Records, as the sporting cliche goes, are there to be broken, but while Simone Manuel’s Olympic record time in the women’s 100m freestyle final will eventually be surpassed, she achieved a first that no-one can take away.
Touching home at the end of a remarkable race, Manuel became the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold. She said she hoped her victory would encourage greater diversity in her sport.
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans who have been before me and been inspirations,” she said.
“I hope I can be an inspiration for others. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport.”
Here is why Simone Manuel’s win is so significant.
African-Americans have been shut out of swimming pools for generations
Swimming pools have been a racially sensitive flashpoint in the US for generations. African-American people were often denied access to pools in the segregation era, and even after its abolition white people found other ways to exclude them. Nor has building pools for black areas been a priority.
Jeff Wiltse, in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, argues that white anxieties over contact with black people fuelled this historic lack of integration at US swimming pools.
Parents who do not swim are often unlikely to teach their children, and the legacy today is that a disproportionate number of African-American children cannot swim – USA Swimming puts the figure at 70%.
Swimming lessons still are not compulsory in the US, something USA Swimming wants to change. Despite all this, outliers can emerge.
Cullen Jones’s mother, for instance, took him to swimming lessons after he nearly drowned at a theme park aged five. By eight he was swimming competitively. At the 2008 Olympics, he won gold as part of the US 4×100m freestyle relay team.
It has taken a long time to get here
Black winners in swimming events remain a rarity. The Netherlands’ Enith Brigitha became the first black swimmer to win a medal, coming third in the 100m freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Olympics behind two competitors later found to have used doping, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF).
The next breakthrough came in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Anthony Nesty of Suriname became the first male swimmer of African descent to win gold.
A select few black swimmers have represented the US: Anthony Ervin was first, at Sydney in 2000, while four years later at Athens, Maritza Correia became the first female medal winner. Lia Neal has also won medals. […]
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