Many athletes have inspired awe at the Rio Olympics, but none have done so with as much grace as Allyson Felix. Looking for a fourth Olympic title last night, Felix finished second in the 400 metres, denied gold by Shaunae Miller’s best Indiana Jones impersonation on the line.
“We sometimes project our problems onto sports”, Louisa Thomas wrote: “But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out.” As Felix’s career draws to an end (this will likely be her final Olympics), she will depart the scene not only as the most decorated woman in US track and field history, but as a conduit of something more profound.
Sport isn’t something that’s often thought of as beautiful. But the focus on competition, on winners and losers (while warranted; that is the point of it all) can obscure us from the beauty that pulses throughout sport, as there’s beauty in self-expression and striving to show the best of oneself. This isn’t the same type of beauty as produced by Margaret Attwood, Misty Copeland, Junot Diaz, Frida Kahlo, or Janelle Monae, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s room for it all.
The reason for an invocation of beauty when talking about Allyson Felix is simple. Just watch her run. She possesses a dazzlingly gorgeous running style. Her movement bears comparison with the metronomic accuracy and efficiency of a watch. Most athletes run on the track, but Felix gives the impression of gliding across the surface. Her speed comes from an immaculate technique, rather than forceful power
While the Olympics (and Paralympics) is a rare space where women get a prominent sporting platform, we shouldn’t confuse this for gender equity. There’s a sexist school of thought that attests that the best woman will never be as proficient as the best man. Even when a sportswoman does something impressive, often a male athlete will be used as a baseline comparison.
Apparently, women just don’t do sport as well. But there’s no man who can do what Allyson Felix does – at least, not the way she does it. The grace she displays on the track isn’t even really a woman thing. It’s a Felix thing, and no other track athlete in Rio moves as artfully.
Yet while her style can bring delight to viewers, it can spell disaster for her opponents. And there’s nothing cavalier about this approach. Allyson Felix isn’t a dilettante, she’s not a performing seal, and she’s nobody’s mule. Felix isn’t trying to entertain. She’s trying to win. It’s lucky for us that her pursuit of victory is delivered in such an entertaining fashion.
It’s also important to recognise that while Felix’s gifts are unique, we shouldn’t paint her as a talented tenth, or a magic negro. The aesthetics of her running may be soul deep, but the manner in which she deploys it is as a result of dedication and focus, as well as the fortune to be born in a nation that has the tools to make the most of her talent (notwithstanding that the US is mainly a horrible place for many black women).
When looking at why we have such an immature and exclusionary understanding of beauty, I’d direct you to this piece from Arabelle Sicardi on the topic, explicating how men have long held the very concept of beauty under patriarchal suppression: (“Beauty has been a method to display the violence of masculinity and possessiveness throughout the empires”) (“Our struggle to control beauty, especially exotic beauty, has never gone away; it’s just become political. Beauty is understood in multiplicity: in race, in gender, in class. It’s about who gets to rule and who shouldn’t exist at all”) (“Because beauty, for men, is about assimilation — not individualism”)
We shouldn’t overlook the socialised privilege Felix carries, both by dint of what she is (slim; cis; able-bodied) and what she’s not (dark-skinned), but that doesn’t dilute the power of her presence. In a pre-Olympics interview, she said; “I think as a black female, our value seems to be so much less than our [male] counterpart so that’s always something that we’re aware of and you try to change [that] for the next generation.”
And the presence of an athlete who can demonstrate that elite sport has virtues beyond trophies, who can show it’s an arena where beauty is possible, all in the body of a black woman, on the biggest of global stages; well, that’s something even the neoliberal Trojan horse of the Olympics can’t ruin.
Beauty is both gargantuan and amorphous, manifesting in a variety of forms. Anyone who performs beauty outside a white, male, colorist, body-shaming prism is potentially transformative, even when that manifestation is running really fast. Allyson Felix’s career is tangible proof that black is not only beautiful, but it can be beautiful in many different ways.
 – That piece was probably the best thing I read on the internet last year.
P.S. Many thanks to Christienna Fryar and Sam Asumadu for their invaluable guidance in the crafting of this piece.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.