Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why aren't there more African-American Olympians?

Here's a short quiz, just a few questions.
Name an African-American golfer.
Name an African-American tennis player.
Name an African-American Olympic swimmer.
Name an African-American Olympic gymnast.
Name any African-American winter Olympian.

I'm betting that most people came up with the same answers; your responses probably include the names Woods, Williams, Jones, Dawes, Douglas, Thomas. If you're a real sports enthusiast and historian, you might have a few more. But, even that's a short list.

I heard a sports commentator mention that perhaps now with Gabby Douglas winning Olympic Gold in gymnastics, she may inspire a new generation of African-American young girls to want to be gymnasts. (Gabby is the second African-American Olympic Gymnast and the first to win an individual Gold, following Dominique Dawes' team Gold, if you've missed the Olympic chatter.) And it made me wonder – is it inspiration that African-Americans are missing or something else that keeps them from the Olympic team? Same question for those other sports where African-Americans are in the definite majority, so much so that there's only a few select names in this athletic fraternity.

Experts in at least the fields of sports, history, sociology, economics, political science, urban planning, and cultural anthropology could probably come up with a more thorough explanation, but it seems to me that the limiting factors include:
- Money, i.e disposable income
- Access or opportunity
- The cultural idea or stereotype that "Black people don't do –that – "
- Interest or awareness of the sport at all, as well as how to train in it
- Role models and familiar examples

Most of the sports I listed above are what many consider to be "country club activities" or those of the rich and famous. I mean, golf is not a cheap sport, even if you aren't that good. There's clubs and greens fees and shoes. And it has to be somewhere where there's a lot of green, open space.

But what about swimming, how much could a bathing suit cost, right? Swimming unfortunately, is definitely one that falls in the "Black people don't do that" category. So much so that African-American children are much more likely to drown than White children. (Such a childhood accident is what prompted Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones to learn to swim.) But even after a child gets over the hurdle of learning to swim, if he wants to swim competitively, its not a cheap sport either. There's pool memberships, team memberships, team lessons, team uniforms. Then you've got to get to practice and the meets. And if you really want to be good and go far, you need a coach and more training. And a parent or somebody needs to know all the tips and the right steps to get the kid where he needs to be in order to get noticed. And can go to meets which last hours upon hours. Its not that easy.

My daughter participated in a tennis tournament last week in which one of the other teams participating was from Southeast DC. If you know anything about tennis or the Southeast corner of DC, or both, you probably know that these two terms rarely are thought of together. I spoke with Yvonne, one of the coaches about her team. The handful of players were all under 10, but she said that the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center actually serves about 60 children. The after-school program provides homework help, tutoring, and tennis lessons and practice, as a way to improve the lives of the children and encourage them to go to college. Without the program, probably none of them would be playing tennis, she guessed. Why? Because their families couldn't afford it. Tennis is another expensive sport. She mentioned how some of the kids in the program get so good that they are invited to play at some of the best training sites in the area and they leave the Southeast program. But, fortunately or not, most end up coming back after awhile because the family can't afford to continue to send them to the higher cost tennis centers. The center has, however, been successful in sending a number of its students on to play tennis in college, giving them the opportunity to get a higher education.

We also have to consider the impact of role models. Not only famous folks, but the daily role models that kids have – their family and friends. How many are seeing their parents go off ice skating, how many are going on ski trips for vacation? I'd guess there are more now, than even a generation ago. How long until this is such a part of African-American culture or in the field of interest that young children will consider taking to the ice to grow into professionals?

Now, don't take away from this that no African-Americans have these factors going for them or that no other people face the same barriers. But, I do believe that they do impact the African-American population at a slightly different rate than the majority. This is on top of all the work, talent, and good fortune necessary to become a professional anything and it complicates the computations even more.

Do I have a solution? Not at all, we can leave that to all those experts I referenced above and anyone else who studies some portion of this. But I do think that parents and communities can improve children's lives by exposing them to new and different experiences. Whether they make it to a Gold medal, find a new hobby, or can definitively say they don't like it, just knowing about the options available to them can help them be a more rounded and interesting person.

Team handball, anyone?


mztine said...

Great post. My family and I are really making an effort to expose our boys to non traditional sports and activities--swimming, skiing, etc. We really want them to not view Black people skiing and swimming as some sort of abnormality. So far, so good. :-)

Mommyx4 said...

Great! And I'm sure they are telling their friends "yeah, we went skiiing last weekend" and sharing with them that experience - so you end up influencing even more children than just your own.