“I am human. I’m you, I just happen to run a little faster.” -Sha’Carri Richardson
After pulling out of the French Open in late May as a step to “exercise self-care” and preserve her mental well-being, 23-year-old Haitian-Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka, announced her withdrawal from Wimbledon to take “personal time” until the Tokyo Olympics. This comes on the heels of Osaka’s refusal to participate in “mandatory media interviews” during the French Open, which she describes as “kicking a person while they’re down”, and receiving $15,000 in “punishment fines” for this refusal.
Like Osaka, Rafael Nadal, a 35-year-old Spanish athlete, decided to “listen to his body” and opt out of Wimbledon to curb the demanding competition schedule. Unlike Nadal, who largely received support from fans and officials such as the French Open, US Open, and Tokyo Olympics, Osaka’s withdrawals were met with a rush of opinions from the spectatorial audience, fellow athletes, and competition officials. Among these opinions were statements that accused Naomi Osaka of having “diva behaviour” and “making excuses” as well as threats of “stiffer punishment” by Grand Slam officials.
While Osaka is far from being the first athlete to face scrutiny, as seen in the racist media attacks on Serena Williams and the policing of Marshawn Lynch, the differing responses to Nadal and Osaka is indicative of a larger, entangled issue that produces remarks like “just stick to sports” and to “shut up and dribble” targeted at Black athletes and athletes of colour.
From the (trans)misogynoir targeted at Black women like Williams and Caster Semenya to the exploitation of student-athletes to the racist abuse targeted at "activist athletes" like Gwen Berry, it is clear that the industry demands that Black athletes and athletes of colour are reduced to mere physical mechanisms devoid of humanity.
Sports, as this supposed “great equalizer,” is seen as the means for people to connect and understand one another beyond the things that have divided them, be it race, gender, class, etc., on an emotional, visceral level. It becomes a way in which people can seemingly advance beyond the barriers that confine them. We see in so many movies like The Blindside, Bend It Like Beckham, even The Karate Kid, that love, dedication, and hard work for a sport was the way for the underdog to be understood, overcome adversity, and succeed. While this narrative does have some basis in reality, it does not mean it is the normative case. As Janice Forsyth, Western University’s Director of Indigenous Studies, shows through sports in residential schools, sports may be seen as an “unquestionable force for good” but is actually a site to “continue to reinforce colonial dynamics when it comes to Indigenous-settler relations'' and other racial and gender hierarchies.
Speaking on his experience in a professional sports team, current free agent football player, Richard Sherman, explains that, “You kind of get lulled into the belief that everyone has torn down those stereotypes and those walls and everyone is treating each other equally.” However, after his famous 2014 NFC Championship post-game interview where Sherman celebrated his team’s victory and boasted himself over his opponent as anybody would, the media decidedly framed Sherman, a Black man, as a “thug.”
On the other side, after the Edmonton Oilers’ loss during the NHL Playoffs, team member Ethan Bear, who is from the Ochapowace Nation in Saskatchewan, was “singled out and blamed” for the loss and faced racist abuse on social media, an instance which follows a long line of abuse against Indigenous athletes. Both Sherman and Bear, who are racialized athletes playing in “traditionally white arenas”, were perceived differently and were set to different, more convoluted standards than their fellow White athletes. As seen with Osaka, the racist backlash against Sherman and Bear is only one aspect of this differentiation.
Racialized athletes occupy a precarious position of being the imagined representatives of the heights of individual success based on an assumed meritocracy and being seen as profitable, exploitable entertainment subjects of, in the words of Stephen Curry, “the powers that be [that] don’t protect their [supposed] own.”
Why is it that, rather than supporting Naomi Osaka, the Grand Slam officials decided to collectively and publicly stand against her as if her wellbeing does not matter? Though Nadal withdrew to protect his body and Osaka did to protect her mental health, what was the real difference? Why in victory and loss do individual Black athletes and athletes of colour face racist, discriminatory hate from fans and media alike? Is the body of the athlete the only thing of value? Why must athletes be subject to a press conference format that interrogates them on personal matters and sets them up for scrutiny as a form of entertainment? These questions show us that the sports world, including the fan culture, media structures, and competition organizations, not only does not see racialized, marginalized athletes as people but that it does not want to. It was never built to do so. Rather, it was built against Black athletes and athletes of colour to the point of perpetuating their dehumanization.
Recently, Sha’Carri Richardson, a Black-American sprinter, revealed that she learned of her biological mother’s passing through a reporter during an interview which forced her grief to be public. This was worsened by the fact that Richardson faced massive media attention for being suspended and removed from Team USA’s roster for the Tokyo Olympics due to a positive THC test, as per antiquated anti-doping THC rules. It is important to note that the test occurred after she qualified in the 100m dash with a time of 10.86 seconds. Richardson shared that the results came from her using marijuana, which is not performance enhancing, to cope with “the stress of her biological mother’s recent death combined with the pressure of preparing for trials” and “trying to hide the pain” from the public. Rather than receiving sympathy in her time of grief, Richardson faced punishment, was made a spectacle of, and was subjected to everybody’s take for merely doing the entirely human action of making a personal choice for her well-being just because “rules are rules.”
But what are the merits of said rules when they are made to work against you for simply being you?
From the banning of Soul Cap, a swimming cap designed for natural Black hair, from competition use because it “does not follow the natural form of the head,” we are not only told what hair is acceptable, but that “Black swimmers aren’t at the elite level” so they do not need to be accommodated. With the barring of Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, due to their natural testosterone levels being higher than the “allowable limit for women,” we are not only told that the “boundaries of womanhood” are based on the white cisgender female body but that anything outside of it is “too masculine” and creates an “uneven playing field.”
via Getty Images
This rule perpetuates the transmisogynoir, being the oppressive “intersection of misogyny, transphobia, and anti-Blackness,” that is leveled at Black women that dictates what bodies are “truly feminine.” It is this violent discourse that manifests itself in the insidious bodily comparisons made between Black athletes and white athletes, that casts Black women as “manly” and pushes Black trans athletes like CeCé Telfer out of the competition. In the International Olympic Committee’s maintenance of the ban on any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda [...] in any Olympic sites (including clothing, hand gestures, and kneeling)” to focus on “athletes' performances, sport, unity and universality,'' we are not only told that sports must be apolitical, but that the humanity of marginalized athletes takes a backseat to this false image of sports.
Though sports are “mythologized as safe playgrounds for fairness and inclusion,” these instances show that this is far from reality. These athletes have to deal with rampant racism, the exploitation of their labour and pain, and the “natural athletic talent" myth all while having to appear grateful for their position to avoid having a “taken-for-granted attitude” despite their hard work to get there. Weighing on the shoulders of racialized athletes alongside the goal of victory is the burden of continuing a certain narrow performance, behaviorally and bodily, that supposedly protects the “spirit of sports” and satisfies spectators.
This performance of “sportsmanship” based on arbitrary rules and expected behaviors is another landscape for micromanaging, exploiting, and controlling the racialized body.
In the pursuit of a “colour-blind” or “race-neutral” yet “standardized” inclusivity, something that disappears is the sentiment that was repeated from Ethan Bear to Sha’Carri Richardson to Naomi Osaka, that is: “I am human.” Their occupations as athletes are not divorced from their experiences and realities as racialized, marginalized peoples as these come to shape their path; these are all folded into their humanity, it is part of who they are and should be acknowledged as such despite these institutions (intentionally) failing to do so. However, with the conversations and collective actions emerging from people like Naomi Osaka speaking out, we are moving towards a horizon that is not clouded by empty platitudes.