Swimming as a Sporting Racial Project

One of the aspects that I love most about teaching at a university is the opportunity to engage with young people, to introduce new ideas and encourage them to (re)think their positions as they develop their own ways of understanding their world. But, approaching teaching in this way can make me feel like a dentist at times: students forget to don’t read; they are uncomfortable talking about ideas like race, class, gender, sexuality; they are uninterested in the topic.

Slate‘s Jamell Bouie explains their reluctance to discuss race, writing that “they’re committed to an ideal of colorblindness that leaves them uncomfortable with race, opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality, and a bit confused about what racism is.” This discomfort and commitment to *not* seeing color is evident in every silence and averted gaze whenever the topic emerges — and in classes about American sport, race is always already there. Students have bristled at concepts like “white privilege” and “institutional racism” (which have appeared in our mainstream media over the last few months). Part of this, I’m sure, is that, like many universities in the US, the racial makeup of our student body is overwhelmingly white.

Because of this and the need to not descend into discussions of white guilt, a colleague encouraged me to embrace the idea of whiteness as a way to introduce race as both a structural/institutional construction and as a lived experience. Like many other educators, I have found Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and Kyle Kusz’s “I want to Be a Minority”: The Politics of Youthful White Masculinities in 1990s Sport and Popular Culture to be useful ways to start conversations about constructions of “white” as a privileging racial category. (Toni Morrison brilliantly explained how race is a construct that impacts our lives to Stephen Colbert last November; start at 4:01 if you can’t watch the whole interview.)

We can’t all channel Toni Morrison, so it can be difficult for many of us to think about — and to teach — how race is constructed. To what I am sure is the eternal annoyance of my friends and family, I often look to sport for metaphors or comparisons whenever I try to digest new and complex ideas. For me, sport is key to understanding how racism works in our daily lives. While thinking about how to make sense of whiteness, it has always stuck in my craw that almost all of my former swimming competitors and teammates were white.

This racial disparity is not a coincidence. Maybe there’s a learning opportunity there, I thought.

Because the dearth of black swimmers is often attributed to the lack of access to resources, swimming pools are a prominent aspect of the sporting racial project that is swimming. My interests today are on the structuring of sporting racial project of the sport itself rather than the pools, but Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters is a fantastic social history on municipal swimming pools. He argues that the sport of swimming grew in popularity between 1920 and 1940 leading to thousands of municipal pools being built all over the country. Before this era of swimming, municipal pools were segregated along gender lines — and often class lines – but not along racial differences. But, white supremacy was re-asserted during these decades, just as racial differences were being clearly marked due to skin color. By the end of the 1920s municipal pools all over the nation were reflecting and informing these racial formations.

But, segregation of the pools can’t be the only reason we see so few swimmers of color.

The “harmless” or “funny” idea that black people don’t swim hides a racist past (and present), and the historic and contemporary over-representation of white swimmers at both the elite and adolescent recreational levels in the US — as well as the racial discrepancies in drowning rates — exemplifies the often unmarked construction and position of Whiteness. One way to explain it is through pools (like Wiltse), another is to look at the sport itself. In this blogpost, which is a version of a paper I presented at a May 2014 conference, I’ll be using Ben Carrington‘s notion of a sporting racial project — which he developed from Omi & Winant’s racial formation theory —  to demonstrate one way in which whiteness is constructed, and since, as Mary McDonald and Samantha King remind us, “racism is enacted through whiteness” (p. 1026), this idea should give us an understanding of how institutional racism is built (through sport).

“Man can make great natatorial progress…”

According to his International Swimming Hall of Fame plaque, George Corsan “did more than any single person to popularize swimming in North America during the first 25 years of [the 20th century].” He opens his influential Diving and Swimming Book with a compelling contention:

Swimming is an art so little understood by the mass of humanity throughout the world that we must look for the cause in man’s structure. Man’s structural adaptability is more for climbing trees than for either running on the plain or swimming in the water…But as I myself can swim faster and better than any dog I have ever seen yet (p. ix).

Within this condensed quotation we can see an underlying theme of modernization: conquering the natural world – both water and animals – through rational and practiced thought deployed through the body of the evolved Man.

Contemporary swimming is inarguably a modern sport: it is rationalized spatially and technically; it is bureaucratically organized by a number of organizations from the neighborhood up to the international levels; workouts and records are measured quantitatively. It is also fundamentally about utilizing human knowledge to overcome our natural world, or as I tell my swimming students: at its most basic, swimming is about not drowning in an efficient manner.

