Gold Medal Summer (aka: Let the Games Begin)

Olympic Rings

That magical time is upon us again. Every four years, we gather around our television sets to boooo our opponents, to pump our fists in the air and cheer on our favorites. USA! USA! 

No, I’m not referring to the Democratic or Republican National Conventions. Although the presidential election political circus is in high gear around this time, too.

summer games video game 80sTonight is the opening ceremony for the XXXI Summer Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hooray! Hurrah! My kids and I plan to celebrate American-style by sitting around the television with slices of gourmet veggie pizza, commenting on the arrival of the olympic athletes and wondering where in the world countries like Tuvalu, Nauru, and Bhutan are located. Then we will ooh and aah at what’s sure to be a colorful, dizzying display of music and dancing of Brasilian Carnaval proportions.

Then finally, someone will ceremoniously light the ancient torch (insert more ooohs and aaahs), fireworks will explode overhead, and the games will officially kick off.

Rio Olympics racing runners track

I enjoy just about every sport in the Summer Games, except maybe wrestling. It’s so much fun to admire the displays of strength, speed, and grace as divers and gymnasts flip through the air, sprinters race like the wind, and soccer teams battle it out on the field. They are not only athletes – they are the elite, the amazing, the best of the best. The ones who spent hours every day training to bring home gold medals while the rest of us struggled to jog a mile on the treadmill a couple of times a week.

Our family’s favorite sport to watch during the Olympic Games is women’s artistic gymnastics. This is in part due to my 14yo daughter, the former gymnast. She once trained and competed at a level close to these elite Olympians, and still has the bulky shoulders to prove it. Some days, she is wistful, missing those chalk dust days in the gym, swinging and tumbling with her gymnastics teammates. But then she remembers how much work, commitment, and dedication it took to compete at such a level, and she is once again content to relax and cheer on Simone Biles and the rest of our national gymnastics team.

Rio Olympics 2016 Simone Biles gymnastics leap

Wherever you are in the world, I hope that you are able to gather somewhere with friends or family and cheer on your favorite country as they run, swim, tumble, and jump in the ultimate sports competition. May our athletes make it through without getting bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. And may they continue to inspire the rest of us to get off our couches and into the gym, even if our greatest competition is against ourselves. Have some pizza, on me. And – LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

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.