2016 is beginning to look a lot like 1968.
We’ve all seen the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting their fists into the air at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Their actions symbolized Black Power and showed solidarity with other African-Americans in the struggle for freedom and equality. Smith and Carlos used their platform as Olympians and cultural icons to speak on issues that were important to them and their people. Smith stated, “If I win [at the Olympics], I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black, and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
In 2016, we’ve seen several prominent athletes use their platform to speak on behalf of their passions. Given the widespread awareness of officer-involved shootings targeting African-Americans, athletes are speaking out against police brutality. Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during several of this year’s preseason NFL games. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade took to the stage at the ESPYs in July in response to the officer-involved shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
As the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic swimming event, Simone Manuel is acutely aware of how symbolic her success is. She is also aware of how important it is for her to use her platform to discuss issues she is passionate about. Following her historic Olympic race in Rio, Manuel recognized an opportunity to raise awareness about African-Americans and police brutality.
“[My victory] means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
Speaking out is not always easy, and Manuel encourages her fellow athletes to use their platforms to address issues that are important to them.
I was not going to let feeling like I did not fit in keep me from reaching my goals and dreams. – Simone manuel
“We all have opinions,” she said. “If you feel very strongly and want to stand up and use your platform as an athlete or celebrity to stand up and address those situations, you should.”
Manuel also uses her platform to address issues of particular importance to Black women. Manuel orders her steps as she walks behind the women who inspired her in her swimming career. Upon winning the gold, Manuel told reporters, “This medal is not just for me. It is for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and have been an inspiration for me.” Manuel also mentioned Maritza Correia, the first Afro-Latina to earn a spot on the US Olympic swim team in 2004.
In addition to paying homage to other Black female swimmers, Manuel hopes to pay it forward and serve as an inspiration for young people interested in swimming. Since winning her gold medal, Manuel has dedicated some of her time to mentoring young people. “Kids telling me that I am an inspiration is where [a dream] starts and it’s how they figure out their dreams. [Inspiring young people has been] most gratifying to me.”
Simone Manuel is comfortable standing on her platform, even if it means being the only Black woman in her position. “[As a Black female swimmer] I had to realize my role and realize I was not the only one who felt alone,” Manuel said. “Swimming was important to me, and I loved it. I was not going to let feeling like I did not fit in keep me from reaching my goals and dreams. I was not going to let someone stop me because I felt uncomfortable.”