RIO DE JANEIRO – We’ve seen green pool water and stray bullets, heard a woman named “Hope” become the resident ugly American, seen banning and heard verbal finger-wagging over doping, and watched the United States collect medals like they’re Pokemon Go characters.
But these Olympics, at least so far, belong to the Simones.
Michael Phelps’ last Olympics is like a Post-it note on the fridge. It’s a reminder. Katie Ledecky’s dominance is only beginning. The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams may be on their way to dominating in the same fashion as their fellow Americans in gymnastics and swimming.
If we are to even pay lip service to the Olympic ideals, which are meant to celebrate opportunity as well as speed and strength, the best moments of the Rio Games belong to two young women from Houston named Simone.
Before Dominque Dawes in 1996, no black woman had won an Olympic medal in gymnastics. Black women from the United States have won the past two all-around golds: Gabby Douglas in London and Simone Biles in Rio.
Before this week, no black woman had won an Olympic medal in swimming. With a fierce finish in the 100-meter freestyle, Simone Manuel broke that barrier while setting an Olympic record.
Gymnastics and swimming have something in common. Both are associated with affluent athletes.
Virtually anyone can run, play basketball or kick a soccer ball. To excel at gymnastics requires coaching and gym time, as well as transportation and travel. To excel at swimming requires coaching and pool time.
There are thousands of stories about the American kid who wore out the neighborhood hoops making it big, and the Dominican shortstop who used a milk carton for a glove and the Jamaican sprinter reared on dirt tracks.
Nobody becomes great in gymnastics or swimming by happenstance. These sports require intent.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”
It’s beautiful sentiment, unless you were a black gymnast or swimmer in the 1980s. Or in the ’60s, when Jim Crow laws might keep black people from swimming in the same pool as whites.
Given this opportunity, Biles became perhaps the most dominant and cinematic figure of these Olympics. She is the size of a thumb drive and just as filled with algorithms, allowing her to catapult herself improbably high and land like a well-directed drone.
Reacting to those who would compare her to exceptional male athletes, Biles said: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”
Manuel is a first, too, and without a Gabby Douglas or a Dominique Dawes to machete a trail for her, she recognized her place in history, and the ugly history that preceded her.
“This medal is not just for me,” she said. “It is for some of the African-Americans who have come before me. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point.”
There is a difference between breaking a barrier and clearing away its jagged edges. Tiger Woods’ greatness was supposed to inspire minorities to play golf. There is nothing other than the occasional anecdote to prove that it did. What Woods, Dawes, Douglas, Biles and Manuel have in common is that they became symbols of possibility.
“I want to be an inspiration,” Manuel said. “But I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’ ”
Biles, thanks to her predecessors, had it easier this week. She needed to speak up only for her gender.