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Olympian achievements

16 August 2012 by Richard

photo of museum display

Jesse Owens on the International Slavery Museum’s Fight for Freedom and Equality Wall ©Lee Garland

Hello,

I could not miss the opportunity of an Olympic themed blog.  I enjoyed these past few weeks (I now know about ippon and not to pop out of the room before the 50m freestyle) and am looking forward to the Paralympics. That being said, I am not sure whether the Olympics warranted the lead news item most evenings.   The world does not put everything on hold for such events.

On several occasions the discussion focused on the achievements of Black athletes, in particular sprinters form the Caribbean and the US. A recent programme which featured Olympian Michael Johnson called Survival of the Fastest looked at whether African American and Caribbean athletes are successful as a result of a legacy of transatlantic slavery. Johnson met sport and science experts and leading historians to examine the link between transatlantic slavery, genetics and plantation ‘breeding programmes’. Did the physical stature of many enslaved Africans forced to carry out backbreaking and deadly physical labour have a role to play in altering the genomes of their descendants?

John Inverdale asked Johnson and Colin Jackson the question and although Johnson believed it might have had an important part to play it was not the full story. He noted that hard work, dedication, training facilities and in the case of Jamaica, that sprinting was probably the national sport, are all factors. Jackson then noted that ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’ was the key. Many scholars feel that it is ‘socio-economic factors’ rather than physical attributes alone which account for the success of Black athletes in certain sports such as sprinting and basketball. It is a fine line between a serious debate though and old stereotypes about evolutionary development being reinforced. 
 
The work of activist and sociologist Dr Harry Edwards is worth reading on this subject. He points out that although African Americans might excel in certain sports the vast majority of sports are dominated by white athletes. I can’t recall a discussion about the lack of Black athletes competing in sailing or equestrian events. I doubt the success of Trinidad and Tobago’s gold medallist Keshorn Walcott in the men’s javelin or the US’s Gabby Douglas, the first Black individual all-around gymnastics gold medalist was purely down to physical attributes, or a divine talent they were born with, rather their work ethic and endless hours of practice and dedication had something to do with it. It is a controversial and complicated debate and one which has raged for many years.

Dr Edwards was the founder of the The Olympic Project for Human Rights which highlighted racial segregation in the United States and included the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who gave the famous raised fist salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Interestingly, in his autobiography ‘Silent Gesture’, Tommie Smith referred to it as a “human rights salute”.  The image can be seen in the Legacy gallery of International Slavery Museum as can that of the legend Jesse Owens who destroyed the Nazi myth of Aryan racial supremacy by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Although he received a ticker-tape parade in New York for his endeavors, he was treated with contempt at the reception in his honour at the Waldorf Astoria hotel when instructed to take the service lift rather than the main lift, which was reserved for white guests. He was also snubbed by President Franklin Roosevelt who never congratulated Owens or invited him to the White House. In 1976 President Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the recognition he deserved, not before time.

Bye for now,

Richard

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