The Olympics and the Role of Race in Athletic Choices
By David J. Leonard
Eye on Culture
In a column on Huffington Post, Kelli Goff dared to ask the unthinkable: “Why Are Some Olympic Sports Whiter Than Others?” Noting the lack of diversity in many Olympics sports, Goff attempts to answer why Gabby Douglas, Lia Neal and Keith Smart (fencing) are anomalies in the white world of sports. While noting class, environment, differential opportunities, and countless other factors, Goff stays clear of racism:
Before the eye rolling begins, this is not a column about rampant racism in sports. But it is an attempt to understand why some sports end up predominated by one racial group versus others, and the long-term social and cultural implications of such segregation on the field, court, or gymnastics mat.
Goff highlights some important issues, although the avoidance of directly exploring race, racism, and segregation leaves an incomplete answer. In 2000, Harry Edwards reflected on how race and racism impacted sporting choices:
In ninety-five percent of American sports, the white athlete is there in numbers and dominant. The white athlete is there in swimming. The white athlete is there in diving. The white athlete is there in water polo. The white athlete is there in golf. The white athlete is there in tennis. The white athlete is there in badminton. The white athlete is there in auto racing. The white athlete is there in horse racing. The white athlete is there in soccer, walking, gymnastics, and all the winter sports in dominant numbers. What happened to the white athlete? The white athlete is there, except in those three, four, or five sports where blacks have had access.
Embodying class inequalities, a history of discrimination, and the realities of residential segregation, many Olympic sports are dominated by whites because the spaces, the neighborhoods, the schools and the very institutions that produce those recreational and elite athletes are racially segregated. Whether swimming, diving or gymnastics, the pipeline to the Olympics is one where youth of color find difficult entry, if not outright exclusion. We need to look further than American schools.
Surrounded by immensely segregated schools, Culver City School is likely one of the most diverse schools in Los Angeles. Although possessing a student population that is 37% Latino; 25% black; 22% white and 15% Asian, its diversity of school doesn’t translate to endless sporting opportunities. Not surprisingly it lags behind schools with significant white student demographics in terms of sporting opportunities yet exceeds those opportunities available at schools that are overwhelmingly black and Latino. It offers the following: Baseball, Boys Basketball, Football, Lacrosse, Soccer, Track & Field, Boys Volleyball, Water Polo, Boys Wrestling, Girls Basketball, Girls Lacrosse, Girls Soccer, Softball, Girls Track & Field, Girls Volleyball, and Water Polo.
Just a few miles away from Culver City lies Beverly Hills High school, a school that is 70% white, 18% Asian, 6.5% black and 5% Latino. As expected, the school with its famous zip code – 91022 (close enough), offers endless academic opportunities and immaculate facilities (including a retractable basketball court that opens up to a swimming pool). It also provides students with access to countless sports.
Although Beverly Hills High occasionally competes against Dominguez High in a basketball tournament, there is no golf, wrestling, water polo or swimming rivalry between the cross-freeway (intra-segregation) rivals. The Compton School district (which has three high schools – Dominguez, Centennial and Compton) is the face of American public education: segregated, underfunded, and left behind. With high schools that are over 97% black and Latino, it should come as no surprise that athletic schedules begin and end with basketball, football, soccer, baseball, volleyball, and track and field.
Just south and west of Compton, in what might as well be another world, is Huntington Beach High School. A school that is 64% white, compared to 16% Latino, 10% AAPI, 7% Native American and 1% African American offers a range of sports, many of which are Olympic sports.
Such inequalities and segregation within communities, schools and sports is not limited to Los Angeles, but is evident throughout the United States (as well as with differential access to private schools). While this issue cuts across gender lines, it is particularly visible with girls of color. In “The Color Gap in Girls' Sports,” Sara Clarke Kaplan highlights this inequality, comparing the sports offered at Washington D.C. schools to those in Arlington County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. She argues that whereas D.C. (and most urban school districts) offer “varsity basketball, volleyball, softball, and track for girls” those neighboring suburban districts offer the “big 4” along with “soccer, field hockey, tennis, swimming, gymnastics -- even crew.”
The impact of segregation is quite clear: roughly 85-95% of (white) suburban youth play sports. As we compare this to 15-25 percent of those living in urban areas who play sports, we begin to understand the wages of whiteness and how much they pay dividend inside and outside the Olympic arena.
While it would be easy to attribute these numbers, the stark differences between sporting opportunities and the racial segregation visible within the U.S. Olympic team to class, the history of racial segregation demonstrates that whether looking at redlining, subprime loans, and the housing industry - race matters.David J. Leonard is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and co-editor of Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (Rowman and Littlefield). He is the author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as we as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, Slam, and racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.
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