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Dispelling the myth that ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’

February 22 2024

From Mark Spitz to Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky to Missy Franklin, the world’s top aquatic athletes have always been among the biggest stars to shine at the Olympic Games.

Dispelling the myth that ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’

However, by glancing at the list of male and female winners of the long-running Swimming World Swimmers of the Year Awards, there is a noticeable lack of black athletes.

This is a long-running problem. It was not until 1988 that Suriname’s Anthony Nesty became the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, while it was as recently as 2016 when Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to finish top of the podium in aquatics at the Games.

This dearth of black representation is not just reflected in the sport’s top tier, though.

According to Sport England’s 2020 Active Lives Survey, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children did not participate in swimming activities regularly, in comparison with 89% of white British adults and 71% of white British children. 

Furthermore, it is a global issue. In the United States in 2021, nearly two-thirds of the country’s African-American children have little or no swimming ability, in comparison with 40% of white children.

A dangerous discrepancy 

This discrepancy that stretches across swimming, from the elite level down to the grassroots, highlights a long-established participation issue among black children and adults – as well as having serious implications for water safety.

Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. There are an estimated 236,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. Additionally, those of a lower socioeconomic status, ethnic minorities and rural populations have an increased risk of drowning.

“In 2018, I was deeply moved by a story of a tragic incident where a father couldn’t rescue his daughter from drowning because he lacked the necessary water safety knowledge,” Ed Accura, Co-Founder of the Black Swimming Association, told Global Sustainable Sport.

“Considering the potential risk to my own daughter – now 13-years-old – I realised that I too needed to overcome my fear of swimming. Motivated by this realisation, I made a conscious decision to confront my fears, challenge the stereotypes, and address the myths surrounding black people and swimming.”

Accura curated a five-year-long campaign called ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’, which included three film documentaries around marginalised communities and why they do or do not swim.

As a British musician and filmmaker, Accura used a number of initiatives including documentaries, public awareness campaigns and community outreach programmes to promote water safety. The ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’ campaign also encouraged education around swimming, while fostering inclusivity within the swimming community. Additionally, at the age of 53, Accura learned to swim.

“The campaign emphasises the importance of breaking down cultural barriers and providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds to learn how to swim and participate in aquatic sports,” says Accura. 

“I personally only recently learned to swim and recognised the pervasive nature of this stereotype, which often contributes to disparities in swimming ability and access to aquatic activities among black and Asian communities.”

Black Swimming Association

At present, Alice Dearing is Great Britain’s only black representative within Olympic swimming and is also the first black female athlete to represent Team GB at the Games. Additionally, Dearing is only the third black athlete to represent the nation in swimming at the quadrennial event. 

At the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games, which took place in 2021, Dearing took part in the women’s 10km marathon swim. The 26-year-old had initially missed out on qualifying for the Games, but after finishing fourth in the Marathon Swim Qualifier 2021 in Portugal, was selected to represent Great Britain. 

Together with Accura, Chair Danielle Obe and ex-BBC broadcaster Seren Jones, Dearing was one of the Co-Founders of the Black Swimming Association. 

As Accura explains, this was borne from “the absence of representation in decision-making and policy matters for individuals of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage”.

He continues: “Here was a recognised need for an organisation to serve as a bridge between the aquatic sector and these communities that felt disconnected. Seren, Danielle, Alice and I were all advocates for swimming, water safety, and drowning prevention in our individual capacities.

“It became evident that pooling our efforts and creating an organisation would be a logical step to unite us and effectively pursue our shared objectives.”

A tragic incident on the Spanish Costa del Sol on Christmas Eve in 2019 further prompted Accura to highlight the need for education around swimming and water safety. 

In his book entitled A Visual Journey of Blacks Can’t Swim, Accura writes: “When Gabriel Diya’s daughter and son got into difficulty in the pool, he didn’t know how to save them. He jumped in to rescue them and got into difficulty himself. All three drowned that day.

“Why the dire need for change? Drowning is devastating. Black and Asian communities in the UK need equitable access to vital water safety knowledge and life skills for drowning
prevention.”

Accura adds later: “The UK is in dire need of inclusive water safety campaigns that reach all communities, especially communities considered at high risk. For this to happen, the right representation is needed at a policy level, where decisions are made, and strategy level, where interventions are designed. We needed an organisation that would be the bridge between the aquatic sector and disengaged – in some cases marginalised – African, Caribbean and Asian Communities. Something had to be done!“The disproportionate number of people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage who do not swim and have little to no water safety knowledge is a national and global issue.

“All of a sudden, everything I did within my campaign was now not only about swimming but, more importantly, about water safety and drowning prevention. We had work to do.”

A role model

Indeed, the work is just beginning. As things stand, Dearing is currently the only black swimmer – male or female – to represent Team GB. 

When she secured her spot at the Tokyo Olympics, she spoke of “decades and decades of historical and cultural racism” in the sport.

However, the likes of Dearing have a vital role to play. 

“Given the limited involvement in aquatics from these [Black and Asian] communities, having a role model is crucial, particularly for the youth, to demonstrate the feasibility of participation,” says Accura.

“It’s essential to dispel the notion that aquatics, at any level, is exclusively reserved for white individuals. As someone who co-founded the organisation from a non-swimming background, incorporating Alice’s viewpoint as an elite swimmer holds significant importance.”

The next project

Five years have passed since Accura began the ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’ campaign based on his own experiences – namely, an “inability to swim and limited water safety knowledge”. 

“The main objective was to shed light on the issues with a disproportionate number of people of African Caribbean and Asian heritage who were in the same boat as me. This was by confronting our fears, challenging the stereotypes, and dispelling those myths.”

The question is, though, what has changed in five years?

Accura’s latest documentary will look into the five-year journey of the ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’ campaign, and will explore its impact on the diversity within aquatics. Accura set up a crowdfunding page to support the new documentary, which went live earlier this month.

“By taking stock of these findings, we can gather valuable insights that will guide actions and strategies for the next five years,” he adds. 

Ed Accura is behind the ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’ campaign and is also a Co-Founder of the Black Swimming Association (BSA). He is planning his next project and has launched a crowdfunder, which can be accessed here.

Main Image: Thomas Park on Unsplash

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