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Naomi Osaka stands in front of the olympic cauldron in Japan after lighting the flame
Japan’s Naomi Osaka lights the cauldron during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Black women athletes ruptured destructive and limiting beliefs at the Tokyo Olympics

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approached, fans around the world struggled to balance their excitement with a general uneasiness surrounding the Games. These included high-profile firings, volunteers quitting, abnormally high temperatures, low vaccination rates as well as a declared state of emergency amidst surging COVID-19 cases.

While there were many engaging story lines and developments worth following over the last 14 days, the prominence of Black women was hard to ignore.

From the outset of the Games’ opening ceremony, where Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron, it quickly became evident that Black women would be of central importance to the games and stories that followed.

Black women’s participation in sport

Coming off a tumultuous exit from the French Open and Wimbledon, Osaka gleefully stated that lighting the cauldron was her biggest athletic achievement to date.

Osaka, of Haitian and Japanese descent, was the first tennis player to ever light the Olympic cauldron. Despite her early exit in the Olympic tennis tournament, she had already won.

Too often, Black women’s participation in sport is questioned, negated or simply unnoticed.

Common depictions of Black women athletes are often racist and misogynist. Praise for Black women atheletes is often accompanied with what feminist scholar Moya Bailey refers to as misogynoir, the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women.

Woman stands wearing silver medal making an X above her forehead
Raven Saunders of the United States poses with her silver medal she earned in women’s shot put making an X with her arms. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Sacrificing mental health

Gymnastics typically account for the highest TV ratings for women’s sport at the Olympics. The competition was marketed around African American Simone Biles, the global superstar who is a 32-time Olympic and world medallist.

Biles shocked the world this year by pulling out of the all-around team gymnastics competition. A slew of demeaning “takes” then flooded both news and social media.

Read more: Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka put the focus on the importance of mental performance for Olympic athletes

According to sociologist Delia D. Douglas, Black athletes — especially Black women — must show graciousness, gratefulness, obedience, adhere to respectability politics and live up impossible standards, including sacrificing their mental health.

Black women often challenge these narratives and in doing so are (not so) quiet champions for a variety of social justice issues both in and outside of sport. As the Black feminist Combahee River Collective reminds us, “the only people who care enough about Black women to work consistently for our liberation are Black women.”

Simone Biles smiles excitedly wearing a unitard
Simone Biles smiles as Tang Xijing of China embraces teammate Guan Chenchen after she won the gold medal on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus final at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Following her withdrawal from the team competition, Biles then dropped out of additional events, leaving the beam her only remaining competition. The world debated, scorned and applauded her efforts yet once again, a Black woman cleaved open the conversation about the mental health of athletes.

Black women at the Olympics

As the competition carried on, athletes, celebrities and politicians came out in support of Biles and her decision. This compassion started to shift the seemingly impenetrable narrative that a gold medal is the only success worth celebrating at an Olympic competition.

Biles’s journey at the Olympics was framed as an act of rebellion against sporting federations, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which was recently held accountable for the mistreatment of athletes. Athletes are no longer remaining silent about overly restrictive rules including those that limit sociopolitical expression.

African American athlete Raven Saunders deserves credit and celebration over her silver medal in shot put. Rule 50, which states that “every kind of demonstration or propaganda, whether political, religious, or racial, in the Olympic areas, is forbidden”, was visibly contested by Saunders when she raised her two arms in the air to form an X on the podium. She stated that her medal represented where the “oppressed meet.”

Saunders went on to say that the IOC will “never take her silver away.” Hammer throw teammate Gwen Berry raised a fist in protest of the investigation the IOC opened after Saunders’ noncompliance, which was since put on hold after the death of her mother.

Read more: The power of no: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Black women's resistance

In addition to increasing empathy for Black women and their intersectional plights, there was also a recognition of the athletic feats of Black women especially in sports historically dominated by white women.

U.S. wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock became the first Black woman to win gold in freestyle wrestling. Dutch runner Sifan Hassan defied all odds by winning her 1,500-metre heat, despite falling at the beginning of the final lap. Hassan went on to win gold in the 5,000 metres, bronze in the 1,500 metres and gold in the 10,000 metres.

In athletics’ most popular event, Jamaicans Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson placed first, second and third respectively in the 100-metre sprint.

Woman wearing unitard runs holding baton
Allyson Felix of the United States runs in the women’s 4 x 400-meter relay at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Sprinter Allyson Felix, champion of Black maternal health, now dons the title of the most decorated track and field athlete in history. Her bronze medal performance in the 400-metre event signalled a win for motherhood, donning her newly designed shoe, after her sponsorship was slashed by Nike after becoming pregnant.

Namibian runners were wrongly denied entry into the Olympic 400-metre competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) due to sexist, antiquated rules that regulate only women’s testosterone levels — they were subsequently allowed to compete in the 200 metres. Christine Mboama captured silver, while Beatrice Masillingi finished fifth.

The IOC and IAAF might have unfairly felt a bit of vindication from this result, and the fight against sex and gender testing that overwhelmingly discriminates against Black and racialized women is consistently being challenged and led by Black women.

Beyond the finish line

Black women were once again trailblazers in Tokyo, shouldering the burden of contesting archaic and unfair rules and lack of accommodations. The Games may be over, but the legacy of the Black women athletes will be the rupture of destructive and limiting beliefs.

This legacy has the potential to permeate long after the medal ceremonies and homecoming celebrations. Compounded with COVID-19, athlete health is beginning to take precedence over any hardware or harmful narratives about pushing through injury, racial trauma or mental health issues.

We must thank the athletes, and particularly Black women, who continue to take risks, sacrifice and endure the pain and emotional turmoil of being game changers in racist and misogynist sport systems. Flourishing, experiencing joy and being supported remain conditional for Black women athletes — these athletes managed to shine brighter than gold, triumphing on their own terms.

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