In the past month, Black women Olympians have found themselves at the center of various firestorms. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry faced a barrage of media attention after turning her back in protest on the podium at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials on June 26, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by surprise during her medal ceremony. Berry, who has a history of protesting for racial justice, said she felt the event’s organizers targeted her personally by catching her off guard with the anthem. Then, after sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson became an overnight sensation for her supersonic qualifying sprint in the 100 meters and captivating post-race interview, she tested positive for marijuana—a substance that the World Anti-Doping Agency bans for competition—and was disqualified from the Tokyo Games. Despite being eligible for inclusion, Richardson was also then left off the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team. And after publicly baring painful details about an abortion to fight a suspension for missing a doping test, hurdler Brianna McNeal had her appeal denied and was barred from the Olympics, too.
That same week, the International Swimming Federation banned the use of swim caps specifically designed for Black hair from the Games, and Namibians Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi—a pair of 18-year-old running phenoms—were prohibited from racing the 400 meters at the Olympics after the young women tested above the allowed natural testosterone levels.
For many of the Black women athletes going to Tokyo, all of this happening at once was a lot to take. I spoke to seven such women, all members of Team USA: Berry; triple jumper Keturah Orji; swimmer Natalie Hinds; volleyball player Chiaka Ogbogu; rugby player Naya Tapper; hurdler Anna Cockrell; and Moushaumi Robinson, the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice chair and a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400-meter relay. In a series of interviews, the athletes discussed this complicated run-up to the Games, the push for change in their particular sports, and how they are doing as they prepare to leave for Tokyo amid an ongoing pandemic. At times, I asked them to respond to one another’s answers. The conversations have been edited together below and condensed for length and clarity.
Amira Rose Davis: Whew. It has been quite a week/month/year. With the Games now just days away, how are you?
Chiaka Ogbogu, Volleyball: Well, thank you for asking. I feel like that’s something especially now, with the Olympic athletes, that we don’t get asked a lot. I think everyone assumes that we are just, like, over the moon, excited and joyous, which can be true. But I’m also learning that there is space for other emotions, and it’s natural and normal to kind of feel everything right now. But I’m doing well.
Keturah Orji, Track and Field (Triple Jump): I’m very excited to be going to my second Olympics. It’s a blessing and I’m so grateful to be in this position. Some people don’t even get a chance to do it once. So to be able to make the team twice is amazing. I’m still a little bit disappointed, though, just knowing that there won’t be any spectators allowed. It’s definitely a little bit disheartening with the way COVID has affected just the fun.
Naya Tapper, Rugby: I’m getting really excited that my dream is getting closer and closer by the day. It’s been a long and challenging but amazing journey to finally get here. I’m nervous, ecstatic, anxious, all the feels.
Davis: Black women athletes have long been leaders in terms of athletic activism. With the International Olympic Committee clinging to Rule 50 and banning the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, how are you thinking about the possibility of continued protest?
Gwen, you already demonstrated at trials.
Gwen Berry, Hammer Throw: Yes.
Moushaumi Robinson, Team USA Racial and Social Justice Chair: OK, can I just say, in terms of what we watched Gwen go through: The national anthem is never played at any podium ceremony [at trials]. It’s usually only played one time. And that’s at the start of the running events and prior to television time coming on. Knowing that and understanding that Gwen Berry [was] explicitly told by the officials that the girls [hammer throwers] are going to be on the podium either before or after the anthem …
Davis: Yes, that’s important context. The anthem was unexpected, and also Gwen has been consistent in speaking out about the anthem.
Berry: Exactly. Also, I never said I hated this country or all the words people are putting in my mouth. … I never said I wasn’t going to go to Tokyo with this big-ass USA on my chest. I said the anthem doesn’t speak for me. I don’t feel like it speaks for my people. And I won’t stand for it.
Anna Cockrell, Track and Field (400-meter hurdles): When I made the Olympic team, I was so overcome with emotion, and I spoke about my mental health journey and the joy I had to be in that position. I loved getting messages of support, but it was a bit strange to also see messages applauding me for being “grateful” and everything Gwen supposedly wasn’t. And well … I share Gwen’s politics. We have been on panels together about activism. I support her actions. That image of me contrasted with her is an inability to see either of our humanity.
Davis: Certainly, flattening athletes into symbols of one kind or another has a long, persistent history. I mean, Arizona State sports historian Victoria Jackson observed that USA Track & Field was selling Black Lives Matter shirts at the trials with a picture of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s 1968 medal stand protest. Yet the organization didn’t rush to defend or protect Gwen.
