The Olympics Doesn’t Build Character, It Reveals It

Solo

A person with character exemplifies constraint and self-control.  How one behaves on a big stage says a lot about a person. Whether it’s Donald Trump, U.S. Olympic soccer goalie Hope Solo, or African-American swimmer Simone Manuel, character matters.

Women’s soccer, especially the United States National Team, is a big deal in our house. My youngest daughter, now 15-years old, has been playing and watching since elementary school.  We were thus very disappointed with Hope Solo’s comments about the Swedish team that knocked the U.S. out of the Olympic soccer competition.

We are also big swim fans.  Simone Manuel’s victory in the 100 freestyle, the first win in an individual event for an African-American woman, was a great opportunity for all of us to learn a bit more about the history of racial segregation, especially as it related to community swimming pools.

As sportswriter Bill Plaschke reminds us all in his recent LA Times column, the Olympics does not build character, it reveals it.

Here is a taste:

In a stadium far north of the Olympic heart, a goalkeeper spewed ugly.

“We played a bunch of cowards,” Hope Solo said. “The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that.”

In a news conference room in the center of the Olympic soul, a mom spread grace.

“We started talking to [Simone] about how swimming isn’t just going to be about her,” said Sharron Manuel, the mother of the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming for the United States.  “She will have to share that gift with the world and it will carry a message”

In the stadium, the goalkeeper reacted to the U.S. women’s soccer team’s stunning Friday afternoon shootout loss to Sweden by epitomizing the word she had assigned the Swedes. Hope Solo ran from responsibility and accountability like a coward.

“Sweden dropped off, they didn’t want to open play, they didn’t want to pass the ball,” Solo said. “I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament.”

In the news conference room, the mom reacted to daughter Simone’s historic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle the previous night by epitomizing wisdom and grace. Sharron explained how she had spent years preparing Simone for this milestone moment.

“As an 11-year-old she did come to me asking . . . why she had not seen many others like herself in a sport of swimming,’’ Sharron said. “I said . . . I don’t know, let’s look it up, so we got on the Internet. . . . That was the moment she realized she had a bigger role to play in what she was doing in the sport of swimming.”

Like the sports it celebrates, the Olympics doesn’t build character, it reveals it. In an illuminating few moments about 600 miles apart Friday, the world saw America at its best and worst.

Read the rest here.

Simone Manuel’s Accomplishment in Historical Context

Simone

With her stunning and surprise co-victory in the 100 freestyle last night (take THAT, Australia!) Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

After watching Manuel swim my mind eventually went back to a piece I heard on National Public Radio in 2008 about the history of segregated swimming pools in the United States. I did a quick Google search and found Rachel Martin’s interview with Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

Here is a taste of that interview:

MARTIN: So, Jeff, you wrote that, in the late 19th century and early 20th, municipal pools, city pools, weren’t built, just weren’t built in African-American neighborhoods in the same way, or at the same rate that they were in other neighborhoods. Then things seemed to shift in the ’20s and ’30s. Pools were segregated, but separate-but-equal wasn’t really equal. Right? Talk about how those pools varied. What were the differences?

Dr. WILTSE: OK, well, first let me address what you brought up initially, which is that, during the late 19th and early 20th century, cities throughout the northern United States built lots of pools in poor, immigrant, working-class-white neighborhoods, but conspicuously avoided building pools in neighborhoods inhabited predominately by black Americans.

And then in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a pool-building spree in the United States. And there were thousands, literally thousands and thousands of pools that were opened up in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them were large, leisure-resort pools. They were – some of them – larger than football fields. They were surrounded by grassy lawns, and concrete sundecks, andContested they attracted literally millions and millions of swimmers.

And yet, it was at that point in time that cities began to racially segregate pools throughout the north, and it then extended, obviously, all throughout the United States. And black Americans were typically relegated, if a pool was provided at all, to a small indoor pool that wasn’t nearly as appealing as the large, outdoor resort pools that were provided for whites.

And so, take the city of St. Louis. In St. Louis, black Americans represented 15 percent of the population in the mid-1930s. But they only took one-and-a-half percent of the number of swims because they were only allocated one small indoor pool, whereas white residents of St. Louis had access to nine pools. Two of them were the large resort pools that I’ve been describing.

MARTIN: Hm. And you have written about some specific instances where there was some real violence surrounding these swimming pools, when black people would try to access these white pools. Can you tell us about some of those incidents, specifically in Highland Park?

Dr. WILTSE: Yeah, sure. So, there were two ways in which communities racially-segregated pools at the time. One was through official segregation, and so police officers and city officials would prevent black Americans from entering pools that had been earmarked for whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence.

And so, a city like Pittsburgh, it did not pass an official policy of racial segregation at its pools. But rather, the police and the city officials allowed, and in some cases encouraged, white swimmers to literally beat black swimmers out of the water, as a means of segregating pools, as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools. And so there was an instance, well, there was a series of instances over two summers in Highland Park pool, when it was first opened in 1931…

Read the entire interview here.