Where sports and politics collide.
After US gymnast Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas made history after becoming the first person of African descent to win individual Olympic gold, I wrote that whether willingly or not she had joined the pantheon of political athletes. When it comes to “jocks for justice” there are two broad categories: “the explicit” and “the representative.” “The explicit” are people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Steve Nash: athletes who explicitly used their cultural capital to make political stands. The “representative” are those who become political symbols because they were trailblazers in their respective sports. Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Greg Louganis don’t necessarily have a record of political stands, but by virtue of their talent and ability to break through barriers, they carry the aspirations of countless others. Well, Gabrielle Douglas, is, at age 16, making a transition to being more explicit. She’s also learning that this comes with a price.
In the blush of Olympic Gold, the Washington Post wrote the following: “Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought.”
Now in the Olympics aftermath, she has come forward to say that others have chosen to see it for her.
Ms. Douglas recounted her experiences with bullying and racism at the Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Oprah Winfrey. She said, “One of my teammates was like, ‘Can you scrape the bar?’ And they were like, ‘Why doesn’t Gabby do it, she’s our slave?’ I definitely felt isolated, I felt ‘Why am I deserving this? Is it because I’m black?’ I was scared at my old gym to show my potential.… I was just holding back.” She also shared that it was an atmosphere where, “I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out.”
Douglas should be praised for speaking out about what she faced. But instead it’s earning an outrageous response.
Randy Stageburg, a world-class gymnast who trained at Excalibur, said, “The accusations that are being made against the gymnasts and coaches are just sickening…. Gabby was never a victim. In fact, many would say she was one of the favorites…. funny how it is just now coming up.”
What gives Stageburg the paranormal ability to account for discussions he didn’t witness, he does not disclose.
Excalibur Gymnastics CEO Gustavo Maure also accused Douglas of being “a liar.” “Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake.”
Another gymnast, Kristina Coccia, defended Excalibur by saying there was no racism at the gym and then followed up with this whammy: “What Gabby is saying makes me sick. She should stop playing the victim and pay back the money she owes.” (There is no mention of what money Ms. Coccia is referring to or why that would be any of her concern.)
The response by Excalibur Gyms frankly speaks for itself. It also doesn’t pass any kind of a smell test. Generations of black athletes have learned that speaking out about racism is the fastest route to commercial obsolescence. You don’t see Curt Flood on the Wheaties Box.
As Gabrielle Douglas aims to become a massive crossover commercial star, there is no compelling reason for her to speak about these experiences unless they’re true and she hopes to make it easier for the next “outsider” who comes to the gym. As for Excalibur Gym, the I would just say that based on experience of living in the area, the possibility that there could be people with racist ideas in Virginia Beach is like saying Seattle has the possibility of rain.
The people at Excalibur could have and should have said, “We’re aware that racism is a problem in our world and in our state. We aim to provide as nurturing an environment as possible and will continue to work to be better.” Instead, Gabrielle Douglas is “a liar” “playing the victim” and makes people “sick.” To put it mildly, the people defending Excalibur aren’t doing themselves any favors. In fact, they seem intent on proving Ms. Douglas’s point: that Excalibur Gymnasium has more than its share of bullies.
Although anathema to NFL fans across the country, we should recognize that sometimes a punter shall lead us. It was Minnesota Viking’s punter Chris Kluwe who took to Twitter and said what has been so painfully obvious through three weeks of the National Football League’s pre-season: “The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacements are horrible. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
Kluwe is correct. It is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that replacement referees with highlights on their resumes like working for the Lingerie Football League have been bungling calls throughout the pre-season. This has included screwing up the small detail of which teams were actually on the field. It’s embarrassing that in a league where any play could be the last time someone walks without a limp or concussion, these incompetents are in charge of monitoring the health and safety of players. It’s embarrassing that members of the NFL Players Association, who are part of the AFL-CIO, will, once on the field, be under the authority of scabs.
It’s also bewildering. Consider the multibillion-dollar entity that is the National Football League. Then consider that NFL referees are 119 part-time employees who make $8,000 a week. As Jeff MacGregorcalculated at espn.com, at a cost of $50 million a year—less than one percent of total revenue—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could hire 200 full-time officials at $250,000 a year. Conversely, if Goodell gets everything he wants from the referees union and he doesn’t have to spend too much in legal fees, it works out to league-wide savings of just $62,000 per team.
Locking them out is like using an Uzi on a field mouse. The question once again is why? Why has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, taken such a hard line? After a year defined by the tragic suicides of former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome and a looming lawsuit brought by 2000 former players contending that the NFL didn’t take their safety seriously, why would they engage in such naked contempt for the well-being of players and the integrity of their game? Simply put, because they can.