In terms of Black women athletes, it has felt like a roller coaster between symbolic celebrations of #BlackGirlMagic and news of some scrutiny or exclusion of another Black woman being disposed of.
Orji: It’s definitely been a lot, seeing everything in the news, especially in the track and field world. We saw a lot of praise for a lot of athletes. Then all of a sudden a lot of judging and a lot of attacking of athletes. So just seeing the two sides and how quickly people’s opinions and emotions can change, it definitely was a lot. But at the same time, I’m just kind of focusing on the positive and really just surrounding myself with all the positive and all the great news there has been about all of the Black girl magic, and all of the Black women who have been able to do so many amazing things.
Tapper: It makes me so happy and proud to be a Black woman looking at all the amazing Black women that are going to represent us this year at the Olympics, including myself. I know we will go out there and represent well and keep reminding the world why Black is beautiful, Black is strong, and Black is worthy. We’re incredible! We just keep getting better in every aspect no matter how much the world tries to hold us back. We are built like that. I can’t believe I’d ever be mentioned with the likes of Simone Biles or so many others, but it’s real!
I’m not surprised by the negative actions/opinions against us Black female Olympians by our country, because unfortunately this has been happening for the longest time. One thing about us, though, is that we use all that bad energy as fuel to kick butt and keep taking names. That’s one thing I love about us. We won’t let anyone or anything take our fight away.
Ogbogu: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always thought that sports are kind of a microcosm of the society we live in. What we’re seeing in sports play out, especially as it pertains to the policing of Black women or Black athletes is what we see in society as Black women. So for me, it’s nothing new. I don’t know. It sounds really, like, dark, I guess, to say that. But it’s not something that surprises me. But nonetheless, it’s always very disappointing to see, especially when it comes to things that we have no control over. Like we talked about the swim cap debate. I think for other people looking in, like—they didn’t understand it. Why that would be such a big deal. But I’m like, we are not very far removed from [needing] policies and laws in order to stop discrimination for natural hairstyles in the workplace. So, I mean, there’s parallels to it.
Natalie Hinds, Swimming (4x100-Meter Freestyle Relay): As a swimmer, I think the ban [on the Soul Cap] is an unfortunate step back in our way to be more inclusive to those who want to do our sport.
Ogbogu: Yeah, it’s just outdated. And it’s so disappointing that we’re having to face these things in our work. I can only imagine if we’re specifically talking about the swim cap discussion, like what those athletes are doing right now as they’re preparing for the biggest moment of their career. They’re having to worry about things like this.
But now some people are talking about protesting the Olympics. [Olympic sprinter] Gabby Thomas released a statement about this. [Thomas tweeted that “it really hurts to see so many black people choosing not to watch the Olympics this year.”] Now more than ever, it feels like we need the support of our community. It’s disappointing that we have, like, rulings the way we do, and it’s disappointing that someone like Sha’Carri Richardson is not going to be able to perform. But there are still so many athletes who dedicated so much time and energy and have risen above so much adversity to be at this point. I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of support I’ve been getting from complete strangers, especially strangers in the Black community. And it makes me feel good. It makes me feel seen, especially as someone who plays a sport that is predominantly white. Most of the time we get overlooked.
Davis: In addition to training for the Olympics, dealing with the postponement and the pandemic, Black women athletes have spent the past year pushing for change within their respective sports. How are those commitments holding up now?
Berry: So we can start off with the corporations because, you know, they were the ones who were saying all this stuff and donating the most money, hundreds of millions of dollars. And I absolutely haven’t seen anything. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we haven’t seen enough. The problem is people care when it’s relevant, but they will move on after 48 hours or after a month or two, after they just donate money to whoever they want to, they don’t care about the actual results. Now, the reason that I work with Color of Change is that they have literally been doing everything in their power to make sure that, you know, we see some type of changes we’ve been advocating for.
Now with track and field … I think we see they’re waiting to see what happens. I feel like they did keep their promise and commitment to supporting athlete’s rights, because I was not punished [at trials]. But going against the IOC is totally different. And that’s where we are right about now.
Tapper: Our organization has been great with getting us together as a team to have those hard conversations in order to support us Black girls on the squad. They were openly supportive of BLM through their social platforms which was nice/relieving to see. I can say I felt very supported by my organization in the last year, and I’m grateful for my staff members and teammates for wanting to support me and my fellow Black teammates. It meant the world to us.
Because we are in a comfortable and growing environment here, we have been able to accomplish amazing things in the sport. Especially representation. We have some amazing Black female players for the younger generation to look up to. I hope we are giving them hope that they can accomplish whatever they please when they see us playing rugby.
