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Health, Sports & Psychology

OpenLearn Live: 15th October 2015

Updated Thursday 15th October 2015

The first black athlete to win Olympic medals - and why they should have been gold.

OpenLearn Live is taking a break for a couple of days; we'll be back with a full collection of learning on Monday. But although we're not bringing you regular updates across the day, we are going to complete our week of Black European trailblazers with two special posts.

Black Europeans: Enith Brigitha

We're marking Black History Month by focusing on just a few of the stories of Black Europeans. Yesterday, we heard from Igiabo Scego, a writer exploring identity.

Today, we're celebrating Enith Brigitha.

Enith Brigitha in 1973 Creative commons image Icon Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo / Dutch National Archive under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Enith Brigitha is the first black athlete to win a swimming medal at the Olympics. Born in Curaçao, a Dutch country in the West Indies, Brigita learned to swim in the Caribbean. She moved to the Netherlands when she was 15.

Brigitha's achievements in the pool are amazing - she represented the Netherlands in the Munich and Montreal Olympics; her last international medal - won in 1977 - was her 11th.

But what she actually did should be even more lauded - her Olympics bronzes saw her placed behind swimmers from the old East Germany, whose victories are now so widely known to have been achieved through state-enforced rule-breaking as to be discounted. In addition, her speeds in the pool at 25 metres were ignored as between 1954 and 1991 these distances weren't recorded.

It took many years for the swimming community to make good on the downplaying of Enith's role in swimming, but finally this year she has been given some of her due, with an induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Collecting her award, Enith stressed how both strands of her identity made her the success she became. Peter Jordens reported:

“I am very proud of my success,” she said after a video of her accomplishments was shown. “But I would also like to credit my success to my ancestors, especially my mother and grandmothers. They are my heroes in many respects. My grandmother with Dutch roots led her family through the difficult years of the Depression and World War II. She taught me to have optimism, dedication and tact.”

But her other, Curaçaoan grandmother was also important to her: “My grandmother with Afro-Curaçaoan roots felt slavery still nearby. She experienced poverty, deprivation and brutality. She gave me physical and emotional strength, self-confidence and courage.”

For a long time, the fastest woman in the pool; and the first black person to win Olympic swimming medals, today Enith passes her passion on through her own swimming school in Curaço.

See our Black History Month collection

Read: Olympic selection - who decides?


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