A splash of colour
Hubert Lawrence, Contributor
Some people tiptoe when they discuss matters of race in sport. For them, Alia Atkinson's historic 100-metre breaststroke victory at last week's World Short Course Swimming Championships presents a dilemma.
They needn't worry. Atkinson's has really broken new ground for black swimmers.
In 1988, when Suriname's Anthony Nesty edged United States hero Matt Biondi to win Olympic gold, he became the first black man to win such an honour.
Two Olympics later, in 1996, Leah Martindale of Barbados became the first black woman to reach an Olympic final. Since then, Janelle Atkinson of Jamaica, Arianna Vanderpool of The Bahamas, and now Alia, have joined this exclusive club.
The truth is that blacks seldom join structured swimming programmes. There are several reasons, but part of slavery folklore was that our skin pigmentation would make us sink in water.
Those reasons and an acute lack of swimming facilities in Jamaica make Atkinson's success even more remarkable.
In real terms, Jamaica has had only one Olympic-size pool for more than 50 years. Added to that, there aren't too many pools of any configuration in the country. The result is that very few Jamaicans can swim, much less become World champion.
Consequently, Atkinson's family had to migrate while she was a teenager so she could access cutting-edge high-school and club swim programmes in the USA, and she became a star at Texas A&M University.
By contrast, our track athletes generally wait until their high school years are over before they seek US sports scholarships. Happily, since the birth of stay-at-home train-and-study programmes, they can go from Champs to the Olympics while living in Jamaica.
Swimming isn't like that.
The splash of colour in the reporting of Atkinson's milestone reminds me of the hubbub surrounding a sub-10 100-metre clocking by French sprinter Christophe Lemaitre. His run of 9.98 seconds in 2010 made him the first white athlete to break the 10-second barrier.
All of history's 789 other sub-10s have been run by black sprinters.
Like Lemaitre, Atkinson has made a breakthrough by becoming World Short Course champion and equalling the world record. Her success may well inspire black hopefuls who dream of stardom in swimming.
Until last week, when the 25-year-old Jamaican broke a formidable barrier in the pool, they might not have thought it possible.
Hubert Lawrence has attended the Olympics in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London.