The NFL clearly believes with no small amount of justification that they can do this because no one will care. As NFL VP Ray Anderson said, perhaps while twirling his mustache, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game.”
The only way to understand why there is a lockout of NFL Referees is to understand who is doing the locking out. It’s not Roger Goodell, who for all the fawning media profiles, is little more than an exceptionally well-paid executive “flak-catcher.” It’s the people he represents. NFL teams are no longer family businesses and owners are no longer kindly patriarchs. They comprise the right-wing edge of America’s super-rich. NFL owners don’t travel in the same circles as Mitt Romney. They travel in the circles of those who underwrite Mitt Romney’s campaign.
For these twenty-first-century Masters of the Universe, the lockout, once a near-unthinkable labor-management tactic, has become the weapon of choice when dealing with what’s left of the trade union movement. Since 2010, the number of lockouts annually in the US has doubled. A lockout gives employers the power to strip workers of their salaries, bring in temporary replacements and then simply wait until the day locked out workers eat through their meager savings and then force them back on the conditions of outlandish demands. It’s a management tactic that has hammered thousands of families from middle class security to destitution.
The owners have decided NFL referees need to be locked out because like the scorpion who stings, that’s simply what they do. Look at the demands being made of the referees: NFL owners want them to stop being part-time labor and instead work full-time for the league. Sounds great, except they want the refs to eliminate their other sources of income while taking a 16 percent cut in salary. They also want to eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401k plans tied to the stock market. Put simply, the owners line is less pay, less benefits, and if you don’t like it we’re locking the doors.
“They told us if we didn’t take what was on the table, they would cut it more and they have. They have disguised regressive bargaining as trying to improve officiating overall and to give people more time off,” said NFL Referee’s Association lead negotiator Mike Arnold. “They keep saying in the media that they were willing, able, and ready to negotiate, but they kept telling us they weren’t interested in discussing our proposal and if the deal was going to settle it was going to settle on their terms.”
The referees and the NFL Players Association both seem to be keeping any joint strategy under wraps. “We’ll see what the decision is as we get closer to [opening] day. Hopefully, they can figure this out in an amicable way as soon as possible. I’m not sure what the decision is going to be from the Players Association when that day comes,” NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told PFT Live.
But both seem to be coordinating arguments about player’s safety as the most compelling reason to end the lockout. As NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said, “The officials are being asked to be first responders on the field for player safety as well as to officiate the games. How do you expect officials not used to doing games at that level to be able to step in and handle the job? To use a [lockout] as a motivational tactic in negotiations…we find repulsive.”
However, like the high-skilled workers at a Honeywell uranium plant in Metropolis, Illinois, learned after a fourteen-month lockout, today’s bosses rarely listen to appeals about safety. Furthermore, as they learned, the longer the lockout drags on, the more time employers have to increase the quality of their replacement workers. The quality of the godawful refereeing on display will, with time, improve as well.
John Paul Smith, who was one of those Honeywell workers that suffered through the lockout, which ended in August of 2011, says now that having been through the pain of a lockout himself, there is no way he could watch the NFL this year. John Paul Smith is now calling on other fans to boycott watching as well, knowing that the only way to make the owners back off is if they feel it in their wallets.
“I have been a Dolphins fan since I was in the fifth grade and I can’t watch shit. It’s killing me,” said Smith. If Goodell and friends don’t care about the refs, the health of their players, or the quality of the games, then maybe they’ll care about that: people like John Paul Smith turning away from the game until NFL owners remember that owning the game doesn’t mean owning the people who officiate it.
If Joe Paterno represents the greatest fall from grace in the history of sports, then many are saying that Lance Armstrong might now have won the silver. On Thursday, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France cycling crowns and will be banned for life from any connection to the sport he made famous. Why? Because he withdrew his appeal against the US Anti Doping Agency’s contention that he time and again rode steroids and performance enhancing drugs to victory. Armstrong quit the fight against the USADA but issued a statement without contrition, accusing them of an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”
As Armstrong said in a statement,
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said.“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today—finished with this nonsense. Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances…I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.”
With the swiftness of a pro cyclist going seventy-five miles an hour down a steep hill, the USADA acted immediately, treating Armstrong’s surrender as a legal admission of guilt. Travis Tygart, the USADA’s chief executive, spoke as if a jury of Armstrong’s peers had voted to convict, saying, “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes. It’s a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There’s no success in cheating to win.”
Tygart maintained that Armstrong didn’t give up the fight from exhaustion but because he knew that the USADA had ten former teammates ready to testify that he was doping. Armstrong it should be noted, made clear that no matter what any witnesses had to say, “There is zero physical evidence to support [their] outlandish and heinous claims,” Armstrong said. “The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of [drug tests] I have passed with flying colors.”
