We cannot encourage a culture where only one member of a marginalised group is reserved a platform
The public spotlight can often be cruel towards those aiming for success. In these Olympics, it has been particularly cruel for gymnast, Gabby Douglas.
Douglas was thrust into the public consciousness after her winning display at London 2012. At 16, she was the first black woman to win the individual all-around gymnastics title.
Despite the figurative and literal dizzying heights she reached, her success was not met without controversy.
Most notably, hurtful comments were made about her hair. Details of what seemed to be a difficult relationship with her father were made public. She spoke up about the racial bullying she endured whilst at a her former gym, and was criticised for even mentioning it.
Jump forward to Rio 2016, and it appears Douglas has a lot less of the goodwill she had in 2012. Public perception of her has deteriorated further, and it’s hard not to suspect that she has been replaced with Simone Biles in much of the viewing public’s favour.
Biles has displayed an undeniable talent, even by the higher standards often foisted onto black people. She is now the most decorated American gymnast in history. Her signature move is one so difficult that only she has been able to perform it in competition.
Inevitably the two young women were compared, and it seemed that Simone was more palatable to the public. She has not yet been known to speak out on race, and was reported saying, “I don’t bring race into [my gymnastics].” There have been no reports of problems with her teammates, and she is consistently smiling and bubbly. You don’t have much to work with if you wanted to portray her as the stereotypical ‘angry, bitter black woman.’ But by virtue of Biles being ‘the other’ black female gymnast, even more unreasonable demands have been placed on Douglas.
The 2016 Olympics have not been kind to Gabby. She was unable to participate in the all-around competition because of the directive that only two gymnasts from each respective country can compete. While she played her part in the USA winning the team gold, she didn’t fare so well in the uneven bars. It would be perfectly normal and expected for someone to feel downcast, even angry, in these circumstances. But this is not how it was perceived by the media.
Despite wishing her teammates well, Douglas was criticised for not being more like Biles in her temperament (which is absurd in itself; Biles’ Olympics was disappointment-free). There was the controversy about not putting her hand on her chest during the national anthem. Something that is a non-issue and completely benign from others became an act of borderline treason in the eyes of the American public. And once again, her hair became a subject of ridicule.
Douglas’ (likely) final Olympics ended with her facing a barrage of questions about these issues. Why didn’t she put her hand on her chest? Why wasn’t she cheering on her teammates more enthusiastically? She was being asked to reassure the public who in just a few months have the unenviable task to chose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that she was indeed a good American; a good teammate; a good person.
It should not be a requirement for her to act like Biles in the midst of disappointment. An extra layer of scrutiny was added as gymnastics is not a sport that features many black athletes, similar to the challenges faced by Venus and Serena Williams in tennis.
Gabby Douglas did not need to be lambasted and discarded for Simone Biles to succeed. The two could have existed in the same space. They should have existed in the same space. We cannot encourage a culture where only one member of a marginalised group is reserved a platform. No doubt Douglas’ and Biles’ efforts will draw a lot more young people to gymnastics who wouldn’t have previously considered the sport. But what will the point be if after surmounting all the odds, they are still faced with racism on the job, still pitted against each other, still subjected to the merciless glare of the spotlight?
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Chan is an artist, designer and barrister living in South London. You can find her on Twitter @ChanMaroonArt
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