Olympic Games showcased strong female role models

They also exposed enduring stereotypes

AnotherViewsquareBlack females dominated this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio: Simone Bales and Gabby Douglas (gymnastics), Simone Manuel (swimming), Venus Williams in tennis.

Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. athlete ever to wear the traditional headscarf as a Muslim woman. The American women’s basketball team that stormed through the competition and won Olympic gold was primarily led by Black females.

“To see Black women in the different sports” was an excellent teaching moment for her two children, recalls Prairie View A&M Professor Akilah Carter-Francique, now in her first year at the HBCU after previously teaching at Texas A&M. “The Olympics was great to see for me,” and especially so for her five-year-old daughter, who earlier completed her first summer at a “physical activity” camp.

Olympic gold medal swimmer Simone Manuel
Olympic gold medal swimmer Simone Manuel (MGN Online)

“It was more about physical development, team building — she learned bowling for the first time,” explains Carter-Francique. “She was exposed to swimming, how to throw a softball, and things of that nature. That was a great opportunity to expose her, and then follow that up with the Olympic Games. She got to see swimming and see Simone Manuel compete. Seeing Manuel, I felt I was swimming with her.

“She doesn’t know any difference, that we are not supposed to be in tennis, in gymnastics or swimming,” adds the professor. “She just sees these Black women represented and sees that as an opportunity for her to participate and compete. It was a great motivation to be able to see herself reflected on the screen.”

Akilah Carter-Francique
Akilah Carter-Francique Photo courtesy of Carter-Francique

But despite such successes, Black females, and most females in general, were often seen through male culturally conditioned eyes. Carter-Francique’s daughter and son unfortunately were also exposed to sexist views by male commentators.

Carter-Francique points specifically to “the commentators attributing to husbands and male coaches the female athletes’ success. Granted, coaches obviously do play a role in that, but that competitiveness to go and endure all of the physical, social, and mental [challenges] all through that contest, that [female] athlete still has a huge responsibility” for their own success, she emphasizes.

A former college track athlete, Carter-Francique also noticed the negative, if not racist comments — for example, this was the second consecutive Olympics where some negatively commented on Douglas’ hair. “There is so much pressure. That notion of hair and makeup should be thrown out the window. It’s about getting that Olympic medal, being on that stage and competing, and showing that athleticism in whatever sport you are in.

“Good hair vs. bad hair. Pride vs. self-hate… A lot of the commentary talking about Gabby Douglas in reference to hair came from our own community, our own Black women,” continues the professor.

We first met Carter-Francique in 2011 when she spoke at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) annual meeting held at the Gopher football stadium. Thereafter she accepted our invitation to join our growing list of Black experts. Carter-Francique is featured in Women in Sports Coaching (2016), a new book that looks at women coaches and explores the many issues they face.

The professor this week joins other Black academics, including the legendary professor Dr. Harry Edwards, at this year’s NASSS conference in Florida.

Carter-Francique also mentors young Black females “to be critical of what they read, hear and listen to. Not only from the dominant society [and] the White media, but also even from our own [media].


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.