Simone Manuel’s gold medal win in the Rio Olympics is no minor feat, and not just in the athletic sense. As Manuel herself acknowledges, her achievement is a slap in the face to the racism which permeates US society, at one point blatantly barring, and to this day, deterring blacks from participating in the pleasure of communal swimming. Think of Dorothy Dandridge, whose toe was deemed cause enough to drain an entire pool lest she carry communicable diseases attributed to African-Americans without causality in the segregation era, or think back to the burning image of a white motel owner pouring acid into a pool, black guests still in it, looks of hurt, panic and confusion on their faces as they scramble to escape the toxic fluid.
Attitudes and actions espoused by whites across the nation and enabled by legislation thus played a direct role in the emergence of generations of African Americans who could not swim. According to USA Swimming, An estimated 70% of African Americans do not know how to swim, and to this day access to swimming pools is limited in black majority neighborhoods, another consequence of low income and disparate funding allocation trends across urban areas with a predominant African-American demographic presentation. It comes as no surprise then that campaigns such as Make a Splash have made demonstrable effort to recruit relatable ambassadors and focus efforts and resources on encouraging black communities to proactively learn this essential life skill.
Yet Manuel’s victory, mighty in its own right, comes in the midst of troubling events anchored to the right to enjoy public water and water sports in other parts of the world — events that remind us that racism and sexism still permeate the very same societies we tout as progressive, democratic, pluralistic, and post-racial.
Within the span of about a week, the French towns of Cannes, Villeneuve-Loubet, and Corsica have each banned burkinis from public beaches, effectively restricting the right of French women to dress as they choose, controlling how they get to present their bodies when partaking in activities at a public beach. By specifically targeting the burkini, French authorities are attempting to make the case to Muslim communities to accept and adhere to secular French values and abandon rather than merge theirs, while outrageously tying hygiene and morals of Muslims into the discussion. Even the French Prime Minister weighed in on the matter, referring to the burkini as a symbol of the “enslavement of women”. French society’s obsessive aversion to the display of religious practice has apparently gone so far as some French officials calling for Muslims to be “more discreet,” as though the mere sight of diversity threatens to rip the social fabric of French society to shreds.
In reality, the burkini ban effectively discriminates and marginalizes one single, but dual faceted minority group–those Muslim women who observe hijab and cover themselves in the presence of men. This group of women, it must be noted, is a much larger segment than the burqa or niqab wearers who are by comparison just a handful, already targeted by other bans since 2010. Interestingly, it remains unclear as to what is in fact deemed legal beach attire. Bikinis and speedos have not as of yet been legislated as mandatory, and men’s (and women’s) wetsuits seem to remain perfectly legal, despite being essentially the same configuration of material as a burkini, save for a cap to cover the hair — bringing into question yet again how principles of ethnic and gender equality, and that of individual liberty, can really be said to be upheld through such laws.
Things got worse by the end of the same week. In Israel, a Regional Council leader, Moti Dotan, called for segregated swimming pools for Israelis and Palestinians, questioning Palestinian hygiene and cultural practices as he quipped that he would not wish to share a pool with them. Public pools are thus the latest infrastructure being leveraged to implement apartheid against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel, discrimination against whom collectively is already enabled through government issued identification, differences in access to government services, as well as through segregation of roads, schools, and even hospital wards.
The occupation has proved immune even to the Olympic spirit, and dampening that of the Palestinian delegation to Rio. Many of the Palestinian delegation, like Mary al-Atrash, could not access decent training facilities either as a result of lack of infrastructure in the West Bank, or due to the discouraging reality facing any Palestinian who considers travel to Jerusalem–the impending denial of permit by the Israeli civilian affairs authority, the long and arduous wait at most checkpoints, and the inevitable sense of humiliation tied to having to seek permission from an occupying force to move freely within your own land. Dotan has since issued a mild retraction of his statement calling it a “slip of the tongue,” but continued to emphasize apparently subpar physical hygiene attributable, to him, to Palestinian culture. Of course, it is ironic that Palestinians would be found swimming in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories at all, given the cutting of water supply to a number of West Bank villages by Israel over the course of the summer or in consideration of the horrific targeted killing of 4 young Palestinian boys playing on the Gaza beach, by an Israeli warship during the Israeli Operation Protective Edge offensive in 2014.
Despite Simone Manuel’s historic accomplishment in the Olympic pool, water activities thus seem to continue to be a flashpoint for the curtailing of freedoms, for the institutionalization of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, and for enabling the ugly practice of segregation. Water, the very essence of life, that clarifying healant both so scarce yet so abundant, is abused again and again as fuel for the fire burning through progressive social values. Manuel’s victory enables thousands of black girls across the United States to envision a future where they stand on a podium, representing their country through their athletic prowess, but it also reminds us that such momentous achievements are still at risk of being drowned out by the rising waves of right-wing nationalist extremism that appear to be taking Western, liberal democratic nations on both sides of the Atlantic by storm.