Christelle Saint-Julien

“A Black athlete is never just an athlete,” states Dr. Ornella Nzindukiyimana, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Kinetics at St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish, NS). She is referencing the prejudice Black athletes face and the baggage they have carried throughout history. While we can still see some of these barriers in play today, she highlights their significance in her research on Black athletes in the 20th century.

A major culprit is stereotyping: whether conscious or not, it is a box within which Black athletes are encased. Assumptions go as far as believing that athletes only succeed at certain sports because they are Black. “In 2021, we aren’t too far from that notion at all,” Dr. Nzindukiyimana stipulates. The list of obstacles goes on: whether it’s the different ways Black athletes are spoken about on the field or in the media, or the fact that we rarely see them in positions of influence, such as coaches, managers or administrators. By and large, their experiences have not been as extensively recorded in history as white athletes. “Sports are presented as the only way out, the only thing they can succeed in,” points out Dr. Nzindukiyimana.

It’s important to acknowledge that some things have changed – as she says, no one is now preventing a Black athlete from eating at a hotel – but the professor also dreams of bigger cultural shifts while challenging simplistic narratives about athletes. “I’m very weary of the notion that just because people praise an athlete, it means that things are good. My goal in life is to make people aware of history,” says the researcher. Yet, she remains confident about the future. “We always think that radicals are pessimistic people. But the reality is that radicals are people who are there to imagine something better, envision a point so what they say can be implemented.” Her recent work focuses on women and the intersection of gender and race in sports.

Not many people have written about Black Canadian athletes, which left the field wide open for scholars like Dr. Ornella Nzindukiyimana and her colleague, Dr. Janelle Joseph, a member of the E-Alliance scientific committee and lead on race-related research. Among her many goals, Joseph is intent on bridging the opportunity gap, working with the Black Canadian Coaches Association. “Black women are often absent from the picture, but it’s not because they are not participating,” she explains of the overlooked athletes and organizers.

When asked why she has pursued this path, Nzindukiyimana has a simple anser. “Someone’s gonna do it, why not me?” It certainly means picking up on things that were not noticed by previous researchers, and finding mentors in other fields. While we touched on the barriers for Black athletes in sports, the same barriers often exist in academia. Deeply involved in the community with projects involving youth and women, Dr. Joseph became the Assistant Professor of Critical Race Studies in Sport and Director for the Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity, and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Lab at the University of Toronto last year, nearly a decade after completing a PhD. When important research like this emerges, we’re reminded of the work that lies ahead.