I don’t know about Armstrong’s guilt or innocence, but anyone who writes off Armstrong after the USADA ruling and thinks that he’s about to enter some sort of Paterno–Pete Rose–Barry Bond pantheon of infamy doesn’t quite understand his appeal or why he connects so strongly with his army of fans. Of the seventy top ten finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour De France victories, forty-one have tested positive for PEDS; Armstrong is a hell of a lot more than just number forty-two.
The Texas native came to public consciousness not just for beating the Pyrenees but for beating stage-four cancer. In our increasingly toxic world, I don’t think a family exists that hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way. Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous LiveStrong bracelets, are twenty-first-century totems of survival, and the USADA isn’t going to change that. Nothing ever could.
No adult male saw Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa in 1998 and thought, “Someday I’m going to hit seventy home runs.” No adult female saw Marion Jones and thought, “Someday I’ll win gold at the Olympics.” But legions of adults have watched Lance Armstrong and thought, “Someday, I’m going to beat this damn cancer.” That’s a deeper connection than fandom or even the virtual-world of fantasy sports could ever provide. If Lance Armstrong has been able to further the connection because he’s white, photogenic and politically connected (and did I mention white?), then, to his credit, he’s leveraged those advantages to raise over $500 million for cancer research and access to treatment in poor and minority communities across the United States.
Armstrong, a religious agnostic, was once asked how his belief in God helped him beat cancer. He answered, according to the great sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, “Everyone should believe in something, and I believe in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.” That response in the end is why he won’t go into hiding. He won’t live in self-imposed exile. He won’t slink to the margins of US society and he won’t lose his fans. Call him a doper. Call him a cheater. Call him the dirtiest player in a sport that’s as dirty as they come. He’ll call himself the guy who keeps fighting to make sure people have the surgery, chemo and doctors they need. For people like those in my own family who have, through trials of unimaginable courage, earned the right to wear that LiveStrong rubber bracelet, that will always matter more.
In a week where the phrase “legitimate rape” became part of the American political discourse, it’s understandable that anyone who believes in women’s liberation would be scavenging for some good news. Like parched souls in the desert, some believe that a trickle of water, if not an oasis, has appeared. After eighty years of antediluvian sexism, the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, has finally decided to admit women into its ranks. All hail the trailblazers: President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina billionaire banking executive Darla Moore.
As Christine Brennan of USA Today wrote, “Today, one of the last bastions of male supremacy is no more. Today, Augusta National has made a crucial statement to every girl and woman who has thought about picking up a golf club. The message is simple: You are welcome.”
Her joy is certainly understandable. This is a club where as recently as 2002, after a series of protests, then–club President Hootie Johnson said that Augusta National would admit women on their own schedule and not “at the point of a bayonet.” The woman who led those protests, Martha Burk, received dozens of death threats. Today she was on ESPN radio saying simply that “the women’s movements, the U.S. women’s groups and individual women who have been pushing for change for 50 years, yeah, we won.”
PGA tour President Tim Finchem, who was frightened to raise a whisper of criticism against Augusta National, today tried to get some of the glow, saying, “At a time when women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf, this sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport.”
And yet, please forgive me if I don’t join the chorus of cheers. Rice and Moore are not twenty-first-century Jackie Robinsons, and their acceptance into this bastion of exclusion has nothing to do with women’s liberation and is utterly disconnected from the reality of daily life for millions of American women.
Condi Rice as a symbol of female power? Only if by power, we mean the power to put thousands of Iraqi women in graves all in the name of a war based on lies that she actively promoted.
Then there are the birth defects suffered by the children of women in Iraq. In 2009, the Guardian reported that doctors in Fallujah were were “dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants, compared to a year ago, and a spike in early life cancers that may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting.”
A hospital spokesman, Nadim al-Hadidi, told the Inter Press Service, “In 2004 the Americans tested all kinds of chemicals and explosive devices on us: thermobaric weapons, white phosphorous, depleted uranium…. we have all been laboratory mice for them.”
There were also, under Rice’s watch, 10,917 reported sexual assaults in the the US Armed Forces (the Department of Defense estimates that under 10 percent of assaults are reported). As the Guardian reported, “A female solider in Iraq is more likely to be attacked by a fellow soldier than killed by military fire.”
In an eerie echo of the Representative Akin controversy, these women, if impregnated during their assault, could not get an abortion on a US military base. Rice, who claims to be pro-choice, never raised a voice on behalf of these women.
In a sane world, Rice would be awaiting trial at the Hague. Instead, she gets to play golf at a club that, incidentally, didn’t allow African-Americans until 1990.
