Swimming faces a serious diversity issue in the United States, both as a recreational pastime and as a competitive sport. To examine why minorities are underrepresented in an activity that is seemingly so popular across the board, one has to look into the history behind swimming pools in the United States.
2016 Rio Olympics USA Swim Team
Looking at the above photo, it’s easy to notice that there are very few people of color on the 2016 US Olympic Swim Team. In fact, this observation is likely to extend to most swimming teams in the United States. People of color are underrepresented even when it comes to basic swimming lessons! African-Americans made up only 1.3% of swimmers in the USA in 2019, despite making up 12% of the US population.
A survey conducted for the Red Cross asked people if they and their children could perform five basic swimming skills (getting into the water, treading water for one minute, turning around in a circle in the water, swimming 25 yards, and climbing out of a pool without the assistance of a ladder). 58 percent of white people reported being able to perform the above, compared to only 33 percent of black people. Similarly, according to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of black children had little to no swimming ability compared to 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of white children.
This substantial disparity in swimming ability stems from a long, racist history of segregated pools.
A sign at a public pool in Alabama
When public pools were first built in the late 19th century, they were built in white neighborhoods - but not black neighborhoods. Accordingly, black people did not have access to public swimming pools. Those who did try to go to the public pools in white neighborhoods were often greeted with violence, which meant that even when the pools weren’t legally segregated, they were still inaccessible to the black population.
As swimming increased in popularity in the US, so did the number of public pools. When black communities did have access to public pools, they simply weren’t as nice as the large outdoor pools that white people had access to. Pools for black people were usually small and built indoors.
When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that ‘separate but equal’ could never be true equality and that segregation was unconstitutional, public swimming pools – like all other public facilities – could no longer legally refuse to serve Black people. Black people now had access to public swimming pools that had previously been reserved for white people - except that they didn’t. Many white pools, especially in the South, shut down because many white people chose to have no pools at all rather than common ones.
According to a journal article published in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, public swimming pools in Little Rock, Arkansas most strongly resisted desegregation. Between 1963 and 1965, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put pressure on Little Rock to desegregate its public pools, and Little Rock – like many other southern cities – closed all of their public pools so as to avoid desegregation. Little Rock attempted to privatize its public pools so that they could continue practicing segregation. The city eventually reopened its public pools – to both black and white residents – only after exhausting all other options. Most white residents of Little Rock then turned to private neighborhood pools, leaving the public pools to be used mainly by black people. Consequently, Little Rock did not invest in maintaining nice public pools, and only two new public pools were built after 1965. In 2001, Little Rock officially closed its last public pool.
Parents who can swim are more likely to ensure that their child learns how to swim, which has left a legacy in which more white people can swim than black people to this day. Additionally, the cost of participating in competitive swimming - or even in swim lessons - is not cheap.
The sport of swimming is not very expensive compared to ice hockey, football, and gymnastics. However, swimming is becoming increasingly expensive, especially as swimmers grow more advanced and competitive. Practice suits for women and girls range from $20 to $70, and from $15 to $50 for men and boys. Swim caps typically cost anywhere from $5 to $25, and goggles from $10 to $30, and that’s just the cost for basic equipment. A USA swimming membership costs $70 annually, and then there are competition fees, individual swim team fees, and team gear costs. These costs add up, and the cost of swimming gets significantly more expensive as kids get better and compete at higher levels. Tech suits, which are racing suits worn by Olympic and college swimmers at meets that kids start to wear as they get more serious with swimming, range anywhere from $150 to $600. Despite the high price tag, they usually last for only one competition season, if that. These suits reduce drag in the water and help swimmers go faster, and can make a significant difference to performance in competitions.
While swimming may not be the most expensive sport, there’s no denying that the costs of equipment and team participation can pose a significant obstacle for some, especially as swimmers get more advanced and the costs to compete increase.
To conclude, the white-dominated sport of competitive swimming is the legacy left behind the US’s racist history of segregation, and the racial disparity is further exacerbated by the economic factors.
Written by Sydney Henderson