Athletics Have Long Been On The Front Line Of Social Change

Athletics have long been a platform for BIPOC to make an impact in the face of discrimination and criticism for simply using their voice to speak to their human experience. From Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics that “single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”

To Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ “Human Rights’ salute” in 1968

To Wilma Rudolph and The Tigerbelles breaking color barriers in the southern United States by winning 23 Olympic medals from 1952 to 1968.

Athletics — or Track and Field in general — can be a haven for under represented athletes. After-all, times on the track speak for themselves and when the country around you often feels unsafe, at least you can escape all of that for a few moments. Sports have always been a form of escapism from the crumbling world around us.

Ashley Spencer is as decorated as they come on the world stage but had a heartbreaking message on Twitter this week. In a country where we derive so much joy and excitement from Athletes of color, we often don’t recipricate those feelings on an institutional level. What does an athlete do when the country they represent doesn’t represent them back?

Here’s the rub, runners accross the country came together after the Ahmaud Arbery murder earlier this month. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white men while jogging down the road. That experience resonates with us and led to a viceral response from the community. You don’t need to work hard to envision being alone on a run, but what happens when injustice happens and we can’t personally relate because of the priveledge our skin tone affords us?

Many of those same runners that tweeted #runwithmaud weren’t as vocal following the murder of George Floyd earlier this week. It can be natural to hide from the uncomfortable truth that is facing us in this moment but to be a true ally to our friends of color we need to be as vocal as ever. We need to use our platforms, our voices, and our skills to support Black athletes who are using their voice to bring attention to social change. It won’t be popular, you might lose some Twitter followers but no change, no justice, occurs without some level of sacrifice.

Tianna Bartoletta wrote an amazing piece earlier this week where she closed with the following passage,

“It’s a different kind of terror. But our voices fall on deaf ears far too often. And our anger looks threatening and frightening to the people we need to hear us.

I’m so sad, and so frustrated. But I can’t stay silent.

I don’t have that privilege.”

We can’t let our athletes’ voices fall on deaf or indifferent ears. If we don’t support them now, how can we support them on the track when competition starts anew?

All of this is easy for me to say, I have never been seen as a threat because of the color of my skin. I can have controversial takes and no one will blow a dog whistle in my comments.

We must support those that don’t have that priveledge.

Thanks for reading,

-Justin

USATF Running Coach - Track & Field Journalist - 'Running Through It' Podcast Host