Óscar Figueroa and the Precarious World of an Afro-Colombian Gold Medal Winner

To be a black athlete in Colombia is to be constantly reminded of your otherness. Even when you bring home the gold.

“Gracias, mi negro hermoso” (“Thanks, my beautiful black man”) 

—Colombians on Twitter after their countryman won a gold medal.

On Monday, Colombia was at a standstill for an uncommon reason: thousands of kilometers away, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, one of our own was lifting weights. It was Óscar Figueroa, who had won a silver medal in London 2012 and now had a chance for gold.

Right before Figueroa’s third and last attempt at the clean and jerk, Indonesia’s Eko Yuli Irawan tried to lift 179 Kg, but failed. This meant that a gold medal was secured for the Colombian, who had lifted a total of 318 Kg. Still, Figueroa had to make his last attempt.

Knowing he had already won the competition, he failed at his last attempt to lift 179 Kg. He then collapsed and fell to his knees crying and extending his arms in celebration, as the big crowd of delirious Colombians present at the venue cheered him on. Figueroa had just become the first Colombian medalist in Rio 2016.

Capping an astonishing career, Figueroa then removed his shoes, kissed the weights, and then led the crowd in possibly the loudest national anthem singing for non-Brazilian winners in this games. Thus, he was inducted into a very select group of Colombian athletes.

Colombians have now amassed 20 medals in Olympics history, but only two others have won gold: María Isabel Urrutia, who also won in weightlifting, at Sydney 2000, and Mariana Pajón, who won the BMX race at London 2012.

Figueroa and Urrutia also share something else in common, besides their gold medals and their sport: they are both black in a country that tends to qualify the existence of its black population and condition it to the color of their skins.

So, when Figueroa won, social media filled up with celebratory remarks highlighting his race. “Gracias, mi negro hermoso” (“Thanks, my beautiful black man”) and similar phrases became commonplace. This is a welcome positive feeling in a sea of racial insults to black athletes (and black Colombians in general) who happen to make a mistake. “Negro tenía que ser” (“He had to be black”) is often heard at the stadium or at the bar when a black footballer messes up, for example. But it is also indicative of something else.

Not only are black Colombians subject to the instances of racism unfortunately common in many places of the world, they are also seen as not exactly nor entirely Colombian, and are required constantly to prove their worth as an integral part of the country.

As I have written before, Colombia is a racist country that is unable to face this problem because, for the most part, Colombians feel like “race” is not a concept that applies to them. But it does apply to black people, who are then inevitably seen as outsiders.

The most recent national census, done in 2005, asked about ethnicity, rather than race. In it, 3.43 percent of the country’s population identified as “indigenous,” 10.62 percent as “afro-Colombian” and 85.94 percent as “without ethnicity.” It is hard to speak about racism in such a place where “race” and “ethnicity” are largely not a concept. Modern Colombia lacks the vocabulary for it. “Race,” “ethnicity” and “racism” are things that only apply to others, to those who are not part of that “mixed country.”

And those who are outside might find it hard to be welcomed into the majority group. But with the Olympics, a nationalistic, sports-crazy  country such as Colombia can, for a while, welcome everyone, regardless of color, gender or origin, into their team, especially if they look like they’ll fight for some silverware.

It is not an ideal situation, but surely it can help to bring forth the positive representations of black people in national media, and to make them a part of the national conversation. For example, after her medal, Urrutia was elected for two terms to the country’s House of Representatives (to a special seat reserved for black communities). She was also a commentator for the weightlifting events for a TV broadcast. In a different TV broadcast, Diego Salazar and Mábel Mosquera, another two Olympic medalist in weightlifting for Colombia who are black, were analyzing the sport and rooting for their compatriots. Three black Colombians on TV at the same time would be almost unheard of in any other circumstance.

And though sports might not cure the ills black people in Colombia have to face daily, this Olympic run might help in bringing the country closer together and in accepting our diversity. There is still a good outlook for black Colombian athletes: boxer Yuberjén Martínez has at least a bronze medal assured, and Caterine Ibargüen is a favorite in the athletics competitions.

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Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images

Sudan Declares State of Emergency, As Military Dissolves Transitional Government

As the North African country edged closer to democracy, Sudan's military has seized power.

Sudan's military has seized power over the North African country, arresting multiple civilian leaders, including the current Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The power-sharing, unstable coalition, called the Sovereign Council, was created as a transitional government after the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, in an attempt to move towards a democratic Sudan.

The Sudanese public has been split in recent weeks as groups protested for a military-run state, while others pushed for a civilian lead, democratic nation. Last week, the Prime Minister vocalized his plans towards a full transition to civilian rule, and his plans to have that body in place by November 17, echoing the voices of thousands of Sudanese demonstrators who showed up in hoards to demand that the promise of Sudan's pro-democracy movement be honored. But on Monday the PM and multiple government ministers and officials were placed under arrest, resulting in Sudan's top general's declaring State of Emergency.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said in a televised statement, "To rectify the revolution's course, we have decided to declare a state of emergency nationwide… dissolve the transitional sovereign council, and dissolve the cabinet." His statement came as soldiers fired live rounds at anti-military protestors, outside of the army headquarters in the capital.

Internet services were cut across the country around dawn and the main roads and bridges into Khartoum shut, before soldiers stormed the headquarters of Sudan's state broadcaster in the capital's twin city of Omdurman, the ministry said. After months of rising tensions in the country, army and paramilitary troops have been deployed across the capital city, Khartoum, with the airports and internet access being shut down. As a result of the coup, hundreds of protestors have taken to the streets, demanding the return of a civilian ruled and the transitional government, the BBC reports.

Demonstrators have spread to a number of Sudanese cities including Atbara, Wad Madani, and Port Sudan, and more are expected to attend the call for action. "We will not leave the streets until the civilian government is back and the transition is back," protest attendee Sawsan Bashir told AFP. While demonstrator Haitham Mohamed says, "We are ready to give our lives for the democratic transition in Sudan."

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