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Why Being the First Still Matters

Why Being the First Still Matters

simone manuel

"I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not 'Simone the black swimmer,'" Manuel told reporters.


Simone Manuel made history Thursday by becoming the first African-American to win gold in the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympics.

The 20-year-old Texan swimmer set an Olympic record, coming in at 52.70 seconds, reports The New York Times. She shared the record with Canadian Penny Oleksiak.

NBC didn't air Manuel's medal ceremony until an hour after it happened. The network was showing Russian gymnastics while Manuel was receiving her gold medal. Manuel was moved to tears while the national anthem played, and she sang along. "I definitely think it raises some awareness and will get them inspired," Manuel told the media when she was asked about the significance of being the first. "I mean, the gold medal wasn't just for me; it was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport."

When Manuel was asked about what it was like coming up in a sport that is dominated by white athletes, she told reporters it is something she has been conscious of as she's risen through the ranks of the swimming world. "It is something I've definitely struggled with a lot," Manuel said. "Coming into the race, I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It's something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not 'Simone the black swimmer.'"

Manuel commented on police brutality, calling her win significant given the political climate in the U.S., where it is every other day that the public hears about police killing civilians."It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality," Manuel told reporters, according to USA Today. "This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory."

One Twitter user discussed the importance of Manuel's win in the context of Dorothy Dandridge, a 20th-century African-American actress and singer. In 1955, Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award in the lead actress category. But she faced racism because it was still the Jim Crow era. While performing at a club on the Las Vegas Strip in the 1950s, Dandridge was told that the hotel pool would be drained if she were to swim in it. Dandridge did it anyway and the pool was drained. Sammy Davis Jr. faced the same type of discrimination.

The media has not had the best track record this week when reporting on athletes who are LGBT, women, or people of color. Today, San Jose, Calif.'s Mercury News posted a headline that read "Olympics: Michael Phelps Shares Historic Night With African-American."

Some other newspapers haven't done much better. The Chicago Tribune celebrated Corey Cogdell's bronze medal in trap ahooting win with a headline reading "Corey Cogdell, Wife of Bears Lineman Mitch Unrein, Wins Bronze in Rio."

Tom Daley fans were upset that NBC failed to mention that he is an out gay man. The network showed Daley's fiance, Dustin Lance Black, cheering in the crowd but never noted their relationship. "When an openly LGBT person achieves," Black told The Advocate, "it tells young LGBT people that their dreams are not limited by who they are or who they love."

This week The Daily Beast published but eventually removed an article by a straight reporter featuring identifying information that could have outed gay Olympians in Rio. The reporter, a straight married man, used hookup apps to check the availability of casual sex in the Olympic Village and got the most responses on the gay-oriented Grindr, so that became the focus of his story. He offered physical descriptions of the men with whom he chatted and their nationalities, details that could have the effect of outing closeted gay or bi men, something especially dangerous to those from homophobic countries. Those details were removed after the article received negative reactions, and now the whole piece has been taken down.

But this isn't something that's limited to sports. Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party in the U.S., had an experience similar to Manuel's and Cogdell's. The day after she became the party's official nominee, newspapers across the country reported on her historic accomplishment but pictured her husband, former President Bill Clinton (the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention the previous night), instead of her.

Both the Mercury News and The Daily Beast issued editor's notes on their problematic coverage, and TheDaily Beast removed the article, but questions remain. Why were these headlines or articles published in the first place? How did they get past several editors without anyone voicing objections?

This year there are a record 48 out LGBT athletes at the Rio Olympics. Though Simone Manuel is not LGBT, her win, compounded with the historic visibility of LGBT athletes, signifies that the Olympic spirit can (and should) include people who have been historically excluded from the games. And now they are making history in a place that at one point wanted to keep them out.

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Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.
Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.