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Original Issue

We've Got to Be Strong

The obstacles facing black women in sports have scarcely diminished with time

In 1976, I rowed seven seat in the U.S. eight-oared shell that won a bronze medal at the Montreal Games. Since 1986, I have been a member of the International Olympic Committee. My term of office lasts until I turn 75, in the year 2027. Only 10 years passed between my becoming an Olympian and my election to the IOC. But for me, an African-American woman, reaching the top of international sport seemed like the accomplishment of 10 generations.

Even in those sports that are largely sustained by black athletes, the guiding decisions are still made by white males. As a consequence, any African-American woman who finds herself in a position of influence in U.S. sport is a magnificent overachiever. And the number of such women, always small, is dwindling. A remarkable resource is in danger.

When I was growing up in Indianapolis, I became curious about the energy and endurance of my great-grandmother, Laura Ethel Lucas. She was in her mid-70's, yet she carried sacks of groceries that I—at nine—could not lift. When I asked her how she got so strong, she said, "I wanted to be a nurse. But because I was a colored girl, they wouldn't let me go to school and get the necessary training. So I worked in white people's homes, cleaning, washing their clothes and preparing their meals. It was hard work, so I had to be strong. But things are changing. You can get an education. You can be whatever you want to be."

I knew right then that I wanted to be strong, strong as Grandma Lucas was, strong enough to take on a world I knew would be hostile to me simply because of the color of my skin.

I saw other black females who were not able to sustain that strength. As a child, I swam during the summers for the Frederick Douglass Park team. All of us were black. A teammate of mine won almost every race, even against the white kids who trained year-round at the Riviera Club. The mostly white crowds on such occasions received this gifted girl in silence. Eventually she quit the team.

At Connecticut College, I discovered rowing, a discipline that would take all the strength I could muster. My skin color made me conspicuous in the sport. As a result, I never pulled at half pressure. I knew that I had to be better than my teammates. Today, that is the creed of every black female coach or administrator. "Twice as good?" says former USOC vice-president Evie Dennis. "Try five times as good."

I know from experience that it is painful to acknowledge that you are the target of racism or sexism, but I believe it is essential to call people on it. So here are some hard facts:

•A survey of 106 Division I schools that field women's basketball teams found that only 11 are coached by black women.

•In those 106 schools, there is only one athletic director who is an African-American woman.

•There are no black women among the executive directors who lead the 50 governing bodies for U.S. Olympic sports.

•There has never been a black woman on any U.S. Olympic basketball coaching staff.

Even worse, in U.S. amateur sport, there are fewer female coaches today, black or white, than there were only 10 years ago. Decisions on women's staff and spending used to be the province of the female administrators who were responsible for women's athletics. Now decisions are usually made by white male athletic directors, whose imperatives are football and the bottom line. Cost-cutting has led to a shrinkage of nonrevenue sports and the coaching jobs that go with them. In response, black female student-athletes are turning their backs on programs that would prepare them for jobs in those fields. The obstacles are too formidable.

Marian Washington, a black woman who is in her 19th season as the women's basketball coach at Kansas, says, "You constantly believe people will judge you by your work. It's such an unhappy surprise when they don't."

And, ultimately, it's enormously debilitating. After many years of watching other coaches receive opportunities to coach in international competitions, Washington finally decided to stop caring about it. "When I started to question myself and my capability because I wasn't being chosen, I decided not to allow myself to remain in that environment," she says.

Two American traditions collide here: Black women's belief in our own strength slams head-on into society's refusal to let us choose where to employ that strength. Sport doesn't lead society, it reflects it. To bring African-American women fully into American sport, attitudes must be changed. Sports executives must search their souls to see whether they are judging black women coaches and administrators fairly on their work, not dismissing them on the basis of their sex and the color of their skin.

Read about the obstacles faced by men—the stacking, stereotyping, discouraging and dumping—described in this magazine's series on the black athlete, then take my word for this: It's worse if you're female. And those who would deny all women their rights will oppose black women even more.

The strength and leadership ability of African-American women has been tested for centuries, and we have never failed to perform. Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement, led others to freedom and became a scout for the Union Army. Today's African-American women are ready and able to contribute to this nation through sports. But only if given the opportunity, only if given the chance.