By Reginald Barbour
The first Olympics I can remember watching was in 1984 when Carl Lewis won four gold medals, Michael Jordan was part of the USA Men’s Basketball team and Cheryl Miller was on the USA Women’s Basketball team. They all came home with gold medals. As a young student athlete, I remember thinking the Olympics have to be the greatest of all achievements. Watching the games made me want to be there because I knew that was where the best in the world came to compete. Watching them get their medals was a moment of triumph for me.
I recently shared that story with my 75-year old father as we talked about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Seoul, Korea. His memories were vastly different from mine. He distinctly remembered Muhammad Ali being mistreated in this country after winning the gold in boxing in the 1960 Olympics.
“As a Black man,” he said. “Watching us win at the Olympics was triumphant for the moment. However, the reality was this country didn’t treat winning athletes or veterans who survived the war like heroes. We were constantly told through actions, words, and laws that we were less than. Ali’s win was great while it lasted.” It was reported that Muhammad Ali threw his gold medal over a bridge into a river after he was denied service at a restaurant in Ohio.
“However,” he said. “Ali stood up for all of us.”
I understood where he was coming from. One of my favorite pictures is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the traditional Black Power salute in the 1968 Olympics. What I’ve learned over the years is there was more symbolism on that podium than just their fists.
The two Black athletes received the medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride and Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with the blue-collar workers in the US and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats of the Middle Passage. Wikipedia
Tommie Smith also said, “We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.” And years later he said, “We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”
I’m still concerned too Tommie.
So as the opening day of the Winter Olympics is upon us, I will watch and cheer on the athletes representing our country, because I know how hard they’ve worked to get there. I know about the countless hours of practice and training it has taken for them to get this moment in their lives. Unfortunately, while I am cheering, I, like my father, am reminded that Black people are still fighting injustices at the world games. Associated Press reporter Errin Haines Whack headlined in her recent article “Coin Toss mirrors black experience beyond Olympics.” She told the story of Shani Davis who made history as the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics in 2006 and the winningest man in American speed skating. However, due to a coin toss Davis was not chosen to represent Team USA as its flag bearer in tonight’s opening ceremonies.
Whack said Davis’s outrage “resonated with African-Americans far beyond sports. For them, it was a familiar scenario: Despite being exception in a field dominated by whites, he was bypassed for a job he deserved. What’s more, when he pointed that out, he was shouted down as an ungrateful distraction.”
Black athletes at the Winter Olympics are treated as an anomaly, Whack said. The movie “Bobsled” about Jamaica’s first bobsled team was filled with an unspoken message: “The Winter Olympics, like certain schools, neighborhoods or jobs, is not a place where black people are supposed to be.”
Heavy sigh. I don’t know what it’s going to take for equality to truly happen and racial prejudices are put away. What I do know is despite the disrespect, they can’t take our moments of triumph away from us. Competition reveals the truth. It doesn’t have anything to do with status, money, or race. It’s plainly survival of the fittest.