Press Box: Play like a girl

Illustration by Megan James
Illustration by Megan James

From a young age, I found myself glued to the TV screen during the Summer Olympics. I eagerly anticipated and grew up watching performances by super-humans like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt; it was almost guaranteed they would break records or leave a mark on modern sports history.

During the 2000 Summer Olympics, at the age of 15, Phelps became the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years. Although he did not win a medal, he made the finals and finished fifth in the men’s 200-meter butterfly.

In Rio this year, Phelps capped off his Olympic career with five gold and one silver medal to further pad his world record of 23 gold (and 28 total) medals.

“Done, done, done and this time I mean it,” Phelps said in his official retirement announcement on Aug. 15 on NBC’s Today Show. “I wanted to come back and finish my career how I wanted, and this was the cherry on top of the cake.”

Similarly, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is widely heralded as the fastest man in the world.

Bolt, too, capped off his career with a triple-triple, winning three gold medals in each of his three Olympic performances. The Jamaican superstar ran the 200-meter in 19.78 seconds this year, easily claiming his third straight Olympic title in the event and adding to his gold medals from both the Beijing and London Summer Olympics.

Bolt also took home gold in the 100-meter and 4×100-meter. He has the most career medals of any sprinter.

“I’ve proven to the world I’m the greatest,” Bolt said. “This is what I came here for. That’s what I’m doing. This is why I said this is my last Olympics — I can’t prove anything else.”

As I watched some of the most decorated athletes race across my TV screen one last time, I realized Tokyo 2020 won’t be the same. No Phelps. No Bolt. Two men who have been the face of the Summer Olympics for years will no longer be the standard-bearers to beat.

As sports fans and athletes alike around the globe say goodbye to two of the greatest athletes of all time, there is no shortage of new talent to look forward to. In fact, the next superhero stories of the summer games have been competing for some time.

In the the past few weeks female athletes, in particular, stormed through Rio de Janeiro and settled themselves into the record books.

19-year-old Katie Ledecky, from Bethesda, Maryland became an instant favorite when she set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle. She then lapped the field in the 800-meter freestyle, shattering her own world record with a jaw-dropping 8:04.79 and winning by more than 11 seconds over the silver medalist.

How could you not love her? The humble athlete returned home with four Olympic gold medals to accompany a silver, and she took the podium each time with admirable appreciation. Young female athletes have been shocking viewers and breaking norms, but what may be even more phenomenal is the way black female athletes dominated and succeed. 

Then there’s 20-year-old American swimmer Simone Manuel.

Manuel won gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle and became the first black woman to win gold for the United States in an individual Olympic swimming event.

But she wasn’t finished, either. Manuel brought home an individual silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle, plus another gold and silver in the 4×100-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter medley relays. Manuel’s victory made waves at home and marked a special milestone in America overcoming its twisted racist past.

Swimming pools have always been places where social inequalities played out. Across the country public swimming pools were racially desegregated after World War II, but that was met with widespread opposition from whites. There are documented instances of hotel owners pouring acid into pools to deter blacks from using the facilities, or draining  entire pools after use.

Even in recent history, it is obvious racial prejudice still surrounds swimming pools. Sixty-five black and Latino campers from the Creative Steps day camp in North Philadelphia showed up to the suburban Valley Swim Club in Montgomery County in 2009. Camp director Althea Wright had paid the private club $1,950 to use the facility on Monday afternoons throughout the summer.

As the campers entered the water, some pool members reportedly pulled their children from the pool and wondered aloud “what all these black and Latino kids were doing” there. A few days later, the Valley Swim Club canceled the lease agreement. When pressed to explain, the club president stated, “there was concern (among the members) that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club.”

The long, dark history of racism and discrimination at America’s swimming pools is all the more reason fans across the country celebrated the historic win for Manuel. Although these incidents of bigotry predate the Olympic gold athlete, her victory is a symbol of triumph that goes far beyond the swimming pool.

Similarly, in 1928, women’s gymnastics was added to the Olympic roster of competitions, however the history of black Olympians who participate in the sport has been “relatively short and recent,” according to Team USA.

This lack of diversity in swimming and gymnastics can be attributed to a combination of factors, including access to gyms and pools in predominantly black neighborhoods, the expense of participating in the sports, the scarce list of role models for young black athletes to look up to, and misconceptions that “blacks just don’t swim” or get their hair wet, or don’t have the right “body type” for gymnastics.

In 2013 Simone Biles, a young black gymnast, won the all-around title at the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. After the competition, an Italian competitor Carlotta Ferlito told an Italian journalist “next time, we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win, too.”

The journalist and Ferlito both laughed over the racist remark. Biles’ parents said that the comments bothered her.

Fast-forward two years and Biles is still dominating and tumbling her way into the Olympic record books. The Columbus, Ohio native won four gold medals and one bronze, becoming the first U.S. gymnast to snag four gold at one Olympic Games.

Both Simones made history, dominating in two sports where most U.S. and international competitors are white. For young black girls to be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them in this rare-until-now context is a really big deal.

In fact, Manuel and Biles became so popular, they sparked a surge in the popularity of the name Simone. NBC News reported the “Simone baby name” google search has spiked 230 percent in the month of August, as pointed out by NBC News.

Throughout the games, various news outlets covered the Olympics with implicit sexism. Announcers and professionals who call themselves journalist spent two weeks defining female athletes by their relationships to men, commenting on their appearances or stereotyping their behavior.

The Olympic Games are one of the few times women’s athletics get equal coverage with their male counterparts on television. In 2012, the Games in London were the first to feature women competing in every sport, including boxing.

Furthermore, Ledecky, Manuel, Biles and the other hundreds of female athletes are role models for young female athletes. Manuel and Biles are expanding and empowering the image of the black female athlete and representing a historic moment in American and Olympic history.

Their careers, too, are only just heating up—and as the first female sports editor of this publication—it makes me so ecstatic to know the next generation of girls in this country can proudly cheer on not just the Phelps’ and Bolt’s, but women who fought tooth and nail to represent their country proudly and claim their place in history too.


Sophia Belletti. Photo by Julie TrippSports Editor, Sophia Belletti
Sophia is a junior journalism major pursuing a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. She enjoys writing about current events and sports, and hopes to one day be a sports reporter covering soccer, basketball and/or baseball. You can usually find Sophia drinking way too much coffee and laughing at her own jokes. // Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn
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