Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Old Gifted And Black

I achieved my greatest sporting success over thirty years ago at the age of 11. The occasion was the borough school athletics championship. On that hot summer’s day I won the 100m sprint, the long jump and - in a piece of inspired running my old school friends still talk about - I came from fourth place in the final leg of the 4x100m relay to bring the baton home in first place.

Due to the points I racked up, my school that year won the athletic championship for the first time in its history. In recognition I was allowed to take home the championship shield for a week. My mother still has a picture on her mantelpiece of me holding the inter-school trophy above my head dwarfing my pre-teenager self.

On that day in the summer of 1982 I was sure I was the fastest boy in my school. I was also the only black boy in my school. And at that young age I had bought into the racial stereotype: black people are more athletic. In an incredibly unscientific experiment, by winning those races, I had become living “proof” of this stereotype.

Yet it’s that same stereotype that held me back from taking up running for a long time when I was grown up.

For most stereotypes to really take hold, they often require the people being stereotyped to be partially complicit in the prejudice. To partially believe it themselves.

An example of this was demonstrated in a seminal experiment where American college students were given the task of completing a round of crazy golf. At first the participants were told the task was an experiment in analytical skills and lateral thinking. When they were told this the white students performed better than the black students.

The experiment was then repeated with another set of students and this time they were told it measured their natural athletic ability. The second time the black students performed better.

We all too often buy into our own stereotypes and then - for better or worse - act accordingly.

The trouble is as a black person this stereotype meant I used to think athletics was about being gifted, being “super-human” and definitely about winning. It’s a stereotype many black people buy into. And for good reason. It can offer comfort when life grinds you down in so many other ways.

However, mass participation running is the antithesis of all of these things.

Distance running is definitely not about being “super-human”. It’s about discovering your very human limits and trying to extend them just that little bit further. No matter how gifted you are initially as an athlete, I’ve discovered that most “gifts” seem to run out at mile 20 of a marathon. And as for winning, with most city marathons having over 30,000 participants, it’s obvious that 99% of  people don’t enter to win.

To really enjoy running, a lot of black people - myself included - have to relearn what sport is all about and face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  I’ve had to breakdown beliefs I subconsciously held from the age of 11. I am not “super-human” nor particularly gifted nor am I going to win any of the races I enter.

Instead, for me, distance running has been about self-discovery. I have discovered aspects to my character and physical limits I never knew before I started running. I’ve discovered a new way to enjoy sport that has nothing to do with winning or proving myself better than other people. But most importantly, as a black person, it’s given me mental strength in the rest of my life during those moments when I feel like the only level playing field out there is in sport.

At the beginning of this piece I wrote that my greatest sporting success came when I was 11. That is really the old me talking. In truth my greatest sporting success came just a few months ago at the Frankfurt marathon. The race did not go well and I didn’t even get a PB. As for winning, I seriously have no idea what place I came - I stopped counting beyond 3,000. But the reason it was my greatest sporting success is because I completed it despite being injured and having to stop at mile 19. Ironically, in those last 7 miles I lived up to all the stereotypes: I was “super-human”, I drew on every gift nature had given me and when I crossed the finish line I was a winner.

And that is a truth all of us can experience regardless of our race.

(This article was first published in my favourite magazine of running writing "Like The Wind" and I would highly recommend people buying a copy online at http://www.likethewindmagazine.com/ . The picture is of me at 11 and is still on proud display in my mum's living room)

No comments:

Post a Comment