, then you are seen representing the United States, or representing your university,” Clarke said. 

“But then once you put your street clothes on you take on a different persona. And that compartmentalising is very difficult.

“So being the only one on a team and trying to find allies that have the ability to be supportive of you and give you cover is so important – because when things are being targeted towards you, you need individuals to be disruptors when people are making those biased remarks or comments.

“And you also have to be willing to be allied with – because when you are the only one you put a guard up. And so you don’t trust people’s agenda when they are reaching out to you. Why are you giving me face-time?”

Referring to the current widespread debate over the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50, and the question of athletes “taking the knee” to express their support of the movement for social change and equality, Gunter said: “Activism can take many different forms.

“There is no one way for athletes to express their position. People have to be comfortable with whatever they are doing, because that’s how it becomes genuine.

“So talk to athletes about being sure you know your why, what the purpose is behind what actions they are taking, understand what the causes are that you are elevating or amplifying. And understand what you want to do.

“For some that will be acting in a protest. For some it will be, or even opting out.

“For others it will be putting a name on your helmet or on the back of your shirt.

“So understand that activism does not look like one thing.”

Clarke discussed strategies that athletes might develop.

“You don’t have to agree,” she said. “Many times experiences are different, and there need to be rules of engagement that when I’m listening, I’m listening empathetically, I’m not listening so that I’m going to give my argument of why you are wrong.

“It’s a matter of standing outside what you know and being totally receptive to the other person’s perspective, with no other agenda than understanding. Not agreeing – understanding.

“If I’m a good team-mate I’m not going to impose posturing of protest on you. I may take a posture. And you may take a very different posture. And I have to respect the fact that you are making your own individual choice.

“I may want you to take my posture, but I have to respect the fact that you are going to, based on your decision-making skills, you are going to make the best decision for yourself.

“Versus, ‘if you don’t take the same position as me, then I see that as a push-back of your respect for me or for the common good’.

“People can be in the exact same position but actually act in a different way. We have to respect that there are a plethora of different ways in which you can show your position.”

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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