As for Darla Moore, she is a banking billionaire who lives on a South Carolina plantation that’s been in her family for seven generations. She is a longtime friend of the Bush family as well as of the aforementioned Hootie Johnson. Ten years ago, when asked about becoming the club’s first female member, she said, “I’m as progressive as they come. But some things ought not to be messed with.”
I’m sure it’s tempting to look at today as an advance for women in sports. But it’s very difficult to think that today’s national celebration of a multi-billionaire and a war criminal has anything to do with women’s liberation. If anything, this should only be a story because it’s so unbelievable that the membership of the Augusta National Golf Club still opposed the presence of women in 2012. The only way this club could be any kind of symbol of progress and justice is if the people of Augusta, Georgia, a whopping 32 percent of whom live below the US poverty line, took to the eighteenth green and occupied the Masters. Let’s see whose side Condi Rice and Darla Moore would be on then.
Editor's Note: This post original misstated the number of sexual assaults reported during Secretary Rice's tenure.
In an act as appropriate as it is overdue, the Australian House of Parliament is issuing an official state apology Monday to the country’s late, great sprinter Peter Norman. Norman won the 200-meter silver medal at the 1968 Olympics, but that’s not why he’s either remembered or owed apologies. After the race, gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the medal stand and started an international firestorm. Many see the iconic image and assume Norman was just a bystander to history, or as he would joke, “the white guy.” But he was standing in full solidarity with Smith and Carlos, wearing a patch on his chest that reads, “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” As Norman recalled to sports writer Mike Wise, when he heard what Carlos and Smith were going to do he had to show his support. “I couldn’t see why a black man wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy. That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.” On that day, Norman earned the undying respect of Smith, Carlos and countless others. But that didn’t help him upon returning home.
Silver medal or not, Peter Norman was now a pariah in Australia, a country that at the time held racial exclusion laws that rivaled apartheid South Africa. He was banned from running. He was denied a spot on their 1972 team after qualifying. He and his family were harassed, refused work, and made to suffer. “Peter always had it harder than Tommie and me,” remembers John Carlos. “They took turns kicking our butts. Peter had to face an entire country and suffer alone.”
For decades, Peter Norman was invited to condemn Smith and Carlos as well as his own actions. If he had, he would have been re-embraced by the establishment, found steady work through the Australian Olympic Committee, and been part of the pageantry when the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000. But he never wavered and he remained a proud outcast until a fatal heart attack in 2006 struck him down at the all-too-young age of 63. The lead pallbearers at his funeral were John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Now, six years after his death and in the aftermath of what was arguably the poorest Australian Olympic performance in decades, Australia wants to reclaim him as their own. Here is the text of the resolution that will be offered into parliament by MPs Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Leigh:
“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;
Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;
Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”
Norman’s old comrades are moved by the gesture. I spoke with John Carlos who said to me, “There is no one in the nation of a Australia that should be honored, recognized and appreciated more than Peter Norman. He should be recognized for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
Carlos is right and Norman should be recognized. I understand fully why there is joy among Peter Norman’s family and friends, and yet I can’t help wonder. If Peter Norman were still alive, it is very possible that this stubborn, principled man, would tell the Australian Government to take their apology and stick it down under. I wonder if he’d point out that Australian Olympic boxer Damien Hooper was almost sent home last month for wearing an Aboriginal flag on a T-shirt and the Australian Olympic Committee gave him no support, condemning him for his actions. I wonder if he’d also point out that Aboriginal Australians comprise 2.5 percent of the nation but make up about 26 percent of the prison population. I wonder if he’d rail against the staggering rise in arrests of minorities and Australia’s own version of what in the United States has become known as the “New Jim Crow.” I wonder if he would take inspiration from the late South African freedom fighter and athletic organizer Dennis Brutus. When Brutus was offered a spot in the South African sports hall of fame, he rejected it saying, among other things, “It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time-indeed long past time-for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.”
Credit Australia for telling the truth, that Norman was denied a place on the 1972 team for his political beliefs. Credit Australia to making the apology. But true reconciliation for a man like Peter Norman could never come from a parliamentary apology for a past wrong. It would come from a national commitment to an anti-racist future.
Now that the smoke has cleared, the medals handed out, and Paul McCartney safely returned to storage, the other shoe can officially begin its descent. The Olympic party is over and a hangover of Big Ben proportions awaits. If the Olympic planners had been honest, they would have used the closing ceremonies to introduce the new sixth Spice Girl, “Austerity Spice”.
