As an African American woman leading a youth sports foundation, I watched the recently completed Rio Olympic Games with a mixture of pride and professional interest. Pride because the athletic performances of African American women were amazing. Professional interest because the LA84 Foundation, a legacy of the 1984 Olympic Games, provides sports opportunities for historically underserved populations. We seek to level the playing field so that all youth, despite their economic situation, skin color, religion, or intellectual or physical abilities have equal opportunity to experience the power of sport.
Throughout the Rio Games, there were many magical moments. As I watched female African American Olympians move from success to success, the phrase that kept coming to mind was — #blackgirlmagic. Yes, I realize Olympic medals are evidence of hard work, perseverance and incredible self-discipline, not magic, but for those of us in the audience the results felt magical.
African American women went 1–2 in the long jump and 1–2–3 in the 100-meter hurdles. The 100- and 400-meter sprint relay teams were composed entirely of black women. Simone Biles led the US to gold in team gymnastics and walked away with the individual all-around title, becoming the second black women to do so following teammate Gabby Douglas’ performance in the London Games in 2012. African American women in Rio also achieved “firsts” as gold-medal winners in swimming and water polo. Collectively, these women won 15 individual and team gold medals, higher than all but five nations’ gold-medal totals.
Equally striking was how often African American women athletes sparked national conversations beyond the field of play.
Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, discussed police violence and the personal pressure of breaking down racial barriers. Ashleigh Johnson, the goalie of the winning USA water polo team, similarly has reflected on the responsibility of being a trailblazer. Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won a bronze medal in team fencing while wearing a hijab, spoke out about discrimination against American Muslims in an era when the presidential candidate representing one of our two major parties fans the flames of Islamophobia. Claressa Shields won her second straight gold medal in boxing and used her platform to remind us of the challenges that remain in Flint, Michigan. And, Michelle Carter, the 256-pound shot put (diva) and gold-medal winner, encouraged us to reconsider our traditional concepts of female beauty.
African American women represented one aspect of a larger story of women in Rio. Reaping the benefits of 44 years of Title IX, women were the majority of athletes on the 2016 US Olympic team and won most of the American medals. In Rio, women established themselves as full partners in Team USA. Join me in commending the US Olympic Committee, the national governing bodies, and my LA84 predecessor, International Olympic Committee member Anita L. DeFrantz, a 1976 rowing medalist, who has been instrumental in expanding the number of women’s Olympic events, for their tremendous support. Let’s continue to expand opportunities so that an even broader range of girls and women has full access to sports opportunities.
“The five interlocking colors of the Olympic rings for me represent diversity and inclusion throughout the world. The progress from decades of struggles in our country succeeded as we expanded opportunities for women and minorities.”
With the Rio Olympic Games ending and the Paralympics beginning, note my short wish list for the future:
First, hijab-wearing American Olympians and medal-winning African American women in swimming, water polo and other such sports are no longer remarkable.
Second, we have more reasons to celebrate #browngirlmagic. Latinas remain significantly underrepresented in sports. Mexican American bronze-medal weightlifter Sarah Robles said that part of her mission in Rio was to “inspire young Latino athletes.” Runner Brenda Martinez, gymnast Laurie Hernandez, synchronized swimmer Anita Alvarez, Diana Taurasi in basketball, Angelica Delgado in judo and Melissa Gonzalez in field hockey also provided inspiration in Brazil. However, if their inspiration is going to pay off, we need purposeful strategies that encourage Latina participation and enable Latino girls (and boys) to develop their athletic skills as far as their talent will take them.
Third, Paralympians and aspiring Paralympians receive more respect than they have been shown in Rio. The last-minute scaling back of the Rio Paralympics is an indignity. We should all be expanding opportunities for disabled athletes.
The five interlocking colors of the Olympic rings for me represent diversity and inclusion throughout the world. The progress from decades of struggles in our country succeeded as we expanded opportunities for women and minorities.
Here’s hoping that thanks in part to some #blackgirlmagic these past weeks the rest of the world took notice. We’ve accomplished a lot, but more work needs to be done. LA84 will continue its part in #PlayingForward. Will you be willing to join us?