For better or worse, the Tokyo Olympics are finally here. And that means an extraordinary burden will fall again on the shoulders of a single group of athletes: Black women.
Simone Biles is one of the most brilliant talents at the Games. But if recent history holds and she tries her most stunning moves in Tokyo, gymnastics officials will place an arbitrary limit on her score. Some say this is meant to discourage other competitors from attempting similarly dangerous aerial maneuvers. I say the sport’s regulators cannot deal with her sheer audacity.
Naomi Osaka is a supernova, perhaps the most widely known female athlete on the planet not named Serena Williams, Osaka’s idol who astutely decided not to bother with the Games. But Osaka will get tossed under the bus if she is not polite and pleasant in her interviews with the news media, a backlash prompted by her withdrawal from the French Open because she did not want to participate in news conferences there. That pressure exists alongside the dread that she’ll be derided as either too Black or not Japanese enough if she does not win a gold medal.
Gwen Berry is one of the most powerful hammer throwers in the world and one of the boldest athletes in protesting racism and injustice. But the Olympic overlords have made clear she’d better behave on the medal stand — or else.
These Games will have a split personality. They will lay bare the Olympics’ greedy quest for billions of dollars in profits from sponsorships and television contracts that, in this case, have forced the event upon a Japanese public that wants them canceled amid a surge in coronavirus infections and state of emergency.
They will provide heart-stopping, dramatic performances, although no fans will be able to watch in person.
They will show something else. The structure that wraps around and organizes sports, particularly the Olympic movement, fails in supporting women — distinctly so for Black women.
Biles, Osaka and Berry are not alone.
When Alice Dearing becomes the first Black British woman to compete in swimming, you won’t see her wearing the newly created Soul Cap, explicitly designed to accommodate thicker, curlier hair. The international swimming federation banned it.
And hovering over these games like ghosts will be several prominent Black women kept from competing.
Who will watch the women’s 100-meter dash without thinking about Sha’Carri Richardson, the American sprinter suspended from competing because of a violation of the harsh, unnecessary rules prohibiting marijuana use that are enforced by a power structure that barely includes Black voices?
Who will watch the women’s 800-meter race without thinking of Caster Semenya, who dominated while winning gold in that event at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics? She won’t defend those titles in Tokyo because track officials have decreed that her body produces too much testosterone.
Funny, nobody sought to ban swimmer Michael Phelps for his naturally occurring hyper- and double-extended joints, longer-than-average torso and wingspan, or powerful lung capacity.
July 23, 2021, 2:45 a.m. ET
Phelps is white and American. He has clout in every way.
Semenya is a Black woman from South Africa. She is treated with a lack of respect and a disregard for her humanity.
She is hardly the only Black or brown woman discriminated against by a system whose lodestar is the Eurocentric, Swiss-based International Olympic Committee.
The I.O.C. swaddles the Games in gauzy myth and claims to be politically neutral and divorced from the brutal truths of the world. But that’s a lie. The Games mirror society. The heavy burden Black women carry in all walks of life will be carried by Black female athletes competing in Tokyo.
The expectation for many is that they perform perfectly and become headliners who sell the event.
The expectation is also that they be ambassadors for their nations, even as they struggle for equality at home and respect from the federations, governing bodies, sponsors and media who make up the rules and mores of their sports.
The pressure will be intense. Outside of professional tennis, women’s sports are never valued enough. That makes the Olympics, by default, the single greatest platform for their overall recognition. When the spotlight is not on female athletes, the fight is even harder.
Away from the quadrennial glare, Allyson Felix, the African American sprinting star, left Nike in disgust in 2019 when the shoe company offered a contract that cut her pay by 70 percent after she gave birth. The work never ends. In Tokyo, even as she bids to become the most decorated female track athlete in Olympic history, Felix is leading an effort with her new sponsor, Athleta, to offer grant money for basic needs like child care to Olympic athletes who are mothers.
That responsibility shouldn’t be on her.
The phrase Black Girl Magic gets bandied about a great deal during the Olympics. But Black Girl Magic, as laudably comforting as that phrase seems, comes with its own cost: the pressure to be perfect thrust at women from every direction.
Just ask Richardson.
As the sprinter’s imbroglio unfolded on social media, Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State, watched with a nuanced eye.
“There was a short period where word got out that Sha’Carri failed a drug test, and in that period before people knew it was marijuana, you could see how quickly her image changed, how quickly all the praise she’d been getting was thrown out and she became this sort of disposable joke,” Davis said.
She continued: “Eventually, her cause became something you could trumpet. But before that, there was a window of time where you could see that individually she was no longer useful as this symbol of Black Girl Magic. So that idea got tossed out. She became something you could throw away and forget about.”
All athletes know how quickly they can be forgotten and dismissed. But Black women know this better than anyone else.
In the Olympics, none of this is new.
A through line connects the athletes of old to the athletes of today. In the American context, we can start with the track stars Louise Stokes and Tidye Picket, who in 1932 became the first Black women to qualify for an Olympic team. On the trip to Los Angeles, where the Games took place that year, they faced harassment from their own team members including Mildred “Babe” Didrikson. Then, when the competition began, they watched from the sidelines, with no explanation given for their exclusion.
Chances are, this is the first time you have heard of their story.
Who gets remembered, and who gets forgotten?
And yet Black women press forward. At the Tokyo Games, they will show up and show out.
That’s not magic. It’s work in the face of bitter reality.