What do the Olympics and the presidential campaign have in common? A color issue

Les Payne from Newsday

The U.S. Olympic team is a study in subtle separation, where white athletes cluster in events fielding few blacks, just as blacks tend to dominate in those sports abandoned by their colorless, fellow countrymen and women.

Team America is not unlike its nurturing society. The racial pattern holds as well for U.S. presidential politics, pending Sen. Barack Obama’s presumptive nomination Thursday. Until now, voters have faced only lily-white choices from their major political parties over our entire 232-year history.

Athletics, we’ve been told, is the one area of American life that has been integrated de facto and de jure. Yet, at the Olympics, our teams in most events _ as with housing and school patterns _ bear a distinctive coloration that runs counter to a healthy integration.

As U.S. athletes swam, dove, and somersaulted from the floor, rings and the uneven bars in Beijing, rarely did we see a black in Speedo or tights. Michael Phelps, God bless him, stroked magnificently to eight gold medals, spared any competition along the way from black teammates. Indeed, Cullen Jones helped enable the gold-medal record of the aquatic phenom with his third leg in the 400-meter freestyle relay. This lone black on the U.S. swim team, only the third to medal for the U.S. in Olympic swimming history, stood out in Beijing like a Sphinx on the Great Wall.

Americans buy into the myth that blacks can’t swim. They once had a similar need to believe that blacks couldn’t play golf, tennis, run long distances or even play major league baseball. This national sense of unchallenged _ and for a time unchallengeable _ white superiority continues in such sports such as archery, kayaking, the antics of equestrian, and the nonsense of synchronized swimming. Indeed, even the U.S. Olympic baseball team is once again almost all white.

Then, of course, there are the Olympic sports that blacks dominate: basketball, sprinting, hurdles and boxing, though not as much as before. Unable to sustain this ersatz superiority against challenge, white athletes, in America at least, tend to abandon these “black” sports much as they walked away from running back slots in football.

The pattern seems clear: If we can’t keep others out and dominate, we’ll retreat to NASCAR racing and concoct the X games and other pseudo-Olympic sports, such as BMX racing.

This pattern in U.S. Olympics sports, with all its blunt and subtle causes, runs against nature. The Creator no more designed a black human not to swim than She built a white woman to tumble around on a floor mat twirling a ribbon. Without regard to color, these human endeavors can all be learned and perfected _ as the Chinese so dramatically illustrated to the world at the Beijing games.

In multicultural America, however, the dominant group has sustained a false dominance in some events by erecting barriers reserving primacy of participation for white athletes. These obstacles in golf, tennis and swimming have been both structural as well as psychological. The great psychic success was achieved in persuading even terribly ill-served blacks to accept their exclusion. All too often, golf, tennis, fencing and swimming, just as much as the study of physics, were accepted by both races as the “white man’s games.”

Cullen Jones’ Olympic success in swimming might challenge one of these psychological race barriers. “I hope,” Jones said, “a kid can see this and say, ‘Wow, a black swimmer _ and he’s got a gold medal.'” Although he previously set the U.S. record in the 50-meter freestyle, Jones sees the gold medal, the second ever by an African-American swimmer, as pivotal. “The stigma that black people don’t swim ended today.”

Well, maybe not entirely; age-old stereotypes are withered away only over time. However, some gifted, determined pioneer, inspired by those who came before, must rise up against the odds _ and strike a telling blow against the entrenched false sense of race superiority.

As with golf and Olympic swimming, the day of reckoning will one day arrive in U.S. presidential politics. The Democratic Party is putting forth a candidate despite his being an African-American. Will a sufficient number of white Americans look beyond race? I dunno.