Even though it’s unfair to use ethnicity or economic demographics as the basis for assessing the virtues of a particular sport, we can’t deny that doing so offers its own set of rewards, one of which is the opportunity to pass judgment on a whole range of stuff.
You have your regular, everyday snobbery (pride in belonging) and your meta-snobbery (pride in forbidding others to belong), and then you have your anti-snobbery (pride in NOT belonging). Holding “country club” sports such as swimming, golf and tennis in contempt is a prime example of anti-snobbery. Makes sense, if you think about it.
Consider: When we look at the spectator gallery of a major golf tournament, what do we see? Answer: No matter what state we’re located in (or what country for that matter), we see an ocean of white faces. And why wouldn’t we? Isn’t golf, along with swimming and tennis, the domain of white people?
How “white” are these sports? Well, if we throw out Eldrick (“Tiger”) Woods, Arthur Ashe, and the phenomenal Williams sisters, they tend to be pretty much ALL white. Seriously. Besides the aforementioned athletes, are there any notable people of color? And is it not unreasonable to suggest that Serena and Venus were the best tennis players of all-time, and that Tiger was the greatest golfer?
Which brings us poolside. Has there ever been a world-class black swimmer? Of course there hasn’t. That’s because African Americans don’t generally own pools, or belong to country clubs that have pools, or truck their kids off to expensive private swim lessons while they’re still toddlers.
Not to take anything away from Michael Phelps (World’s Fastest Caucasian Swimmer), but shouldn’t his gold medal victories have had little asterisks attached to them—little asterisks signifying that, as impressive as those victories were, they were won exclusively against white men?
And in no way is this observation meant to be political or legalistic. It isn’t about fairness or equal opportunity or the U.S Constitution. It’s about performance. Competitive excellence. Basically, we’re posing the question: Why should we pay attention to any sport that is more or less “restricted” to white people? After all, don’t we want to see the very best athletes compete?
Take baseball for instance. What if the major leagues were still segregated? What if Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, et al, hadn’t been allowed to play? Now that we know how talented these men were, and what contributions they made to the game, just imagine how diminished baseball would be without them.
This thought—about competitive excellence—should dominate our viewing of the swim events in the upcoming Olympic Games. Instead of gushing over Michael Phelps, we should take a moment to consider the dozens of young black men living in Harlem or South Central Los Angeles who, had they taken up swimming, would be laying waste to the field.
Again, this is nothing against Michael Phelps. After all, it’s not his fault that swimming is a privileged kid’s sport, a white kid’s sport—just so long as Phelps is humble enough to realize that there’s some black kid out there capable of leaving him in his wake. Just as Henry Aaron was “capable” of breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record.