Rio Olympics: The Value Of Black And Brown Bodies In Sports And Entertainment
The Olympic Games happen every four years and are watched by millions of people throughout the globe. NBC has generated 28.1 million viewers in the first six days for the 2016 games. It is arguably the most watched event in modern human history, the FIFA World Cup comes at a close second. The purpose of the Olympics, founded some 3,000 years ago, is to bring the best athletes from all corners of the world to compete with each other on the same stage. These athletes serve as singular representations for the country that birthed them, their flags even appearing before their names and their respected sport coming shortly after. When an athlete wins gold, for example, it is the country that is praised first. For 16 days (the full length of the games from opening to closing ceremony) the world is watching united while filled with homeland pride. For the sake of the games, the athlete’s skin color, gender and religion of choice is of little importance. What matters here is where they were born.
Usain Bolt, for example, born on the island of Jamaica, remains the fastest sprinter represented on a worldwide stage for the male category. What makes him fast, running 100m in 9.58 seconds, is the biological speed of his fast-twitch, slow-twitch muscles. We were all born with these muscles, however, not all of us can use them the way Bolt can. He inherited his last name from his parents, not developing it for marketing purposes. Since his world breaking debut in 2008, Bolt has benefited from global recognition, endorsements and sponsors falling into his lap, earning nearly $20 million a year. The organizations who support him do so because they are fascinated with his physical performance, not so much how he looks, talks, dresses or the color of his skin.
The Republican presidential nominee, who is consistently spews bigotry and attacks people for their differences, can not stand before his crowd during this time to say Ibtihaj Muhammad should not be representing #TeamUSA because of her religious beliefs. She is the first Muslim American woman to represent the U.S. at the Olympics while wearing a hijab. In contempt of his wish to ban Muslims from the U.S., he has remained silent on the talented fencer.
Despite our racial divides and a political climate riddled with anti-blackness, the giants on the Olympic stage representing the United States of America are black and brown. They are the ones bringing home the gold. Laurie Hernandez, for example, is the first Puerto Rican to represent #TeamUSA. Simone Manuel became the first Black American woman to win a gold in the women’s individual swimming category. Simone Biles, another Black American woman, has won the most world medals ever for a U.S. female gymnast.
The Olympics provides us with a moment of pause in our perceptions of each other. A platform that allows people to be praised rather than mistreated for their differences. We no longer see someone by their caste, financial security or lack thereof. The color of one’s skin, the texture of their hair, the religion they believe in and the sex that titles their person is not the most important. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, those prejudices are called fictional realities. There is no biological purpose for thinking that some religions or skin colors are better than others, yet there are those who believe it’s real. The stage provided by the Olympics is able to eliminate a collective fictional reality, if only for a moment, as a global pep rally of sorts. The respective successes of Hernandez, Muhammad, Manuel and Biles on the Olympic stage has been praised highly by many around the world, and serves as a reason for the United States to flaunt the melting pot it’s always been. However, when the dust settles and the games are over, the likes of Hernandez, Muhammad, Manuel and Biles are back to being members of historically oppressed and marginalized group of people.
The aforementioned implies that black and brown people have a higher societal value in the world of sports and entertainment. If an athlete is harmed while playing in the Olympics, for example, doctors run to their rescue and the resources available to get them back in the game are countless. They are treated like royalty on the court and in the media. If said athlete does not recover well enough to compete, they are dismissed from the team, and later cast aside. On the other hand, if the average Joe is injured on the streets of L.A. on any given Monday, they are subject to face enormous amounts of debt from hospital bills. The utilizing of black and brown bodies for performance isn’t a new phenomena. It started in the 15th century, at the start of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Enslaved Africans who could not produce enough goods on the field were deemed useless. Granted, athletes are not forced to play and they are compensated for their skills. However, it is relevant to ask why their bodies are worth more on a field or court than on the streets of America.
The relationship the United States has with Puerto Rico is also fodder for much needed conversation concerning liberty and equality. The small island has garnered headlines because of an increasing debt of over $70 billion. Although a colony, PR has been blamed for not accumulating enough money to pay back its master. Since the surfacing of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, the island has been repeatedly dismissed; deadlines are ignored and the process of attempting to solidify anything substantial is rejected. But when Monica Puig won Puerto Rico’s first-ever gold medal, the island’s national anthem playing for the first time on a global stage, the world showered Puerto Rico with praise, while another half shouted that the gold medal should also be added to the U.S. catalogue. In this regard, Puerto Rico is worthy of acknowledgement as it produces monetary goods, is utilized as a space for bomb-testing even, and wins gold medals on a global athletic level. Their worth when it comes to basic needs, the quality of their water, education and healthcare, however, is up for debate.
