Last night saw swimmer Simone Manuel bag a gold medal in the women’s 100 meter freestyle race for team USA. Winning gold in the pool is hardly a new experience for the team, after all, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phelps made history by taking his personal haul of gold medals to a mind boggling 22. Team USA has dominated Olympic swimming for many years, but with Simone Manuel we saw another barrier fall as she made her own slice of history.
Not only was Simone the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold in the pool, she is also the first black female Olympic swimming gold medal winner. At the end of a thrilling race Simone and Canadian rival Penny Oleksiak touched the wall at the same instant and incredibly we saw two gold medals awarded from the same race. In doing so Simone and Penny also set a new Olympic record. In years to come, Manuel’s Olympic record may well fall, but she has achieved a first that no-one can ever take away from her. After the race, Manuel said that she hoped her win would inspire others to take up her sport.
“The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for some of the African-Americans that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can’t do it.”
“I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it.”
Manuel was keen to play down the color of her skin but acknowledged that color would be a factor in the reporting of her success and recognized that “it goes with the territory.”
The BBC recognizes Manuel’s success and says that Simone’s win is especially important because “African-Americans have been shut out of swimming pools for generations.”
Simone has had to overcome statistics that show children are much less likely to swim if their parents are not swimmers. Disturbingly, USA swimming estimates that 70 percent of African-American and Hispanic kids in the U.S. cannot swim. Swimming is not compulsory in U.S. schools, all obstacles that Manuel has had to overcome on her journey to gold.
The BBC argues that this is a throwback to the dark days of racial segregation.
“Swimming pools have been a racially sensitive flashpoint in the US for generations. African-American people were often denied access to pools in the segregation era, and even after its abolition white people found other ways to exclude them. Nor has building pools for black areas been a priority.”
Of course,it is not just the U.S. that has a diversity problem when it comes to swimming. It seems incredible that it has taken until 2016 for us to see a black woman win a gold medal in the pool. Simone has truly broken down a barrier, but the fact the media has focused on Manuel’s race when describing her win indicates that there is still a very long way to go.
Simone says that she looks forward to a time when the focus was on her sport and not her race.
“I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer.’
“The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”
According to the Guardian, the significance of her win at a time of heightened racial tension was not lost on 20-year-old Manuel. Speaking after the race Simone said that she hoped her win would “bring hope.”
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
It may still be some time before Simone Manuel is simply lauded as “Simone the swimmer” rather than “Simone the black swimmer.” It can only be hoped that Manuel’s massive achievements in the pool helps to inspire female swimmers across the globe. Simone’s most important achievement may just be the fact that she has dislodged another brick in the wall of racial discrimination and segregation.
If Simone Manuel’s success moves race relations forward then her gold medal might just prove to be the most important of this years Olympic games.
[Photo by Matt Slocum/AP]