Finding Cullen Jones: The Complicated Position of Race in Swimming

Curator's Note

The 4x100 Freestyle Relay Race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be remembered as one of the greatest races in history. The United States team of Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak was not favored to win; rather the French and their dominant sprinters were favorites. Phelps led the team, in hopes that he might be able to claim another world record. Surprisingly, Australia's Eamon Sullivan touched the wall first in world record fashion on the first leg. Weber-Gale gained some ground and put the US into first place. Jones goes next, but cannot hold off Frederick Bousquet, who swam nearly a second faster than Jones. Lezak is almost a body length behind French sprinter Alain Bernard. In one of the most remarkable swims ever, Lezak catches Bernard and out-touches him by eight hundredths. Celebration erupts and the cameras point at Phelps and Weber-Gale as they jump and scream in jubilation.

Lezak is still in the water, but Jones seems to have disappeared. To better see the finish, Jones had gone to the side of the pool. In doing so, he completely missed the initial celebration and somehow found himself excluded from the first documentation of the victory. This is evident in the pictures that accompany the interview that I am showing, and were published in newspapers and magazines across the country. While Jones describes this one-of-a-kind experience in the clip, the photographs mainly illustrate his white teammates.

After a near-drowning experience, Jones took up swimming. This relay represents the pinnacle of his hard work and efforts. He is only the third African-American to make the Olympic team, the second to win a gold medal. His absence from the celebratory pictures reflects the historic whiteness of competitive swimmers. The stereotype that people of color cannot or do not like to swim persists, and instead of heralding Jones’ achievements and using him to demonstrate the falseness of the stereotypes, the media chose to focus on Phelps’ remarkable number of gold medal swims and Lezak’s amazing comeback.

Besides his physical presence, Jones’ position as third in the relay contributed to his disappearance, which is complicated by the fact that he cost his team important ground (oft forgotten is that very few people in the world could have kept the US in the race at that point). Jones’ efforts must not be dismissed, rather they deserve recognition. Today, Jones is involved with USA Swimming’s Make a Splash Foundation, helping to encourage minorities to take up swimming. Jones’ disappearance represents a moment that could have celebrated and encouraged diversity in the sport but instead becomes a place where the media lost sight of the entire picture.

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