When I was in London last May, I met people optimistic and pessimistic about the coming Olympics. I spoke with Tories excited about the coming spectacle and union leaders concerned that the promises of jobs and development would fall short. I met right-wing economists railing against the Olympic-sized debt and Labour party leaders giddy about the tourism and “prestige” the Games would bring. I met cab drivers enraged about restrictions on their routes and bus drivers ready to strike if they didn’t receive a hefty bonus for the extra demands of the Olympics (the government caved and paid transit workers to be happy during the fortnight).
But there was one thing everyone agreed about, and they used the same phrase repeatedly: “After the Olympics, the gloves will come off.” They all meant that the Olympics were a vacation from political reality. After the games were done, a political battle would commence over who would bail the UK out of a crippling economic crisis. Simon Lee, senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the Olympics did little more than “paper over the fact that we are on the verge of a depression.”
The numbers are certainly dire. The economy has been shrinking for nine consecutive months, even with the added stimulus of pre-Olympic spending. Youth unemployment is well over 20 percent. Among all unemployed, almost a third have been out of work for a year. The plan for correcting this is even more dire, with Prime Minister David Cameron committed to an agenda of acute austerity. That means laying off government employees, including doctors, nurses and teachers, and raising taxes on working people, all in the name of paying down their debt.
If Cameron believes that debt is truly the economy’s greatest problem, then the Olympic hangover, as it did in Greece in 2004, could severely aggravate the existing crisis. The final price tag of the games, including massive security costs, will reach as high as 24 billion pounds, ten times the original rosy projections when they won the bid back in 2005. Back then, London Mayor Ken Livingstone predicted a tax of £240 per citizen to pay for the games. Suffice it to say, those costs can safely be adjusted upward.
Debt is not the only hangover of these Olympics. A treasure trove of new surveillance equipment has now become a permanent part of the London landscape. Already the world’s most surveilled metropolis, the city is now, as Stephen Graham reported in the Guardian, “wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.” As one security official told me when I was in London, “These toys aren’t going anywhere. What are we going to do? Put them back in the box?”
Then there are the displacements. In the opening ceremonies, NBC’s Meredith Viera described East London as a “wasteland” that had been “transformed” by the Olympics. I actually walked the streets of East London, and I wish Ms. Viera has done the same. Another word for “wasteland” could be “working-class community where people live and raise families”. In addition, if the area has been “transformed” it’s because hundreds of residents were displaced. They are on the waiting list for promised new public housing, which, once again, because of the austerity agenda may never be built. Watch the homelessness statistics in London spike in the months ahead.
All of these chickens will come home to roost in the aftermath of the games when austerity explodes out of the starting blocks like a demonic Usain Bolt. The crisis is real and the only question is who is going to pay to bail out the country. If it’s the 1 percent, that will mean nationalization, tax hikes, deficit spending and the state’s pumping money into the economy to avoid a depression. If it’s the 99 percent, and that’s already the plan, expect a round of vicious cuts amidst the Olympic afterglow. The National Health Service, so praised in the Olympic opening ceremonies, will see a reduction in staff of 50,000. Tax hikes on workers will be a reality alongside layoffs. Anger will rise. Then, all of that surveillance equipment will really come into use.
The gloves will come off indeed. Let’s see if the workers, immigrants, and everyday people of the UK can take the punch and return in kind. If not, we’ll always have the Spice Girls.
The spectacle of the 2012 London Olympics should be subtitled “The Bashing of the Chinese Athlete.” Yesterday, Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times published a much-discussed piece called “Heavy Burden on Athletes Takes Joy Away From China’s Olympic Success.” In it, all kinds of “concerns” are raised about the toll “the nation’s draconian sports system” is taking on the country’s athletes. It tells tales of poverty, loneliness and despair amongst China’s sports stars once the cheering has stopped. Their athletes are described as being exploited by an unfeeling government monolith that acted as a surrogate family until they were no longer of any use. Parents of China’s Olympians are quoted saying, “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong to us. I don’t even dare think about things like enjoying family happiness.” Other parents tell of not being able to recognize their own children after years apart.
The other dominant story about China are the continuing unfounded allegations that 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen took performance-enhancing drugs to win gold. Executive Director of the American Swim Coaches Association John Leonard called Shiwen’s world-record 400-meter individual medley swim “disturbing.” He is also continuing to describe her closing freestyle leg of 58.68 seconds as “impossible.”
There have been a series of ugly articles about Shiwen, none uglier perhaps than a piece by UK’s Daily Mail’s David Jones titled “Forging of the Mandarin Mermaid: How Chinese children are taken away from their home and brutalized into future Olympians.” Not “trained” but “brutalized.”