However, the process by which swimming becomes a modern sport is neither racially benign nor “colorblind.” The four books I’ll be analyzing today are representative of several swimming books that came out during the 1920s and 1930s and are characterized by an application of scientific approaches and the move away from individual lessons and towards group methods[1]. Collectively these four men were respected coaches, teachers, and researchers – even members of halls of fame. Their books were in the vanguard of the standardization and rationalization of swimming and swimming coaching. Published between 1922 and 1934, and were published in the midst of what T.K. Cureton called the “modern era in swimming” (p. 119) when municipal pools were being built all around the country and the sport rose in popularity.

I will be analyzing four books here today, all either written or co-written by elected members of the International Swimming Hall of Fame during the inter-war period. The earliest book was published in 1922 and the latest book was published in 1934. Chronologically, L. de B. Handley’s Swimming and Watermanship (1922) was published first; next is Diving and Swimming Book (1924) by George Corsan; third is Crawl-Stroke Swimming (1926) co-written by L. de B. Handley and W.J. Howcroft. The fourth is T.K. Cureton’s 1934 book, How to Teach Swimming and DivingBecause all four of these books had a main goal of teaching modern techniques of swimming, they are appropriate objects of analysis as I begin to theorize swimming as a sporting racial project.

Sporting racial projects must be understood within a broader global context, especially in terms of their roles in the construction of the white colonial frame. Directly linked to structural and ideological practices of 19th century European colonialism, the white colonial frame is “the colonizer’s view of the world,” a self-fulfilling view that depends upon values of modernity and rationality. We are reminded that “[f]ar from being a neutral description of objective social forces, relations and ways of thinking, the invocation of rationality operated as an ideological framework for explaining ‘superiority’ of European economic and political progress to the rest of the world”[3].

I am limiting my analysis to how the books discussed the crawl for two reasons. First, there is a small body of sport history literature from which to draw information, primarily Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips’s two articles from the mid-2000s. Second, it is the stroke most often used in what is called “freestyle.” As the current rules from FINA – the world governing body for swimming – indicate, the stroke is fairly ambiguous; a swimmer’s only requirement is to get from one end of the pool to the other while on the surface of the water. Freestyle is not constrained by specific body position (like the backstroke), nor is the freestyling body required to move in the synchronous ways that both breaststroke and butterfly require. The creative agency afforded to the swimmer highlights that the goal of the stroke is pure speed; there are no other constraints upon the stroke than those inherent in the logics of modernity: the stroke must be fast, it must be rational, and it must be efficient.

Each book locates the recent origins of the crawl in Australia — and they all, in some way, credit Aleck Wickham, described as a “young native of Rubiana” by Handley,[4] for introducing the stroke to Australia in the late 19th century. Osmond and Phillips examine how this “sport creation myth” was used to understand constructions of social memory, the nation, and race in the re-presentations of the creation and invention of the crawl-stroke. They found that Wickham’s role in the origins of the stroke was reliant upon romanticized stereotypes of native Pacific Islanders that “endeared Wickham to many swimming supporters in Australia.”[5] Furthermore, “the Wickham myth reinforces the commonly held belief, or macromyth, that non-white athletes have specific genetic and/or cultural advantages for sporting performances in specific activities.”[6] In other words, part of the ideological work that this origin myth does is naturalizing swimming the crawl in the body of a Pacific Islander native.

I began this section with Corsan’s relating the crawl to a person’s climbing a tree. I would like to pause for a moment to consider that body movement and to think about those implications, especially in terms of popular understandings of evolution, where man – who lives on land — descended from ape – who lives in trees.

Each expert relied upon this sporting origin myth as a way to set up modernization. But I want to call attention to the fact that the books extended past, beyond Wickham. Corsan linked the crawl to man’s deep evolutionary past, where man lived in the natural world and had to compete with wild animals for survival. Similarly, Handley argued that the modern strokes are easy to learn “because they are made up of movements closely resembling primitive man’s natural mode of swimming, the dog paddle.”[7] Four years later, Handley & Howcroft credited Wickham’s origin myth while also stating (without offering it) that there is “convincing evidence that this stroke is man’s natural mode of aquatic progression” and that Wickham’s successes – along with Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku — demonstrate that it was in common use in the Pacific Islands “as far back as the oldest aborigines could recall.”[8]

Cureton’s use of the Wickham creation myth illustrates what I find most important in terms of swimming as a sporting racial project. He strongly pivots from Wickham’s introduction to the Australian’s appropriation of and improvement upon the stroke. Cureton credited Richard Cavill – of the “world-famous” Australian swimming family – with closely observing Wickham’s fast swimming style and then rationally working to perfect it through “experimentation.” Rhetorically, this sets up Wickham’s style as a natural style, a style that can be improved upon through modern techniques and modern approaches. Because this book was specifically produced for teaching bodily movements, it is more than rhetorical action. This book is an example of a direct, positive intervention — and an example of actual appropriated embodied practice. In this passage, we are seeing how colonization works through appropriation of bodily practices under the “progressive” practice of “modernization.”

