For an elite athlete, there’s no time to dwell on skin color as you’re trying to perfect a difficult dismount. Rather, it’s a passing thought.
The first Olympics I ever paid attention to were the 1996 Summer Games. I was 11 years old, just sort of starting to become a person and working out my various identities: female, black (or black, then female?), child of a Jamaican immigrant and a Southerner, a Californian, a writer, a devourer of books, a sports-hater. Those Summer Games were probably my first taste of sweet, sweet nationalism, even if I was oft-torn between Jamaica and the United States.
Of course, that was the summer of the Magnificent 7 and Dominique Dawes. We—my family, my community—were fiercely proud of her. While it was Kerri Strug who provided the most compelling story (watching her vault painfully, beautifully, on a fractured ankle in fuzzy YouTube videos still brings me to tears), Dominique was solid—and her tumbling on beam was a sight to behold.
You might know the story. Dawes was a leading scorer for Team USA, helping the U.S. bring home its very first team gold in gymnastics, and, herself, becoming the first gold-medal-winning black gymnast ever. Unfortunately, Dawes couldn’t quite get it together for the all-around competition, and she failed to medal.
Sixteen years later, Gabby Douglas took it a step further. The 16-year-old Virginia native, who packed up, left her family, and moved to Iowa two years ago in order to focus on her training, became the first black woman to win an all-around gold medal in Olympic gymnastics.
That matters—that Gabby Douglas is black—but it also doesn’t.
BLACK ATHLETES HAVE COMPETED in the modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896. The first to win gold was John Taylor, an American from Washington, D.C., who was part of the 1,600-meter relay team in the 1908 Games. Taylor died of typhoid fever six months later at the age of 26. (From his eulogy: “He never gave any bother, worked hard, and was always on time.”)
But Taylor’s gold was a harbinger. In the time since, black athletes have largely distinguished themselves in track-and-field events—often beautifully so. It’s amazing to watch Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Price (Jamaicans!) outrun everyone else so gracefully and so powerfully. As with track and field, over Olympic history black athletes have tended to be great at the summer sports that don’t require much in the way of equipment or money. And sure, today, the swiftest runners train at multi-million-dollar facilities, and the great boxers get the best mouth guards money can buy, but historic economic disparities have created a modern culture in which blacks excel at the 100-meter sprint, while archery remains almost totally white (and now, Asian).
It’s only in recent years that we’ve seen black American athletes appear with any frequency in more expensive, more complex sports. And that’s why Dawes, Shani Davis, Venus and Serena Williams and now, Gabby Douglas, are so exciting to watch. We’ve seen great gymnasts, fast speed skaters, and totally dominant tennis players. It’s just—they’ve almost never been black. So when Cullen Jones wins silver swimming the 50-meter freestyle, it means another medal for America, but it also means something more.