Then there was Bob Costas’s handling of the issue on NBC, which involved the raising of an unfounded accusation on the basis of it’s being news and then using it to advance the allegation. I’m surprised Costas didn’t turn to special guest Michelle Bachmann to speak about rumors of Shiwen’s time in the Muslim Brotherhood. There is zero evidence but Shiwen is guilty in the Western media with no avenue to prove her innocence.
None of this is to defend China’s state-run system of producing athletes. But it seems rather painfully obvious why we are seeing this tidal wave of suspicion, drug allegations and concern for the “children.” China is the chief economic rival in the world to the United States. Just like during the cold war, the Olympics have become a proxy war where “medal counts” connote more than bragging rights but are a comment on the health of a nation. China is rivaling the United States in medal counts so its dominance has to be explained in as critical, ugly and even as racist a way as possible. The message is that the Chinese have medals because they just don’t love their kids.
If the New York Times is that concerned about the brutalization of young athletes, that battle begins at home. US athletes don’t have to navigate a state-run athletic system but something perhaps far more pernicious. Unlike China, US athletes get no government subsidies whatsoever. Their number one obstacle to the medal stand isn’t ability but poverty. As one study by the USA Track and Field Foundation demonstrated, “Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.).”
Both systems create “collateral damage.” Both systems are in need of reform. The only difference is the narrative. When we hear that swimmer Ryan Lochte’s parents are facing foreclosure on their home, or that track star Lolo Jones’s family was homeless, or that gymnast Gabby Douglas was sent from her mother in Virginia Beach to live with strangers at the age of 14, those are tales of heroism and sacrifice. We celebrate their pain instead of condemning it or even being disturbed by it.
The US system also contains its share of countless broken bodies and broken lives, discarded in pursuit of gold. The ongoing sexual abuse scandal in USA Swimming is an example of this. As ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and Greg Amante wrote in 2010, “Youth swimming coaches, many certified by USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, have been able to molest young swimmers and then move from town to town, escaping criminal charges and continuing to victimize other under-aged swimmer…. ESPN found the abusive coaches, some of whom molested young swimmers for more than 30 years, avoided detection because of a number of factors: USA Swimming and other organizations had inadequate oversight, many local coaches, parents and swimming officials failed to report inappropriate contact they witnessed, and some parents, driven to see their children succeed, ignored or did not recognize what should have been red flags.” [My emphasis.]
Then there is USA Gymnastics. Joan Ryan, in her brilliant 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, wrote the following about our system for producing gold medal gymnasts: “What I found was a story about legal, even celebrated child abuse. In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of girls who stumbled on the way, broken by the work, pressure and humiliation. I found a girl whose father left the family when she quit gymnastics at the age of 13, who scraped her arms and legs with razors to dull her emotional pain and who needed a two-hour pass from a psychiatric hospital to attend her high-school graduation. Girls who broke their necks and backs. One who so desperately sought the perfect, weightless gymnastic body that she starved herself to death.”
Imagine for a moment if Bob Costas or the New York Times had stories like this to tell about China. If they did, we’d know them by heart. Instead, the pain of US athletes remains in the shadows. The message to all US critics of China’s Olympic system should be, “Physician, heal thyself.” The battle to make Olympic training more humane begins at home.
Dr. John Carlos is best known as the man who, along with Tommie Smith, raised his fist from the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. The bronze medalist is also someone who had a decades-long friendship with the Australian silver medalist on that 1968 platform, Peter Norman. I wanted to get his feedback on this year’s Australian athlete who has courted controversy, boxer Damien Hooper. He as always, delivered his views straight, with no chaser.
DZ: Damien Hooper, an Australian boxer of aboriginal descent, wore a flag on his shirt that celebrated his indigenous Australian heritage and was threatened with expulsion from the games. What are your thoughts about Mr. Hooper?
JC: Here’s a young man who puts a shirt on to acknowledge his ethnicity, the forgotten people of Australia, and it appears the Olympic Committee might want to continue for them to be forgotten. He chose to stand up and say, “Not only do I represent the people of Australia but I represent the aboriginal people specifically.” I feel that he feels that his people never really got the respect that they deserve, and never really been given credit as the founding fathers of their nation.
If you could say something directly to Damien Hooper what would it be?
I have the utmost respect for him. I admire him, and I think he should stand firm. I would say, “Don’t let anyone dictate as to how you should live your life.” Now, it would be great if they were paying him a handsome fee for going to the Olympic games, and when I say a handsome fee, I’m talking about coming from the International Olympic Committee. I mean, they walk away with a bundle of money. It’s almost as if these individuals are worthless other than the fact that they can win a medal and promote the rings at the Olympics. We all want to promote the Olympic games, but we have to realize that the Olympic organizers promote what they would like to promote, and they feel like you have no concern or no value as to who you are and where you came from. So, I applaud what he’s doing and I support him in any way I possibly can. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t disrespect his country. He didn’t disrespect his flag. He didn’t disrespect anyone other than those aristocrats who sit there and make policy.
