A great moment in history? Or will Simone Manuel’s golden night turn into an Olympic footnote?
What we’ll remember most are Simone Manuel’s tears. They were not tears of sadness; they were tears of glee, the result of having achieved something truly extraordinary.
For Manuel did indeed achieve something out of this world Thursday night in Rio — something no black woman had ever done in the Olympics. Manuel, a 20-year-old Stanford student, won a gold medal in swimming.
Sports historians and TV commentators might easily overlook her victory in the 100-meter freestyle. The latter group did overlook it. They got lost in the rush to point their cameras at Michael Phelps and in the red, white and blue pomp and circumstances that surrounded his quest to add more gold medals to his trophy case.
We can understand the universal attention Phelps gets. He makes history each time he jumps into an Olympic pool. To ignore his dominance in swimming would be an injustice of its own.
But somewhere along the way, TV commentators at the Rio de Janeiro Games should have taken a bit more than a minute to trumpet what Manuel had done in tying Canadian Penny Oleksiak for the gold medal.
“The gold medal wasn’t just for me,” Manuel told the sports world after her victory. “It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport.”
In terms of totals, her one gold pales next to the 22 golds that the aquatic virtuoso Phelps boasts. Yet her victory is about more than numbers; it’s about trailblazing. Manuel buried the myth that black folks can’t swim.
The notion that blacks can’t swim, which Manuel slayed, might as well be a comedy skit, one that draws laughter because of its absurdity.
We’ve all heard jokes like this one: Everybody knows black people can’t swim. If we could, we wouldn’t be here.
Yes, we can laugh. Perhaps we ought to laugh, too, because humor takes the edge off the issue. What we can’t laugh about are the statistics: According a recent study for USA Swimming, 70 percent of black youths can’t swim, compared with 40 percent of white youths.
Those numbers, however, don’t mean blacks don’t swim.
Still, inside the first statistic is an obvious conclusion: The pool of potential Olympic swimmers of color is shallow.
Mix in this perceived fear of water, and we have a high hurdle to leap if that statistic is to change.
Even bigger than fear, though, is the racist aspects of this black-folk-can’t swim mythology. During slavery, we were prevented from swimming. For most of the last century, we were tied to Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court ruling that allowed white communities to operate “separate but equal” public pools.
History showed us that separate was inherently unequal, which meant that pools for black youth were an utter embarrassment, if those separate pools existed at all.
Private pools offered no relief here either, because they turned swimming into a sport for the well-to-do.
We don’t find swim clubs in the heart of the inner city, and the few public swimming pools and community centers in those areas are often in such disrepair that few of us rush to use them. We all have better things to do than swim in debris and filth.
Our success in swimming might have come somewhere along the way had a black Aqua Man – or a black Michael Phelps – stepped onto the Olympic stage the way golfer Tiger Woods did on the PGA Tour and Serena Williams did in women’s tennis. No one did … till now, maybe.
A golden performance like Manuel’s might have happened sooner, still, had the economics of swimming been what the economics of playing basketball are. Money matters in a real way in trying to master swimming; pools are costly to build and to maintain.
Nobody could ever find athletic success by using Lake Erie or Lake Pontchartrain as training grounds for the Summer Olympics, and that’s not a bit humorous.
Manuel could be the athlete who launches the next generation of Olympic swimmers – men and women who are athletic, determined and black.
Then again, Manuel could end up as little more than a black footnote, one of the long line of trailblazers of color whose successes go unappreciated because they prospered during somebody white’s era.