Why Are There So Many Black Athletes in the Olympics?

Sisters Venus and Serena Williams changed the face of tennis when they appeared on the tennis scene around a decade ago, and are still winning Grand Slams and bringing home Olympic medals today.

“Mom, why are there so many black people in the Olympics?” my 12 year-old son asked me last night, when my three kids and I were sitting around the television, watching the opening ceremonies together. It was obvious why he asked that question. As nation after nation marched past on the screen, it was interesting to note how many of them had darker complexions and probable African heritage, like me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the only countries that were not represented by at least one black athlete were North Korea and Iran. Though I could be mistaken.

I didn’t really know how to answer my son’s question though. Um…because Black people are awesome at sports? No, that’s just a stereotype. Even though I’ve always been pretty good at sports. Even though my kids appear to be graced by some natural athletic talent. Even though my sisters, my brother, both my parents, many cousins, and even my aunts and uncles (including one that used to play for the Minnesota Vikings) have all excelled at one sport or another at some point in their lives. Even though I cannot recall having ever met a single black person, within my family or outside, who was not coordinated, good with a ball, and able to run fast. Ooof! Now I am only perpetuating a stereotype. Or is it?

Yes and no, say anthropologists. Although it is illogical (and, in fact, racist and ridiculous) to say that all people with dark complexions are superior athletes, there is some actual evidence of high concentrations of people in certain regions of Africa with a great deal fast-twitch muscles — the muscle structure that gives one the ability to sprint very quickly, for short distances. There are other genetic reasons, too, for success in particular types of sports, such as shorter torsos/longer legs, increased lung capacity, and higher levels of testosterone than the general population. No, not all black people have these genetic tendencies. Okay, I probably do. And at least two of my kids appear to be built like me. But not all of us! Really, I think that natural talent is only one side of the coin, anyway. It takes interest in sports, too, which often comes from one’s family culture. And some sports are expensive…one reason one comedian used to joke that “Black people only do sports you can do for free in the park.” With the rise in more affluent Black American families, we are starting to see more black athletes playing sports that were traditionally accessible only to wealthier white families, such as tennis, gymnastics, and swimming. (Let’s not forget…the stereotypes also suggest that black people cannot swim, which is now negated by the appearance of more black Olympic swimmers).

Cullen Jones is only the second Black American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics and bring home a gold medal.

So what did I tell my kids last night? “I don’t really know why there are so many black athletes. But isn’t it great to see so many different types of people come together to compete in sports?” Because although it is a neat feeling to see people who look like me do well in sports, that is not the point of the Olympic Games. It is about people with every shade of skin color, from every region of the world, representing their countries in the ultimate competition. And one day, should my own children be among the group of Americans marching around the Olympic stadium during Opening Ceremonies, I hope that people will not see them and say, “Look, there goes a black athlete!” But instead, say, “Look, there goes a great American athlete!”

Olympic gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco are excelling in sports that were traditionally closed to many black athletes, due to the high cost of training and lack of facilities.