In 490 B.C., Greek courier Pheidippides raced 26 miles in intense heat from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the Persians. Upon reaching Athens and crying victory, Pheidippides dropped dead. And thus, the Olympic marathon was born.
In those days, we demanded a literal pound of flesh from our prized athletes. Today, we have the ballad of Serena Williams.
Despite Williams’s accomplishments and unrelenting athleticism, she still receives an onslaught of mostly racist and misogynistic criticism. Last July, The New York Times devoted an entire piece to analyzing Serena’s body, while describing how her “slender” rival Maria Sharapova maintains her feminine physique. Williams faces constant attacks online, from commentators and fellow players alike. But this is not new. To be black in America is to be politicized, even before you aspire to become the world’s greatest athlete, or say, President of the United States, or even to drive to a job interview.
As one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena does not passively exist in this world. She demands your attention on the court, she flexes her beautiful muscles and black skin on magazine covers, and she inspires tabloid gossip about her relationship status with Canadian pop stars. From a childhood of playing tennis in Compton, during a time when black people were only noticed when they were obituaries in the local paper or when their rap lyrics were being parsed by the FBI, Serena and her sister Venus dared to want more than their circumstances permitted them. And rather than flame out as so many of her detractors wished or foretold, Serena has continued to achieve greatness. It is courageous for any black woman to exist in America, and Serena is fearless.
And then there’s Maria Sharapova. Despite not having won a match against Serena Williams since 2004, she has been the highest-paid female athlete in the world for a decade. A decade during which she was taking a metabolic modulator known as Meldonium, which is normally prescribed for medical use for no longer than six weeks. Soviet troops in the ’80s used Meldonium as a stamina booster. Maria presumably used the drug recreationally. I say presumably because maybe, just maybe, if you’re taking performance-enhancing drugs to take on your greatest opponent and you haven’t won a match against her since 2004, you might start looking for a new plug. What I’m saying is Maria and her team wrote an ode to Meldonium and crooned, “I love you like the lah, the ganja
Sensimilla, can I feel ya.” They should ask for their money back.
When addressing Maria’s drug usage, Serena spoke with the respect and poise of a true athlete. Williams applauded the confession, saying that it took “courage and heart.” She said this, by the way, while other athletes and various media outlets slammed her as a a sore loser for not liking to lose. This is a complaint generally lobbied at black athletes — ever heard of a little football player named Cam Newton? — not white ones. To Sharapova’s confession, Williams added that she was “surprised and shocked.” Anyone who has seen their matches was also shocked, considering the concept of Maria’s use of performance-enhancing drugs against Serena is akin to suddenly discovering Jeb Bush bought votes in the 2016 Republican primaries.
When we discuss Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova as competitors, we tend to highlight Serena’s “masculine” body. According to The New York Times, Maria, in contrast, “avoided weights in her training, instead focusing on stretching and preventive exercises, which she believes are more beneficial for tennis than adding muscle.” Serena is explicitly black, and criticisms of her body remind us of her blackness in their attempts to dehumanize her. There are plenty of other muscular tennis players who don’t fit into the stereotype of a petite model, like Maria — Justine Henen, for instance. But because Serena is black, her body becomes an exotic thing to be dissected, like Joseph Conrad recounting the “dark continent.” If Serena were exposed for using Meldonium, the attack would be squarely on her body and pulling the curtain back on the Saartjie Baartman-esque fascination people have with every facet of her body. But because Maria was painted in flowery, non-threatening terms, the conversation about her drug usage is sympathetic: She never wanted to be a powerhouse like Serena, the pressure of playing tennis made her do it, she’s a lovely woman who didn’t know she was breaking the rules. The discussion around her body allows that no overt scrutiny is placed on her misconduct. We are not used to critiquing Maria, and as a result we do not need to castigate her the way we might had she been, say, a black woman who had used drugs to achieve the body of a deity. Maria will not be violently knocked from a pedestal she had to construct herself; she will softly land from the one we built for her.
Maria was warned five times before she failed her drug test. Serena will continue to be disrespected by fans and participants in the game she’s devoted her life to. Her body critiqued, yet also sexualized, while not earning the top dollar she deserves. She will be forced to speak on the courage of a woman, her adversary, who took performance-enhancing drugs. Maria, who even after those drugs did not put in the same work as Serena — she slipped into Lotus position as if yoga would Expelliarmus her opponents into a magical defeat. Yes, it’s fine to use platitudes such as it “took courage and heart” to defend Maria. Don’t forget that if Serena becomes the highest paid female athlete after this scandal, that it also took failing a drug test to elicit that action, when the mere existence of Serena Williams is a feat of valiance. But what other kind of treatment could we expect than light and saccharine for the founder of Sugarpova whose brand is as malleable as her brand?