Simone Biles and Simone Manuel have made history at the Olympics, and have arguably done for their sports — gymnastics and swimming, respectively — what Serena and Venus Williams have done for tennis. Alongside many other athletes of color, they've won multiple medals and paved the way for young women of color who aspire to compete. The question of representation at the Olympics has long been an important one, and continues to be. But who actually is represented at the Olympics, and what does this representation signify?
According to Vox, more women have competed in Rio than at any previous Olympics. Team USA specifically had some pretty diverse representation; people of color have won 48 of the team's 100 medals. Then there's the fact that Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing hijab. But even as athletes like Biles and Manuel routinely make headlines for their incredible accomplishments — which is extremely important, given how rarely people of color are given a chance to openly celebrate their success — we still have a long way to go when it comes to adequate representation. In Rio, a lot of people have been rendered practically invisible.
For instance, the Paralympics are slated to start in Rio next month, but have experienced major budget cuts to venues, the workforce, and transportation options for the athletes. Only 12 percent of tickets for the Paralympic Games have been sold so far. This is due, in turn, to something else many people have been neglecting to acknowledge: Brazil's struggling economy.
Many residents of Rio's favelas spoke out about the city's investment in the Olympics — rather than in its own neighborhoods — ahead of the Games. They also discussed rates of police violence, forced evictions, and poverty. Earlier this summer, Michel Silva, a journalist from Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela, wrote in The Guardian that "a huge amount of public money was spent on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and although sport can be a tool for social inclusion, what we really need is investment in education, health, security and many other things. Rio de Janeiro is not ready for another mega event.”
Whether or not Silva was right is still being debated; proponents of holding the Games in Rio have argued that the Olympics would help Brazil's economy and improve its international reputation. But the voices of favela residents have not taken precedence during the Olympics, and no amount of stellar athletic representation can bring their homes back if they were evicted. Moreover, Rio locals had been pointing out the pollution in the city's Guanabara Bay for a long time, but it took the Olympics coming to town for government officials to launch anti-pollution efforts. The contrast is surreal: There is some incredibly powerful representation at the Olympics, but locals are arguably overshadowed by the Games.
Representation is important, but so is context. What does it mean that Gabby Douglas was vilified just because she didn't put her hand over her heart, but Ryan Lochte nearly got away with allegedly reporting a robbery that didn't happen? The Olympics may be a time for different countries to come together, but things like oppression and international politics don't simply disappear for a span of two weeks. As a white-passing person of color, Lochte's white privilege was as present in Rio as it would have been at home, and even though Douglas and her fellow gymnasts have led Team USA to so many victories, she still can't escape racist and sexist comments.
Manuel knows this. She is conscious of the fact that she and Biles are creating and claiming space for other black women and women of color in their respective sports, and she does not depoliticize her identity just because she is at the Olympics.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel told USA Today. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
Issues like racist police brutality are not exclusive to the United States. It is a problem in Rio, where police killings of young black men from favelas have escalated. It is a problem in France, where a black Muslim man named Adama Traoré recently died in police custody. It is a problem in many other parts of the world, too, and these issues don't simply vanish while the Olympics are taking place.
We can and should fight for athletic representation, and we should celebrate the accomplishments of athletes like Biles and Manuel, but we should still acknowledge where representation is not sufficient or inclusive. We should be talking about the disservice done to Paralympic athletes when not enough money is raised to fund the Paralympics. We should be paying more attention to the voices of Rio locals. Most importantly, we should always contextualize representation, and remember that representation on its own is not enough to eliminate systemic inequalities.
Image: Liz Minch/Bustle (1)