Losing out on any opportunity is a remarkably frustrating thing to overcome, and any functioning member of society can confirm that. But it may be most pronounced in the athletic world, where anything from scholarship to gold medals and even multi-million dollar endorsements are on the line.
Which is why the slight sulk on Gabby Douglas’ face throughout her second Olympic foray was not at all shocking to me.
She dared to brave another intense round of international racist ridicule and push her veteran body further than most 20 year-olds in the sport for a chance to make history…again. The last gymnastics all-around champion to successfully defend her gold did so in 1968. Still, her competitive spirit would not allow her to go with the grain and remain a one-time Olympian.
It seemed as though Douglas’ backstory and the difficulty she was bound to face in the arena was common knowledge–the NBC commentators continuously emphasized it during competition, and she discussed it herself in interviews. So when Douglas failed to qualify for the all-around final and placed 7th in the uneven bars her reserved and obviously disappointed demeanor simply seemed natural. The hate-filled responses, however, were not.
Internet low-lifes went so far as to create a hashtag in her name –“Crabby Gabby.”
Like last time, it didn’t take long for the criticism to devolve into racially insensitive vitriol.
Aside from the comments being extremely mean-spirited and heavily misguided, they create a dangerous expectation of what sportsmanship should look like.
To be clear, bad sportsmanship most definitely exists. I should know–I was notorious for it.
The first incident (that I recollect, that is…) involved a 4×4 relay and a baton that went hurling across the field. I had run the race of my life as the anchor leg, but it was not enough to overcome the 50 meter deficit my teammates passed to me at the baton exchange. It did not take long before my coaches, and my mother, descended on me. Each party made it loud and clear that such behavior would not be tolerated.
My next outburst, which happened to be my last, came almost 4 years later. Inflamed tendons from long jumping and triple jumping, plus a severely strained hamstring from intense training and insufficient recovery time led me to run the worst individual race of my life. I knew I was done at the 200 meter mark, and any chance for an athletic scholarship was down the drain. I crossed the finish line, but, once again, hurled the first thing I saw as far as my tired arms allowed me. Maybe it was a Gatorade bottle, maybe it was my practice spikes. All I remember is that I was gone before anyone could chastise me.
But that is not what I saw Gabby Douglas do as she said goodbye to her gymnastics career with only a team medal to show for the grueling effort she put into returning to the Olympic stage. I saw her break a difficult smile and clap for her teammates, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, as they dominated the event that once cemented her into gymnastics history. I saw her reflect, and probably ruminate on her uneven bars performance, likely thinking, “If only I hadn’t messed up…”
I also, as confirmed by Douglas herself, saw her succumb to the pain and hurt that comes from witnessing her own country, for which she was representing, mock her for the second time in a row and challenge her right to be disappointed. The same right that launched former gymnast McKayla Maroney to internet-meme popularity when she showed the world her obvious disappointment with her second place finish in the vault competition. Maroney was initially deemed a “diva,” and received a steady stream of backlash. However, her expression soon became a trademark that even POTUS found himself replicating.
But whether America’s problem is a racial double standard regarding who gets to show their disappointment, or an issue with visibly disappointed athletes in general, it’s remarkably hypocritical.
On any given day, the same competitive spirit that leads a gymnast to an all-around gold medal performance and spurs national pride can also lead her to a sound defeat and blatant frustration.
You can’t have it both ways, America.
Image: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil