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Burning Spear News

Olympics place the contradictions of colonial capitalism on the world stage

Aug 8, 2021
Matsemela Odom

Heroic Black Power stance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics is remembered at San Jose State University in California. PHOTO: "TOMMIE SMITH & JOHN CARLOS STATUE @ SAN JOSE STATE UNIVERSITY" BY ANARCHOSYN IS LICENSED WITH CC BY-SA 2.0.


The United States Track and Field Olympic Trials were held from June 18 to June 27 in Eugene, Oregon. The U.S. trials are the first step for U.S. athletes to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. African women athletes have taken center stage in these trials.

They set records and generated public debate because of the political positions they have taken. Africans have heralded sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for her rejection of colonial cultural norms. Africans have defended hammer thrower Gwen Barry who protested the U.S. national anthem during the awards ceremony.

The African community closely follows track and field and Summer Olympic Games. On a recent episode of “The People’s War” radio show, University of California track coach Chuck Ryan suggested this might be the best U.S. team ever. Yet these talents benefit colonial and neocolonial countries.

Point 2 of the African People’s Socialist Party’s 14-Point Working Platform states: “We want the rights to economic development and creative and productive employment, which promote the needs and well being of our entire people.” Point 2 goes on to state, “We believe that colonialism is a blood-sucking system which causes all economic development to benefit the colonialist ruling class state and society at the expense of our colonized people.”

In 2016, the U.S., Jamaica, and Kenya ranked top three in track and field medals. Seven of the top ten countries in track and field are led by African athletes but their success does not benefit Africa. The Summer Olympic Games need to become a tool for Africans to recognize the need for African unity and independence.

Modern Olympics emerged with imperialist assault on Africa

The Summer Olympics will be held from July 23 to August 8, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. The Summer Olympic Games were scheduled for 2020 but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Summer Olympics have only been postponed or cancelled three times before—in 1916, 1940 and 1944. This made 2020 the first time that something other than imperialist world war halted the summer games.

The Olympic Games were rebirthed in 1896 as a cultural representation of European and white North American imperialism. This was the same period as the Berlin Conference, the U.S. expansion into the Pacific, Caribbean and Latin America, and the imperialist scramble for Africa. The Plessy vs. Ferguson decision and Battle of Adwa were also in 1896.

Fourteen countries participated in the 1896 Olympics. All of the countries were European except for the U.S. All the athletes were white. No women participated.

In 1900, the Haiti-born Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera of the French rugby team was the first African to compete, win a medal and win a gold medal in the Olympics.

African success in the Olympics maintains political significance

From Jim Thorpe to Jesse Owens, the success of colonized U.S. athletes at the Olympics has maintained political importance. Jesse Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics has often been used as evidence of the American defeat of German nazism. Owens’ wins were nevertheless dismissed by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Owens stated, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

The Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City are iconic. A lesser known fact is that the expressions of Black Power throughout the Mexico City games were a compromise to the complete boycott that had originally been planned by African athletes from the U.S.

When the internationalist context of the Black Power salute is removed from the 1968 games, the success of African athletes merely becomes a tool for American exceptionalism and integrationism with the suggestion that Africans can be black and American at the same time.

Sha’Carri Richardson and Gwen Barry spark controversy; African working class defends them

In preparation for the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has issued many anti-African rulings. The IOC banned protest and progressive statements on clothing. The IOC has also banned “Afro hair” caps made for black swimmers stating they did not fit “the natural form of the head.”

In 2019, Hammerthrower Gwen Barry won the gold medal at the Pan-American Games and protested the U.S. national anthem. Barry stated it was in representation of “those who died due to systemic racism.” Barry was punished by the IOC and has lost at least $50,000 in sponsorship money. In this year’s Olympic Trials, she protested the anthem again by turning her back and has received backlash by reactionary journalists.

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson has been slandered because of what she represents—African working class women. Critics have degraded Richardson's wigs, tattoos and body. The slanders Richardson has endured from the colonial media and African petty bourgeoisie reflect a special oppression of African women in track and field.

In 1988, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was compared to an ape and Florence Griffith-Joyner was said to look like a man.

The African working class community has held up Sha’Carri Richardson and Gwen Barry as heroes. On Sunday June 27, Chairman Omali Yeshitela called on Africans to show their support for Gwen Barry.

Richardson won the gold medal in the 100 meter race at the trials, but subsequently had her win vacated because she tested positive for cannabis. Richardson was informed by reporters that her mother had died during the trials. Richardson has admitted that she used cannabis as a coping measure. Richardson was punished with a 30 day suspension that makes her ineligible for the Summer Olympics.

Africans have come to Richardson's defense. Mike Freeman of “USA Today” argues that the test and punishment is an example of “how anti-Blackness triumphs in sports.” The primary contradictions in Richardson’s suspension are not moral or even medical, they are political.

African athletes unite!

Kundai Bajikikayi made an appeal to African athletes to join the African revolution on “The People’s War” radio show. Kundai quoted Toni Cade Bambara stating that “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” Kundai is the All African People’s Development and Empowerment Project's membership coordinator, but she is also a track coach and former track and field star.

Track and field has been described as “literally the hunger games.” Evinced in Nike’s dropping of Allyson Felix after her pregnancy, contracts are not guaranteed—they are hard to gain and difficult to keep. Most highly skilled Africans will not become professionals and surely not make the Olympics.

They should instead use the skills they learn in school and on the track in service of the African Revolution.


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