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A Different Kind of Race: The Political Revolutions of Rio 2016 Olympics

A Different Kind of Race: The Political Revolutions of Rio 2016 Olympics

In today’s heated society, the politics of Rio 2016 Olympics have crucial importance in promoting acceptance and tolerance. Not only are African-American women and athletes from Muslim backgrounds rewriting history but the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team is represented by ten young men and women.

The Refugee Olympic Team, including 10 people from four different countries – South Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria and Democratic Republic of the Congo – don’t need to win medals in order to inspire others. By participating and never giving up, they are playing an important role in shedding new light on the immigration crisis. They had to leave their home, and often their families behind, to survive. Not only did they do so, and in spite of unimaginable obstacles, they are fighting alongside the world’s best athletes.

They are not the only ones tackling the question of immigration. Mo Farah defended his 10,000-meter Olympic title in Rio – giving our post-Brexit, immigration-obsessed country, something to think about. Farah was born in Somalia and emigrated to the UK at the age of 8. He’s been competing under the Union Jack and won two gold medals for this country at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

A couple of days ago, Mo Farah became the first British athlete who’s won 3 gold Olympic medals. He is not only an immigrant, he is black and a devoted Muslim. He was already considered to be one of the most influential Muslims in the world by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre before the games in Rio had started. On 20th August he has got a chance to defend his title in his other distance running event; and an opportunity to write history again – this time as the second man who doubles on 10,000 and 5,000 meters at the Olympics.

This year’s Olympics is the first to see a Saudi Arabian woman competing in 100m track – Karim Abujadayel wore a full-body kit and a hijab when running. Kamia Yousufi, a runner from Afganistan took part in the same event, wearing the same outfit. Even though they failed to proceed from their heats, they both got recognition on social media.

Ibtihaj Muhammad also competed wearing a hijab. The fencer who won bronze with the US sabre fencing team is the first US athlete to take part at the Olympics wearing this symbol of her faith. She is also a woman of colour, representing two marginalised groups – three if we count being female – about which she said: “The honor of representing Muslim and black women is one I don’t take lightly.”

“I’m hoping that through my experience at the Olympic Games, through winning a medal, that I combat and break those stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about Muslims, African-Americans and even about women.” – said Muhammad after their win to the Wall Street Journal.

Simone Manuel also fights stereotypes as the first African-American woman to win an individual (gold) medal in swimming – in a tie with Canadian Penny Oleksiak. She addressed race issues being so present in the US, saying: “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”

Manuel also spoke about the struggles that came with the pressure of being a rare black swimmer. She is proud of her inheritance and wants to be an inspiration but she also wants to get to a point when she is not ‘Simone, the black swimmer’ anymore. “The title of black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else.” – said the 20-year-old to USA Today.

African-American Simone Biles, star of the gymnastic events has a different approach than Manuel. The young athlete, who won gold in both the team and the individual all-around doesn’t really see race and she doesn’t think it should be an important factor either. She is happy to inspire women of colour but “I never think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m the first African-American to win. […] “Everyone just shoves that in our heads. I never think, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am the first this, I’m the first that.’ I just do my gymnastics because I like to have fun. I don’t bring race into it.”

Biles isn’t the only woman of colour on the winning US team – alongside 2012 team and individual champion Gabby Douglas of African-American background and Laurie Hernandez of Puerto Rican descent, the Final Five is the most diverse US gymnastics team to participate at the Olympics.

Rio 2016 is truly exceptional for minorities – reported of 51 publicly out LGBTI athletes at the Summer Olympics, compared to London 2012’s 23. Some of them came out during the games and some of them were already open about their sexuality – including British diver Tom Daley, who have already won bronze at 10m synchronized diving with Daniel Goodfellow and he is going to attempt defending his medal in his individual event on Friday and Saturday.

The achievements of these athletes are made even more significant in today’s politically charged social climate. Although their reception is mostly positive, the marginalised groups they represent still face criticism and biased reporting as well. Gabby Douglas – after receiving comments about her hair not being pretty enough in London 2012 – was criticised for not being patriotic enough – because despite her teammates, she didn’t put her hand on her heart during their national anthem.

Some Olympic commentary have been accused of being sexist – women being compared to men, men said to be responsible for women’s success. The BBC reported about a recent study by Cambridge University Press that found the language around female athletes to focus on appearance, personal life and clothes. Fortunately, there are people to call out on these cases. The Los Angeles Times published an article with the title ‘Who cares if Gabby Douglas placed her hand over her heart?’ and male athletes raised their voice against sexist commentating. Comedian Megan Ford even created an Olympics Media Sexism Bingo.


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