You must’ve had a flashback when you heard about this story to the late, great Peter Norman. Tell us a little bit for those who don’t know, first of all, who was Peter Norman, and what connections do you see in terms of what Peter Norman went through and what Damien Hooper is going through?
Well, Peter Norman was in my estimation, the greatest sprinter to ever come out of Australia, and at the same time, Peter Norman was a white Australian. He was not an aboriginal Australian, but Peter Norman was a humanitarian. He has a great concern for the indigenous people of that nation and he stood for humanity. I think that’s the same thing Mr. Hooper stood for as well, humanity, to say, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to forget my roots.”
What does it also say about Australia? They like to talk about how far they’ve come since those days in 1968 and yet if you look at things like the prison population, the oppression of the aboriginal people in Australia, that’s actually worse now than it was fifty years ago. What does it say about Australia that their own Olympic committee would come down so hard on Damien Hooper who is wearing what is actually an accepted flag in his country?
Well, it’s not about the local chapter of the Olympic Committee. It all extends from the International Olympic Committee. The chapters are going to follow whatever direction the International Olympic Committee says just like in 1968. It wasn’t the United States Olympic Committee that chose to ban Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It was the International Olympic Committee that gave the directive. The same thing is taking place now. I think its time that people start to realize that they have a voice, and they should be able to raise their voice on issues they feel are wrong.
What does it say that if Damien Hooper had chosen to wear a shirt that said McDonald’s on it, he would not have gotten in trouble because that’s an official Olympic sponsor, or a shirt that said British Petroleum or Dow Chemical, yet wearing an aboriginal flag is somehow this horrible scandal? What does that tell us about the International Olympic Committee?
They have a double standard. It’s fine for me as long as I want to promote whatever I want to promote, but its not fine for you because you’re not allowed to promote who you want to promote. This has been going on since 1984 when we brought the corporate world into the Olympics. So when you sit back and think about it and all the dust settles, the corporate entities are the ones that shoot for the gold, bronze, and silver in reality.
Isn’t that what you say? ‘The Olympics are every four years because it takes them four years to count the money?
To count the cash. That’s absolutely right. One day I believe we’ll see a day when individuals will have McDonald’s or British Petroleum on their chests as opposed to having their country’s flags on their chests.
South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius competes in the 400-meter semifinals heat, Sunday, August 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Call these Olympics “a tale of two Blade Runners.” Blade Runner was of course the classic 1982 Ridley Scott film about a dystopic future in the Los Angeles of 2019. Twenty twelve Olympic London is giving Mr. Scott’s vision a run for it’s money. Away from the high-def cameras and soft panning shots of Big Ben at dusk is a city that’s making Blade Runner look quaint. Not even the fevered minds of Scott and author Philip K. Dick imagined surveillance drones, gunships and surface-to-air missiles in residential neighborhoods.
But there is another Blade Runner on the scene at these games and it would be terribly myopic to disregard its importance. This would be the man known as “the Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius. The 400-meter track star from South Africa made the Olympic semifinals before being knocked out of competition on Sunday night. But Pistorius already made history by becoming the first double amputee to compete at the Olympic Games. His journey to these semi-finals was far more arduous than the race itself.
Pistorius was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee before his first birthday. The 25-year-old used prosthetics from the time he could walk and was raised to see “putting them on” as no different than his older brother Carl’s putting on his shoes. He was a dominant Paralympic runner and qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Enter the IAAF, the world governing body for track and field. They ruled, stunningly, that prosthetic legs constituted a “competitive advantage” for Pistorius. This is only logical to someone who thinks The Six Million Dollar Man was a documentary. Pistorius is not “bionic.” His world-class speed is in fact particularly remarkable given that his carbon fiber prosthetics requires him to start from a vertical position that always makes him the slowest off the blocks and most prone to be affected by wind resistance.
Eventually the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the IAAF’s decision. Upon hearing their ruling, Pistorius made clear that this was more than just his own fight, saying, ;“My focus throughout this appeal has been to ensure that disabled athletes be given the chance to compete and compete fairly with able-bodied athletes.”
“The Blade Runner” then further shocked the world by making last night’s semi-finals. Particularly remarkable is that even though the IAAF set a tone that the track and field community should be suspicious and resentful of Pistorius, the other athletes saw his accomplishment as something to celebrate. The winner of the semi-final race, Kirani James of Grenada, didn’t rejoice in his own victory in the immediate aftermath but made a bee-line for Pistorius, who came in last. They then, in full view of the world, exchanged those paper-sized identification placards known as racing bibs, that are pinned to the front of their outfits. It was the ultimate show of camaraderie and respect
As James told reporters, “My hat’s off to him, just coming out here and competing. I just see him as another athlete, another competitor. What’s more important is I see him as another person. He’s someone I admire and respect.”