While the 2016 Olympics masterfully builds a worldly stage to parade its athletes as super humans, the process to create such a stage is achieved by destroying important artifacts to local tribes and sacred burial grounds of Rio. This level of authority is discussed heavily in Yuval Noah Harari’s text, Sapiens. Since 2250 B.C., empires have been conquering people under the basis that “we are doing this for your own benefit” until the conquered conforms. Fast forward to present day, the Olympics disregarded sacred burial grounds in Brazil under the same pretenses, ignoring the cries of the people who insisted the land honors their ancient African ancestors. The forward negligence is not singular to sacred grounds but also falls into the spending of money that reportedly does not exist, displacing people and their homes, detaining minors and the hiring of over 85,000 policemen to enforce the “clean the streets” initiative. When the affected group attempted to protest, they were silenced through a new bill that states people are not allowed to protest in publicly-owned stadiums.
Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world by population and area, has afforded us a deeper look into their home as they host the Rio Games. Leading up to and during the Olympics, the world was inclined to discover more and more about Brazil by turning over rocks. As is often done with non-European lands, the dirt is brought to surface, highlighting all the negative, providing the illusion that people of color everywhere are without the capability to build and support a thriving country. Those of us who are in America and other first world places are reminded of our privilege, reputation and place in the world. In the media, Brazil is crucified for being corrupt, currently between presidents because of sneaky business. The poverty and violence is also heavily covered, evoking yet another visual of people of color in destitute.
Although we, in America, are currently fighting for equality; although we are experiencing violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement; although homelessness continues to grow; although we have the largest prison population in the world; although our education and health care systems are in shambles; although we have poisoned water in cities like Flint; although we have an openly-racist presidential nominee who outsources jobs, we are still somehow afforded with the opportunity to thrive and then privilege to belong to a democratic country of the people, for the people. We are still collectively perceived to be free citizens of the world, who can wander the streets safely because we have the biggest and baddest military in all the land, one that pops a squat in other nations to remind them who’s boss. We reside in the country that everyone else wants to live in, and sold on “the American Dream.”
But what is not heavily reported on is that Brazil’s economy is the world’s ninth largest by nominal GDP, the money produced in any given country based off their items and services. For the last 150 years, Brazil has been the world’s largest supplier of coffee with a mind-boggling invoice of $7,841 billion for the 2011-2012 year. This number does not include its other goods. Brazil is home to the most diverse tropical forest, the Amazon basin, that has ample natural resources and a massively diverse ecological system, ranking Brazil as first on the list of 17 megadiverse countries. To be considered a megadiverse country, the land must contain more than 70 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Control of Brazil’s Amazon is always in discussion because of the steadily increasing resources in their earth.
Yes, Brazil has crime. Yes, Brazil has poverty. Yes, Brazil has corruption. Just like America.
For instance, in April of 2010, 130 million gallons of oil flooded the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana right here in the U.S. The reports on 130 million gallons of oil are suspicious, claiming that “there is no data that suggests there are any long-term population-level impacts to any species.” No long term impacts from 130 million gallons of oil? Protesters in the U.S. are silenced also, not through a bill, but through military grade threats during silent marches that instill fear in innocent citizens who are attempting to utilize their voice for change. Gentrification in U.S. neighborhoods displace generations of families of color, pushing them out of areas they’ve known their entire lives, by raising rent and property taxes. In many American ‘hoods, you could be standing in the housing projects one moment, but turn a street, and you will discover a row of million dollar high rises.
Watching the 2016 Olympics is teaching me that a global effort for the greater good is, indeed, possible. Yet, people of color are more valued when utilizing their bodies for sport. And although the United States of America and Brazil have similar ties in political and social climates, it is our Home of the Brave that will persevere, arguably at the expense of black and brown bodies.
At the end of the 16 days, the hard life in Brazil will remain the same. They will tear down stadiums that cost millions of dollars to build and displaced countless families, while everyday people remain without basic needs. They will continue to produce their world renowned coffee, making billions of dollars a year, while the have-nots continue to suffer in squander and media makes a mockery of it all.