Tianna Bartoletta: ‘After you’ve gotten your medal, you become black in America again’
Olympic champion on the anxiety, anger and grief she has felt since the murder of George Floyd
Tianna Bartoletta in action at the 2016 US Olympic trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Her name probably doesn’t mean a lot to you. Tianna Bartoletta is one for the athletics heads. She’s the reigning Olympic long jump champion, if that helps at all. In fact, she has another two Olympic golds for the 4x100m relay in London and Rio and two World Championship long jump golds as well. In another country, in another sport, she’d be a household name. She might be yet.
She’s 34 now and if 2020 had rolled the way it was supposed to, she’d be six weeks out from her third Olympics. Instead, she’ll wait another year to defend her crown in Tokyo, if it happens. In the meantime, she trains, she writes, she teaches yoga, she lives. She finds none of it easy in today’s America.
As the week crawled by and her country fought itself like a spider trapped in its own web, Bartoletta found the days too full and the grief too heavy. Cities burned from coast to coast and everyone got a lick of the flames.
“It feels exhausting,” she says down the line from California. “It’s almost like sensory overload in a way. There’s so much to see, you’re hearing so much. The pandemic is still a thing. It still exists, it’s just not being covered as much. So people aren’t being as diligent about not spreading the virus, which is going to be a problem for us soon, again.
“You’re watching these things unfold and you’re exhausted because it feels too overwhelming for one person to make a difference about, if that makes sense. And I want to say that that is actually untrue. There are things that a person can absolutely do. It just feels overwhelming.
“Last week was a recovery week for me after a very heavy training block. And I didn’t recover at all. My body did not regenerate, it did not heal. I didn’t sleep well. All of it is not because I don’t know how to take care of my body – I know how to do that. But there’s too much anxiety, anger and grief internalised in my body.”
Bartoletta has been writing about how it feels to be black in America since she started a blog in 2017. She didn’t need the killing of George Floyd as a prompt to use her voice on the subject. When she was a kid in Ohio, her family built a new house in a white neighbourhood. They went to take a look at it during construction and found some locals walking around the site, being nosy. When they started looking around it themselves, they felt the mood turn. It simply didn’t occur to anyone that house could belong to them, a black family.
She is the product of a million of these incidents, some of them just thoughtless micro-sleights, others pure unadulterated racial prejudice. Something as simple as going out for a run takes a level of thought and preparation that is alien to white people. She is a triple Olympic champion and yet she has had to devise a method for passing people in the street.
“So when I’m approaching someone out on a run, I go through three steps. I announce my presence – big smile, yell hello. I talk about the weather – great day for a run! And I run away. That, hopefully for me, makes that exchange with that person only interpretable in one way. As in, ‘Oh, a really friendly black girl.’
“That’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t want to accidentally be lost in the music and maybe have an aggressive look on my face. I have all of these things that I am thinking about when I approach people, things that when you’re at home you don’t have to worry about. But when you walk out that front door, you know that this is who I need to be in this world. So that I can make it home.”
When she competes, she wears USA across her chest. Don’t imagine this to be a small thing. Every four years, she feels the gathering of a country behind her. They may not know exactly who she is or what she stands for in her life but they know they want her to do well. And she knows, in that moment, that the support is sincere. In that moment.
“In an Olympic year, what would start to happen in the run-up to the Games is you start to see all the Olympic commercials, you see clips from past performances, you see image after image of Americans on top at the Olympics. So you start to feel the country coalescing behind Team USA. You feel that solidarity.
“When we get there, we really do feel like we are wearing the shield for our country and we’re there to represent for our country. And we want to bring that medal home for our countrymen and we know that they’ll be proud of us when we win. We know that they’ll be disappointed with us when we lose.
“Black athletes also know that that is temporary. So the moment that the uniform comes off, the moment the clothing ceremony ends and once the media tour is over after you’ve gotten your medal, you become black in America again.
“There’s also this really horrible reality that people find out what you’ve accomplished and you see in that moment the behaviour change. Because now you have value. You have been to the Olympics. Not only have you been to the Olympics, which is incredible by itself you’ve got three gold medals? Oh my gosh. But in the conversation before any of that came out, it was very different.”
It’s clearly too early to say what the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has changed. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. One obvious difference to be drawn against almost everything that has gone before has been the vocal reaction of sports and sportspeople across America. From LeBron James on down, there aren’t many sitting this one out.
Bartoletta has been on this corner for a while, waiting for the others to arrive. She doesn’t feel the need to hector anyone into doing more with their voice than they want to. She understands, too, the limitations of the platform. Just because you speak out doesn’t mean you get a hearing.
“It feels really trivial to be an athlete right now,” she says. “I have been really struggling with the idea that while there are protesters and people marching, I’m putting on sneakers to go run some sprints. It feels very trivial and inconsequential. But my life coach reminded me that this is part of the platform and I need to do what I’m good at, which is using that platform to share my voice and my story.
“Athletes need to remember that it’s not separate from you. It’s part of your story and your journey. And if you choose to, you are able to weave what it is you do as an athlete into what it is you care about as a human. And to not be afraid to do that because you’re not going to please everyone anyway. Somebody is going to be upset that you didn’t just shut up and dribble.
“There’ll be fans who will be upset to find that you don’t believe exactly what they believe. And then there’ll be fans who will be upset that you didn’t use your platform to throw your hat in the ring behind something that was important to them. You can’t please everyone so you might as well follow your heart in this. But don’t diminish your role as an athlete either. Because I struggle with that myself.”
In Trump’s America, the lust for battle has become fiercer than ever. Us v Them, over and over again. In a perverse kind of way, she can see an upside to his presidency. Everything she has felt through her life is out in the open now. All those times she was told she was overstating things, all that gaslighting – it’s all ashes in people’s mouths now. Has to be.
“I said to someone just the other day that I was very disappointed when Trump was elected but not surprised. Since then, it’s basically like the underbelly of America has been exposed. You can’t fix something you can’t see. You can’t fix it if you’re not ready to acknowledge it.
“And so he is a catalyst for that. It’s better to know that America is still here. A lot of us were tricked into believing that we were beyond this. And now we know and now we can address the problem as it is in front of us.
“There’s still people claiming these deaths to be isolated incidents caused by bad individuals rather than racism. But for the most part, there’s a lot of people who can’t ignore this anymore.”
So is there hope?
“Oh yes. There’s always hope. Protesting is an act of hope. Otherwise, you wouldn’t bother. You wouldn’t risk it. If you didn’t believe things could be better, you wouldn’t demand it. You just wouldn’t. There’s more hopelessness on display from the rioters and looters who resorted to illegal and criminal activity. That’s more of a hopeless act than protesting.
“But the fact that we are having uncomfortable conversations – and I’ve had a lot of them with black and white friends over this time – that’s a prerequisite for the change that we’re fighting for. So yeah, there’s a lot of hope.”
As we finish up, I cast around for a way to end the conversation. The sympathy of a privileged white stranger eight time zones away feels like it falls well short. Someone who never had to come up with a greeting ritual going on a run, who never had people snoop around his house and take umbrage at the thought of him owning it. Who catches 20 minutes of CNN before going to bed and considers himself informed. So I thank her for the conversation and offer a sighed, feeble, “It’s a grim time.”
“Grim, yes,” she replies. “But also, it’s not any different from any other time for me and people like me. That’s the truly sad thing about this all. As overwhelming as it feels to all of us in the world right now, this is every day for a lot of us. We don’t wish it on anybody. But I’m actually grateful to be more understood in this time.”