- Eurocentric restrictions make it difficult for Black women to fully participate in the Olympics.
- Historians say these rules are the lingering byproducts of racism and sexism within the Olympics.
- While the Olympics are getting more inclusive, it’s athletes themselves that are driving the push.
Olympians this year made headlines not for their incredible athletic feats or victories but for the obstacles standing in their way.
World Athletics, the international sports governing body, barred two Namibian women from running in various races because of their “natural high testosterone level,” the Namibia National Olympic Committee said.
Republican lawmakers chastised hammer thrower Gwen Berry for facing away from the US flag.
The US Anti-Doping Agency announced a 30-day ban for American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson after she tested positive for marijuana use, despite little evidence that the substance has a measurable impact on performance.
And the aquatic sports governing body banned the use of a swim cap designed to accommodate natural Black hair.
These incidents, sports historians say, underscore the deep racism and sexism rooted in the Olympics.
The policies and restrictions themselves aren’t racist or sexist, said Dr. Cat M. Ariail, a history professor at the Middle Tennessee State University. But when enforced, they often have racist and sexist implications that hinder Black women’s ability to participate fully in the Olympics.
These policies force Black women to alter or accommodate their biological needs or social experiences in ways white people do not have to.
Attempts to control the experiences of Black women
Berry, for example, faced sharp criticism for turning away from the US flag in June as the national anthem belted through the speakers. Big-name Republicans lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw amplified that criticism, indirectly accusing her of hating the US or fervently calling for her swift removal from the Games.
The hammer thrower expected the national anthem to play as she and the other athletes were walking out. But instead, it went off as they stood on the podium. That’s when Berry turned toward the stands and began waving a T-shirt that said “Activist Athlete” over her head. It was a peaceful protest that the GOP seized on, characterizing it as an abrasion to democracy and the spirit of the Games.
In response to the backlash, Berry said the comments show a commitment to “patriotism over basic morality,” arguing that the public places more value on respect to the country than taking a stand against its racist history. The vitriol, Berry and some writers suggested, is attempting to pressure her into choosing between the country and her lived experience as a Black woman in the US.
“US society, with its deeply embedded racism and sexism, makes it harder for a Black woman to become an elite athlete,” Ariail told Insider. “When she beats the odds and reaches such heights, the various policies and practices of sport organizations, many of which are not racist/sexist on the surface but have racist/sexist effects, often make it harder for her to fulfill her potential.”
Richardson took responsibility for the marijuana use, saying she did it to cope with the sudden notice of her biological mother’s death, devastating news delivered to her by a reporter. The decision shocked the nation, with many individuals asking about the legality of the ban.
Marijuana is legal in more than a dozen states nationwide. The use of medical marijuana is legal in even more. Richardson used it in Oregon, one of the states where it is legal. Studies have found that marijuana does not affect performance, but the substance is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances.
“It is a drug [whose] use long has been associated with Black people and people of color, which, in turn, has associated it with an’immorality’ believed to be inconsistent with the moral purity that Olympic and international sporting organizations impose on athletes,” Ariail said.
The Olympics has always had a problem with Black women
These incidents are not the first time the Olympics has discouraged Black women from participating. The history of the Olympics, sports historians say, is littered with examples of racism and sexism.
Gymnast Simone Biles last year spoke of the racism she’s experienced as an Olympian. “I was on a world scene, and what made the news was, another gymnast saying that if we painted our skin black maybe we would all win because I had beaten her out of beam medal, and she got upset,” she said on the TODAY show. “And that [was] really the news, rather than me winning worlds.”
The first time Black women participated in the Olympics was in 1932, according to Linda K. Fuller, a scholar who’s written multiple books on the intersection of sports and gender.
Since the 1930s, sports commentators have described Black women in racist terms, referring to them as “dancing monkey,” for example, Fuller said. In the 1950s and 1960s, renowned Black sprinter Wilma Rudolph was called the “Black Gazelle,” Fuller said , adding to the commentary that isolated her femaleness and Blackness.
Despite the enduring racism, Black women Olympians have continued to accomplish incredible athletic feats. And today, they continue to deal with racist and sexist policies meant to uphold a Eurocentric vision of the Olympics, Ariail and Fuller noted.
Just as racist policies are intrinsic to the Olympics, so is a history of activism and protest. In 1968, for example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists to protest racism in the United States, also while the national anthem played in the background.
Non-American athletes have also protested against injustice during the Olympics season.
Czechslovak gymnast Věra Čáslavská turned away from the Soviet flag in 1968 to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion into Czechoslovakia.
That historical context makes Berry’s demonstration at the podium seem far less unusual.
A push for inclusivity
Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Olympics has slowly been becoming more inclusive, Fuller said.
Still, racism and sexism are alive and well. An NBC sports anchor in 2012 praised gymnast Gabby Douglas’ accomplishments on air, only for his remarks to be immediately followed by an ad of a monkey doing gymnastics. The public promptly criticized both the ad and its timing.
The more recent examples of Black women barred from competition stir up anger from both the Olympians and the public because in some ways, the policies represent a continuation of these racist and sexist undertones still present in the Olympics.
—Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 28, 2021
—Sha’Carri Richardson (@itskerrii) July 1, 2021
But it’s the athletes — and specifically the Black women athletes — who are driving inclusivity within the Games.
“The success of Black American women, headlined by Wilma Rudolph in 1960, served as an inspiration for Black women and women of color in other countries, especially in then-recently decolonized African nations,” Ariail said.
Through a strong combination of protest and victory, Black women like Wilma Rudolph, Serena Williams, Biles, and the Olympians who’ve been slighted by seemingly arbitrary policies, Ariail said, encourage the diversification of the Olympics.