Unfortunately, the word racism has been inextricably linked with sports for ages. It is common knowledge now that black players and athletes have historically been, and still are, subjected to racist slurs and comments on the field.
However, the stigma of racism is not often attached to sports like swimming. That does not mean it is not present in it.
Swimming is one of the major sports in the US with millions of participants pursuing it as a career. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of swimmers in the US is white. As per a report published by the USA Swimming Foundation in 2017, 64% of Black/African-American children do not know how to swim, as compared to 45% of Hispanic children and 40% of white children. It is, thus, no wonder that we do not hear success stories of black swimmers that often.
Blacks were not allowed to visit the pools
Historically, the major issue for black people interested in swimming was the lack of access to pools because of racial inequality. The discrimination was rampant and systemic.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, black people were debarred from entering public pools in the US with "Only Whites" signboards displayed on the wall or gate. During that period, municipal swimming pools and urban amusement parks began to thrive, but they continued to exclude African-American people.
When the public pools were finally desegregated, riots and violence ensued, that eventually led to an imposition of a ban on black people visiting the pools.
Even today, we hear of stories of black people facing discrimination in public pools despite the huge awareness campaigns against racism and despite all such restrictions having been officially abolished.
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How did swimming become an activity of the privileged in the US?
Fom the early 1970s to the 1990s, the majority of the states and cities in the United States halted the construction of public pools due to the growing popularity of private pools in the country.
Private swimming pools are known to charge exorbitant membership fees and are inherently discriminatory, favoring the rich. This led to black swimmers again missing out on access to pools because they predominantly belonged to the underprivileged sections of the society.
According to a report by the Economic Institute Policy's State of Working America Wages 2019, black Americans in the US earn an average of 27.5% less than white Americans. This means swimming is still not an option for many black swimmers today because of their inability to get memberships to private pools.
A woman who became a hero for black swimmers
Former Dutch swimming star Enith Brigitha became a beacon of hope for many black swimmers around the world after the 1976 Olympics. Brigitha created history at the Montreal Olympics by becoming the first black swimmer to win an Olympic medal. She won two bronze medals in the 100m and 200m freestyle events.
Enith Brigitha's historic feat at the Olympics gave rise to many elite black swimmers in the US, such as Cullen Jones, Simone Manuel, Lia Neal, and others. Simone Manuel became a poster girl for the black community in 2016 after becoming the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Gold in the 100m Freestyle at the Rio Olympics.
Representation of the black community in swimming in recent years in the US
Last year, Cullen Jones, Lia Neal, Simone Manuel, and others came forward to raise their voices for black swimmers in the US.
Jones is the most prolific black swimmer in US swimming history with four Olympic medals under his belt. He created a group chat of black swimmers in order to unite and bring about a change in public perception.
"You need to address this head on because I’m not talking about myself anymore because I have retired and I’m not training for 2021. Not only Olympians but Olympic hopefuls are coming up, and they are not only people that are going to contribute to Team USA, they are leaders on your team" - Cullen Jones told to USA TODAY Sports.
This came in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. Cullen Jones had thenshared his experience of being black with a picture of George Floyd on his Instagram handle.
The participation of black swimmers might have increased in the US over the years, but a 2019 report by the USA Swimming Foundation suggests there's a lot that needs to be done. It says only 1.5% of 327,337 swimmers registered with USA Swimming are African-Americans.