After winning a silver medal in the women’s shot put, U.S. athlete Raven Saunders made a bold statement on the podium, crossing her arms above her head in an X. The Associated Press reported that she explained it as “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Saunders’ accomplishment took on even greater meaning for her, as she confirmed via Twitter on Tuesday that her mother, Clarissa Saunders, passed away earlier that morning. Saunders, who identifies herself as a proud gay Black woman, is one of the female athletes openly expressing themselves—some through words, some in the medal count and some, like gymnast Simone Biles, by deciding to step back and make their health and well-being the priority. In a first, 54% (329) of the 613 U.S. athletes competing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo are women.
As Biles took on the role of cheerleader, her teammates stepped up. There was a silver medal in the team event, and in the all-around Suni Lee joined Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabrielle Douglas and Biles as Olympic Champion. Whether winning medals or falling short of expectations, female athletes, particularly Black female athletes, faced intense scrutiny and at times harsh criticism.
“I don’t feel the media is fair in its representation of Black female athletes,” said Amy Olson-Cooper, associate athletic director for administration and senior woman administrator at Howard University. “In general, we need to do a better job with coverage for Black athletes.”
Olson-Cooper is pleased to see increased participation by women at the Olympic level but stressed the importance of sustaining access and affordability for girls and women to participate in sports. She praised the introduction of sports, such as skateboarding, speed climbing, surfing and karate, and the reintroduction of softball (U.S. women won silver), in these Olympics.
“The Olympics open exposure to a wider audience,” said Olson-Cooper. “It demonstrates women can perform at the highest level and should be given equal opportunity and access to do so. … Through the media, we need to make sure that we’re showing examples of female athletes and the Olympics are the perfect time for that.”
As former student-athlete in soccer, Olson-Cooper thoroughly enjoys watching the U.S. women’s soccer team but shares in their frustration that the athletes must battle for pay parity. More primetime coverage on NBC of a variety of sports would be beneficial.
“Girls need to see role models,” said Olson-Cooper. “They need to see people that look like them and people they can relate to playing sports in order to envision themselves doing the same.”