Social Issues

Afro-Brazilian gymnast says he’s paid hefty price for denouncing racism

By Carlos Meneses Sanchez

Sao Paulo, Sep 16 (efe-epa).- Standout Afro-Brazilian gymnast Angelo Assumpcao says he put up with years of racist jokes and insults at his club before finally deciding enough was enough.

But he told Efe in an interview that he has paid a hefty price for bringing that abuse to light.

Not long after Assumpcao came forward with his complaints, the club severed its 16-year relationship with the gymnast. He has now been unemployed for nearly a year and is currently training at home while trying to relaunch his professional career amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A 24-year-old Afro-Brazilian athlete from the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Assumpcao says his exit from the elite Esporte Club Pinheiros – his home since the age of eight – remains a painful memory.

Although he emerged there as one of the leading figures in Brazilian gymnastics, he said he always felt socially excluded in a white-dominated world very different from the rest of the country, where 56 percent of the population is of African descent.

Assumpcao said the color of his skin made him the target of jokes and insults at the club, where racism was normalized.

When he decided many years later to come forward with his complaints, he said the club cast him aside. “It’s costly being a victim of racism and it’s very easy to be racist,” the gymnast said.

“The first contact I had with more explicit racism was when a gymnast refused to share a space with me because I was black,” Assumpcao said.

He was a young boy at the time and stayed quiet because he wanted to be accepted by that community and continue competing at a club with elite-level facilities that is known as a factory for Olympic athletes.

“You end up becoming withdrawn because there’s no response, there’s no support. It’s a struggle you wage somewhat alone,” he said. “You stay quiet because you know that in a given moment (speaking up) can do you harm.”

The gymnast said he was often ridiculed because of his facial features and was told that his Afro hairstyle hurt his performance.

Despite the racist insults, Assumpcao continued to progress as a gymnast and in 2015 reached the pinnacle of his sport by winning the vault competition at the Sao Paulo leg of the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Cup series.

Shortly afterward the Brazilian was in the news for another reason: a leaked Snapchat video recorded by Brazilian national teammates Fellipe Arakawa, Henrique Flores and Arthur Nory, in which the three can be heard making racist jokes in front of him.

“Your (cellphone) screen is white when it works. When it breaks, what color is it?” Nory asks. “Black!” the other two say. “The supermarket bag is white and the trash bag is black,” Nory jokes.

Assumpcao decided not to say anything at the time for fear of reprisals by the national team and his club.

He suffered from depression and sustained several injuries over the next year and a half that resulted in his being left off of Brazil’s national gymnastics team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Nory, who later apologized for the racist incident, was suspended for 30 days along with Flores and Arakawa but ended up bouncing back quickly and capturing the bronze medal in floor exercise at the Rio Games.

Assumpcao later recovered from his injuries and started winning titles both in Brazil and abroad, but the racially motivated insults inside the club continued.

“At one moment, we were being evaluated for the Brazilian championship. I was dressed in black spandex and just white shorts, and one of the people there joked, ‘Angelo’s just in white bermudas,'” the gymnast recalled.

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