Both Corsan and Handley & Howcroft take it a step further. After mentioning Wickham, they both then reduce his importance by putting Cavill’s rational approach at the forefront of the “development” of the stroke. Corsan effectively dehumanizes Wickham (and all other Pacific Islanders) by reducing him to a leg-action-to-be-appropriated in stating that “[t]he crawl stroke was introduced to the world at the beginning of this century [1900s], by Cavill of Australia who attached the Polynesian Indian’s flutter leg action to the trudgeon stroke in place of the scissors kick, and made better time than he ever did before”[9]. Handley & Howcroft marginalize Wickham while simultaneously demonstrating an attitude of entitlement that rings true to a colonizer’s view of the world: “Curiously, we did not inherit the crawl in its true form, but in rather mutilated condition, and it took years of study before we were able to reconstruct, standardize it and learn to take advantage of its many good points. Cavill, in fact, did not imitate Wickham very closely.”[10]

Within these uses of Cavill’s rational improvements of the natural stroke of a Pacific Islander we see the racial logics of colonialism that are an inherent part of modernization. Carrington uses cultural geographer James Blaut’s critiques of Eurocentric diffusionism.

“Deeply racialized and gendered colonial tropes of social development” permeate this diffusionist model as it relies upon “binaries…of modernity/tradition, the rational/irrational and the civilized/primitive [that] work to structure how modern sport is defined and understood.”[11]

The descriptions of how the modern, rational, civilized, Australian Dick Cavill perfected Wickham’s traditional, primitive stroke are examples of this binary construction. That the crawl-stroke was then taken up by American swimming experts is another “step” in its modern evolution and further demonstrates the influence of the Eurocentric diffusionist model.

This post is a start towards the further unsettling of static assumptions of how race and sport are related. The ways in which these four experts utilize the origin myths of the crawl-stroke and deploy modern, rational thought onto the sport body demonstrates the construction of the white colonial frame and its elemental roles in the invention of and contemporary practices of modern sport. These concepts allow us to theorize whiteness as a structuring process rather than as only identity while also considering the unequal power relations inherent in its operations. Using a sporting activity with such racial disparities as swimming is a good entry point when trying to get our students (and ourselves) to think about the pervasive, foundational role of whiteness in our modern world.

Matt Hodler is a PhD candidate in Health & Sport Studies at the University of Iowa, and was one of the slowest swimmers on Miami University’s 1999 MAC championship swimming & diving team.

[1] Cureton, p. 119.

[3] Carrington, 2010, 41.

[4] Handley, 1922, 9. From what I can tell so far, Rubiana was the name used for what we now call the Solomon Islands — which is in itself a study in colonialism.

[5] Osmond & Phillip,2006, 61.

[6] Osmond & Phillips, 2006, 62.

[7] Handley, 1922, 21.

[8] Handley & Howcroft, 1926, 9-10.

[9] Corsan, 1924, 36.

[10] Handley & Howcroft, 1926, 10.

[11] Carrington, 2010, Race, Sport, and Politics, 45.

3 thoughts on “Swimming as a Sporting Racial Project

  1. You missed a point or two here. Beliefs in “fixed ankles” were strong assuming that Blacks would sink. also see the commentary on the black swim club the Cleveland Barracudas in my book RACE, SPORT AND THE AMERICAN DREAM (2014)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Dr Smith. I read an earlier edition of your book — and it helped shape some of the initial questions for my larger project. As you know, a blogpost can’t contain everything so I had to leave some things out. Here, I apply Carrington’s theoretical concept to the work of coaches/educators in order to try to understand and demonstrate how modern sport co-produces racial meanings (in this case Whiteness).
      But, yes, you’re right, the notion of “fixed ankles” was a popular “scientific” assumption/finding — as were heavy bones, too much muscle, low lung capacity, and lack of overall flexibility, among other things. We also see similar reasoning in Epstein’s The Sports Gene (2013), which cited research indicating that black people’s navels are in a different spot than white people’s navels, thereby making whites better swimmers. Few of these scientific studies take into account the broader social, cultural, political, and historical meanings that shape their work at fundamental levels.


  2. Pingback: Learning about black space through film | Sport in American History

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