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Whitlock: US Olympic relay failure exposes the bigger problem undermining the success of black men

Op-ed
U.S. men's 4 x 100 relay finishes sixth in qualifying heat. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The Olympic 4 x 100 relay is racist. That's the only logical explanation for the embarrassing performance of the United States men's relay team last night and over the past two decades.

In our country, Olympic-level sprinting is dominated by black men. The 4 x 100 relay requires four black American men to work cohesively together for approximately 38 seconds.

We can't do it. We certainly couldn't do it last night. And we've struggled doing it for the past 20 years.

In a qualifying heat at the Tokyo Games, Team USA finished sixth, behind China, Canada, Italy, Germany, and Ghana. It's impossible to make the relay final from sixth place in a heat. The United States won't be winning any sort of medal in an event we absolutely dominated until the race turned racist after our 2000 title at the Sydney Games.

Up until 2004, Team USA had won the gold in 15 of the 20 4 x 100 relays held in Olympic history. We owned the track and virtually all the sprints. We flashed our God-given gifts, our work ethic, and our ability to work as a team for the greater good. It was a showcase of black American excellence. Bob Hayes, Jim Hines, Carl Lewis, and Maurice Greene took the baton symbolically handed to them by Jesse Owens and represented this country at the highest level.

Then something very disturbing happened at the 2004 Olympics. Systemic racism started easing its way into the event at the Athens Games. America finished second in Greece.

Ibram X. Kendi argues the systemic relay racism was always there. But it wasn't until 2008 that black Twitter and ESPN pointed out that the Proud Boys, Trump supporters, and right-wing insurrectionists began manipulating the relay batons and the baton exchange zones. This manipulation made it impossible for black American men to excel in track and field's premier relay event.

America has not won a single medal in the relay since white bigots took control of the relay.

OK, I'm being sarcastic. Systemic racism has nothing to do with the two-decades-long failure of our once-dominant relay team. Systemic dysfunction actually explains the failure. What we witnessed last night is a symptom of a larger problem we in black America are loath to discuss.

Rather than having uncomfortable conversations with white people, we need to have uncomfortable conversations amongst ourselves concerning the fact that black men don't function well together.

It's obvious to everyone else. We're the only people who refuse to talk about it. We just hope the Crips and Bloods get old and retire. We think our kids will learn to resolve conflict without resorting to violence when white liberals decide to teach us other options.

If we ignore our dysfunction long enough, it will go away.

That kind of wishful thinking led to last night's relay fiasco. What transpired last night surprised no one paying attention. It's the equivalent of feigning disbelief on a Monday morning when you learn of how many black men or boys were gunned down over a weekend in Chicago, or Baltimore, or Indianapolis, or New York City. Black male dysfunction is expected.

Hours before the qualifying heat, the Washington Post published a long piece detailing the relay team's baton issues. The piece was titled, "Medal or nothing: U.S. men's sprinters have a handoff problem." The story reads as prophecy.

Last night, U.S. sprinters Ronnie Baker and Fred Kerley struggled mightily to complete the second baton exchange. It took three attempts. By the time it was completed, Baker and Kerley were side by side and Kerley was at a relative standstill. Anchorman Cravon Gillespie briefly climbed to third place and then faded badly as he began to look around at his competitors. Reaction to the collapse was swift and angry.

"The USA team did everything wrong in the men's relay," Carl Lewis complained via Twitter. "The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership. It was a total embarrassment, and completely unacceptable for a USA team to look worse than the AAU kids I saw."

We got smoked by China. Not a Jamaican team led by Usain Bolt. China won the heat. Germany beat us. Ghana beat us. Ghana advanced to the final. Ghana apparently doesn't give a damn about the Proud Boys and the insurrectionists.

We can't use COVID protocols as an excuse. All the other countries have had limited practices because of the pandemic. You can't cover up 20 years of failure with excuses.

I know I keep making sarcastic jokes about racism. I'm doing it because the most damaging racism impacting black people today is the use of racism to eliminate accountability and responsibility for black men. Our sprinters are irresponsible because we fail to hold them accountable for their failure.

Black people across the globe immigrate to America and achieve their dreams because they embrace a far different mentality than what's cultivated in black American culture. Black sprinters in Ghana, Jamaica, Canada, and everywhere else don't have the kind of baton problems we have.

We can't work together. What happened?

When you're raised in family dysfunction, that dysfunction follows you for life, especially when you never acknowledge it, pretend it never existed, or believe it's white people's responsibility to address it or adjust to your dysfunction.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with black people. The problem is culture. We've embraced a culture that undermines our success. We've been programmed to believe our actions don't really determine our destiny. The actions of white people are all that matter. This worldview eliminates accountability and empowers irresponsibility.

Re-watch the 4 X 100 relay qualifier. Maybe one member of the Chinese relay is good enough to make our relay team. But China smoked us. How? Why? It's not talent. It's culture. It's an inability to set egos aside and work together in a cohesive fashion.

Let's say white people pitted us against each other. Let's say it started in slavery. No problem. I agree it happened. I also think it's insanely foolish to expect white people to fix it. It's not going to happen. It's no different from a man breaking your leg in a fight and expecting him to do the rehabilitation. Only you can do the rehab.

Black men, we have a culture problem. What are we going to do about it?

Our silence is violence.

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