LONG BEFORE THE SHOW HAD GONE OFF THE AIR, I WAS IN TEARS. At times I couldn't even watch it. The show caused me to recall my experiences as a black athlete in a predominantly white sport. Although blacks supposedly can't swim very well—remember former Dodger vice-president Al Campanis's ridiculous remarks about our lack of buoyancy?—all too often I had heard about the supposed physiological advantages black athletes have over whites. Some of my closest friends on the team had rationalized my accomplishments by saying, "You're so lucky that you don't have to work that hard" and "[Swimming is] so natural for you." Their words hurt, but I transformed my pain into a personal mission and became the first All-America swimmer in BU history.
As I watched the show, I wondered why we persist in trying to determine which race is more physiologically suited for sports. Why are we constantly fighting this superiority battle, instead of asking why and how anyone in the human race develops the ability to excel? My own development began as a child, when I was exposed to swimming, golf, tennis, music and ballet. By the time I reached high school, I knew I had a shot at a college swimming scholarship, so I continued to work hard at swimming and my studies. Nothing came easily. My eventual achievements were the result of determination and dedication.
The stereotype used to be that blacks couldn't run long distances. Yet Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian, won the 1960 and '64 Olympic marathons, and Kip Keino, a Kenyan, won the 1968 Olympic 1,500. Africans now dominate distance events. Some observers have tried to explain these successes by citing physical differences between East and West Africans. As I heard such theories repeated on TV last week, I could only ask why.