Ogbogu: I’ll give credit to the changes that I’ve seen. I mean, I am a member of Team USA. USA Volleyball and the efforts that they have implemented to make sure that the sport is more inclusive and accepting for all—I was playing overseas, and just the conversations that were had there from people who are genuinely trying to learn. And I’ve seen volleyball [work on inclusion] not only, like, on the court, but in the administration.
But the conversations—I mean, I’m sure, like everywhere else, there were some very uncomfortable conversations to be had and with our team specifically. But it just … if this past year has taught me anything, it’s that community matters, and not just our community. And so I’ve really taken it upon myself to give grace and meet people where they are. But also understanding—this is my journey, and I have a right to express how I feel throughout this life.
Davis: Many Black women athletes have been increasingly outspoken about their mental health. Notably, Naomi Osaka amplified this conversation earlier this summer. But I do wonder when it comes to this topic if we are even asking the right questions.
What does the public need to know about burdens or stressors on Black women Olympians specifically? What does a commitment to athletes’ mental health look like?
Ogbogu: I think just doubling down on resources [would help] for me personally. I have gotten therapy in the past two years, but I’ve been so grateful to find a Black female therapist, and I don’t know what this would look like, but [I’d like to see the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee] even giving those Black athletes resources to mental health professionals that look like them.
Hinds: I think that a Black woman’s experience will always be slightly different than anyone else’s experience, so I think it’s important to ask if they have someone to talk to. That went a long way for me—just having someone to talk to and vent to during stressful times like last summer and the lead-up to trials. A commitment to mental health is an ongoing check-in on an athlete no matter what time of year they are in with their sport.
Berry: I feel like we’re not having the right discussion because no one is listening and everybody feels like it is OK to attack a Black woman for thinking of herself and to attack Black women trying to protect ourselves.
Ogbogu: I have just been really proud of the way Naomi [Osaka] handled herself. Like, I can’t imagine what it’s like to play on that big stage under that much media scrutiny and be a Black woman. It’s definitely not easy at any level, but especially at that stage. But I don’t know. I feel like the conversations need to be geared towards more, like, how can we help? Versus, like, what’s the issue like for me? I found it kind of disheartening, but she, I think, was trying to help certain tournaments, and the language around her doing that was very judgmental and kind of accusatory. And it wasn’t until she came out with a statement explaining that she had been struggling with mental health issues for the past two or three years where she was met with sympathy. And I feel like that’s very common with Black women in general.
But I’m now seeing with Black athletes as—being an athlete, we almost always have to overexplain ourselves to be met with some grace and some empathy. So I think for me, I would just like to see, like, kind of that grace and empathy being met before someone has to share super personal details of their life.
Cockrell: I think what the public needs to know about burdens and stressors on Black women Olympians is that the burden, the stress—the issue doesn’t all revolve around our sport. I think one thing that people have said to me or approached me with is … it’s as if track was the source of all of my depression or as if track was the thing that saved me from it. And in reality, what was happening on the track was a symptom of everything else going on. Track didn’t ruin my life and didn’t save me.
And I think that sometimes we forget that Black women who are Olympians are still Black women moving in the world, and are dealing with the same pressures and mistreatment and microaggressions as other Black women. And I think if we want to make a commitment to the mental health of Black women Olympians, we have to make a commitment to the mental health of all Black women, regardless of if they are professional athletes or teachers, stay-at-home moms, their house cleaners, you know. Because for Black women who are Olympians—the spotlight is on us right now. But when it fades, most of the time I’m moving in a space, I’m recognized as a Black woman, not an Olympian. And maybe that will change. Maybe it won’t. But the reality is I’ll always be a Black woman. I’ll always be recognized that way. And that’s how it is for all of us. Being a Black woman is so beautiful, but there’s so much that comes with it. There’s so much baggage that comes with it. And I think that we need to ask ourselves: Are we celebrating Black women all the time, or are we only celebrating a few exceptional Black women that we’re putting on a pedestal?
Davis: As we talk about mental health and wellness, we cannot ignore the ongoing pandemic, the toll it is taking, and the rising concern over the Games being held at all. There is now a state of emergency in Tokyo, and spectators have been banned from the Games. How are y’all reconciling your own Olympic dreams, opportunities, and mental health with this ongoing public health crisis?
Hinds: I think the big worry is keeping safe, obviously, but I came to the conclusion that as long as I control what I can, I really can’t worry about anything else. Having the Games postponed was hard, but we all got through that. I just make sure I keep a stable mind and not worry about the future, because that’s all I can control.