He is certainly worthy of that admiration and his larger importance cannot be overstated. Julie Morley, the director of community services at the UK organization Disability Trust, said to the Telegraph,
“It is tremendously helpful for people with physical disability who struggle with the everyday things normal people take for granted. It gives them something to aspire to, to say ‘if he can do it I can’. But just as important is the perception of able bodied people. People think ‘oh they can’t do that physically disabled people need to be protected,’ but sometimes they don’t. I think [Pistorius] has made that acceptable. He has opened people to the dignity of risk, giving them that, rather than saying ‘they can’t do that’.”
I would also challenge even the most-hardened Olympic-cynic to look at the following and not be moved.
“The whole experience is mind-blowing,” Pistorius said afterward. “My aim was to make the semifinal. It’s a dream come true.”
It’s also not over. In addition to the Paralympics, Pistorius will compete in the 4x400m relay. As he says, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”
In a 2012 games so ruthlessly defined by an out of control security and surveillance culture outside the arena, we should take the inspiration of Oscar Pistorious to heart. The world does not have to be what it currently is and the future is not written. We would all do well to take the lead of Oscar Pistorius and welcome into our lives “the dignity of risk.”
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
There are two kinds of political athletes. The first, and most memorable, are athletes who engage in the explicit politics of protest. This tradition is marked by Muhammad Ali saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” It’s Billie Jean King marching for Title IX. It’s Curt Flood saying he refused to be a “well paid slave.” It’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in the name of civil and human rights. But then there is a different kind of athletic politics: the politics of representation. That’s Jackie Robinson the moment he took the field to break baseball’s color line. That’s Martina Navratilova, all ropey muscles, forcing the world to confront a more powerful kind of woman athlete. That’s Compton’s Serena and Venus Williams dominating their country club sport.
Whether or not these athletes embraced the burden, they carried the aspirations and expectations of countless others. We can now add Gabby Douglas to their ranks. The 16-year-old from Virginia Beach is now the first African-American woman as well as the first person of color to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition. She is also the first US gymnast in history to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.
Douglas’s journey is as unique as her triumph: one marked by having to navigate the racial segregation that defines so much of the United States. At 14, Douglas left her mother, three siblings and working-class Virginia Beach community to move to West Des Moines, Iowa, so she could train with renowned Chinese coach Liang Chow.
In Iowa, Douglas lived with a host family of strangers in a nearly all-white community and thought she might be the only black person in the state. In the very white world of gymnastics, Douglas also stood out. At most meets she would be the only person of color performing. Douglas was home-schooled in Des Moines by her host family, adding to this sense of isolation. Homesickness meant crying herself to sleep and calling her mother in Virginia Beach, floating the idea of coming home.
But Douglas was indomitable and developed a reputation for the ability to actually seem like she was flying on the uneven bars, earning the rather unfortunate nickname “The Flying Squirrel.” She also had a reputation as someone with potential, but a cut beneath the best gymnasts in the world. Marta Karolyi, the grim US national team coordinator who bestowed the “Flying Squirrel” nickname on Douglas, saw her as “an average good gymnast.” Douglas, however, wouldn’t be discouraged. Her sense of comfort and confidence is visible in her smile, which is as striking as one of her dismounts. Anyone watching women’s gymnastics sees that many of the contestants look like hostages to screaming parents, rage-aholic coaches and their own unhappiness. Gabby Douglas actually looks happy to be there and through force of personality is congenitally unable to be invisible. This also has political repercussions, powerful enough that the largely sheltered 16-year-old seems to sense what she could mean.
As she said to the New York Times in June, “I have an advantage because I’m the underdog and I’m black and no one thinks I’d ever win. Well, I’m going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I’m ready to shine.” Shine she did.
Dominique Dawes, the great African-American gymnast who won team gold in 1996, told USA Today’s Christine Brennan, “I am such a nervous ninny. I feel like Gabby is my child or something. I am so anxious for her to win. I know it will have an enormous impact on encouraging African-Americans and other minorities to go into the sport of gymnastics.”
This is certainly possible. But far more important is the impact Gabby Douglas could have in making people not feel defeated by racism, segregation or even something as simple as loneliness. Now all she needs is a better nickname. This is no one’s Flying Squirrel. With apologies to Paul Pierce, Gabby Douglas is “the Truth.”