Cockrell: This whole year has been just about being able to adapt and being flexible. When we came back to USC to train, everything was different. There are all these new protocols in place. We had to train in smaller groups. We had to check in. There are all these extra steps to be able to practice and then to be able to travel to meets.
So I’m kind of taking the same approach that I took to training and competing all season. I can’t control what the rules are going to be. I can’t control if we’re going to be allowed to leave our rooms, if we’re going to just only go between the village and practice and competing—none of that is in my control. I just have to focus on what I need to do.
Ogbogu: I have to remind myself, too, that I am operating in such an unprecedented time right now. And it’s just, like I said, this wide range of emotion, because obviously I’m so excited to have been selected to compete in this Olympic Games. But I feel like there has to be an asterisk attached to it, because this is not the normal circumstance, not a normal Olympic Games.
It’s hard, right, because on one hand, I think about all of the athletes who are dedicated and sacrificed so much to get to this point. But on the other hand, like, you think about it’s life, it’s life—and it really is life and death right now as we’re dealing with this pandemic.
So it’s still a little selfish to want to live in this moment. So that’s where the wide range of emotions come in. Right? Because it feels selfish to want this at a time where so many people are struggling and have lack of health resources and are dying and things like that. It’s strange. It’s a strange time.
Berry: Like you got to compartmentalize, you know, if you do choose to go to the Games and compete. We all have to compartmentalize a bit.
But you also got to be real with yourself. You also got to know why you are doing this. And when we are dealing with COVID protocols. And when we have to be away from our children and our families. You need to remember your why.
Davis: With all of these considerations framing the Games, as the opening ceremony draws closer, how are you practicing self-care? Where are you finding joy and peace?
Tapper: I practice self-care by taking care of my body. I do a lot of stretching, I get massages at least once a month, I get my nails done as much as I can, and do my own facials. I am the pampering queen. [Laughs] I am all about self-care. I also just take time to myself to watch TV, listen to music, talk with my family and friends back home, hang out with my boyfriend, or go get food and drinks with my girls. I find joy in all those things.
Hinds: For self-care, I love to weave wall tapestries. I have my own weaving business where I make home decor. Weaving is very therapeutic for me, and I think it is so important that athletes have an outlet besides their sport, whether that be writing, listening to podcasts, or doing art, et cetera.
Cockrell: I was in Eugene [Oregon] for, like, 3½ weeks, basically lounging around the hotel and wearing sweatpants. So for me, I’m just finding joy in putting on jeans, or putting on a dress and just walking outside of my house in real clothes instead of athletic clothes. I’m not really even doing anything or going anywhere, but it just feels really good to throw on a ’fit and not just sit in a hotel room. And I’m also finding joy. I’m watching the show on Netflix called Summertime, and it’s just, like, complete full of teen rom-com TV. But it’s really satisfying. There’s a lot going on in the world right now. It’s nice to just turn on some soapy drama and let that play.
Ogbogu: I’m trying to pour into myself more. I think I realize coming into this how much I have been pouring into others. So I think lately I’ve been trying to do something each day that brings me joy. FaceTiming friends and checking in … and lately I enjoy just being outside, especially coming from bubble to bubble, like I have for the past two seasons. So I’m trying to take more walks and be in nature.
I’m a big nail girl. So I try and schedule my nail appointments when I can, even when I don’t really need it. I’m like, let me go sit in this chair. But it just—something about having a fresh set of nails or nail polish just, like, makes me feel like I have my life together a little bit. So I try and make space for that, too.
Berry: You know I’m with Kyrie Irving—I’ve got to burn that sage. [Laughs] You’ve got to get that sage going and cleanse these spaces.
Listen, I just find joy and peace in knowing that I’m alive and I actually can live in my purpose. I’ve lost two people this year that were really close to me and it really hurt my heart. And honestly, I really was about to quit the sport in February, like I was going to walk away because I was so heartbroken about the loss of my uncle. So for me, I just find peace in knowing that I’m alive and that I am doing something for other people.
I read books. I make sure I take walks. I make sure I find some peace of mind, some type of nature, like a lake, a trail, just something beautiful to look at, a park. And I just sit in it and I just enjoy the fact that I’m here on this earth.
So I am exhausted but exhilarated. I am happy that my message is getting out there. That’s the point. If you see me, you have to see my people, and the issues I’m speaking to. You may not see them, but at the Olympics, you will see me. I’m excited to compete. My protest isn’t important, but my meaning is. That’s my purpose. That’s my peace. That’s my joy.