I tune in to the Summer Olympics every four years primarily for one sport: Women’s Gymnastics. I like basketball, women’s tennis, track and field, and men’s diving, too. But Gymnastics is my bread and butter.
I had the privilege of falling in love with gymnastics in the early 1990s, the golden era of Team USA. All coached by the great Bela Karolyi, the 1992 and 1996 teams featured the likes of Kim Zmeskal, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, and Dominique Moceanu, just a few of my faves from back in the day. And my all time favorite moment is when Kerri Strug perfectly stuck that vault landing with an injured ankle at the ’96 Olympics. I’ve never seen more heart. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
So I was mad excited to tune in to see this year’s team of five girls, the favorite Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, McKalya Maroney, Kyla Ross, and Gabby Douglas.
I’m cheering for all of them, but I have a soft spot for the girls of color on the team, including African American Gabby Douglas, and Kyla Ross, who is of African-American, Japanese, Puerto Rican, and
Dominican (Correction: Filipina) descent.
As with most sports coverage though, every time a Black girl participates in a sport traditionally dominated by white women, you can count on the commentators to show their asses. And they did not disappoint yesterday.
17 year old, reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify to compete for the individual all-around finals. As shocking as it was for all of us, it must be truly tough to have your life long dream dashed before a watching world. And I agree with Bela Karolyi that the top 24 girls regardless of country should compete in the all arounds, rather than the top 2 from each country.
Be that as it may, Jordyn’s best friend and teammate Aly Raisman will compete for gold along with Gabby Douglas. But Jordyn’s understandable disappointment in no way justifies the uneven and downright biased coverage that Gabby received for her performance.
First, during floor exercises, Gabby stepped out of bounds with both feet, resulting in several tenths of a point deduction in her score. That’s not an insignificant error for sure, but the rest of her routine was almost flawlessly executed.
You wouldn’t know it to listen to the sportscasters chomping at the bit, talking about how absolutely terrible it was, what a HUGE mistake she’d made, how low her score was going to be. And on. AND ON.
Never mind that Jordyn had a bad day. She gaffed on her balance beam routine and almost fell, but the commentators focused on how she recovered and pulled it off, by sheer strength of will. And a monster toe grip. I’m not tossing any shade to Jordyn. It was a beautiful routine.
But the sportscasters are far, FAR from impartial.
For instance, peep this coverage about Jordyn Wieber’s upsetting finish. Around the 1:22 mark, you’ll notice that they show an individual picture of every team member EXCEPT Gabby!
Aly and Gabby advanced to the all-arounds, coaches and teammates hugged and congratulated Aby. They comforted and consoled Jordyn. But they said not a word to Gabby. There were no hi-fives, congratulations (not on any coverage I saw), no celebration. Just total disappointment on Jordyn’s behalf, and the overwhelming sense at least among the sportscasters who talked about Jordyn’s dashed hopes and dreams that Gabby didn’t really deserve it, that she’d taken a spot that didn’t belong to her.
Why celebrate Aly and not Gabby?
In the immediate interviews afterward, Aly got asked questions about how excited she was, how she felt about her friend, but ultimately what this meant for her dreams. Gabby on the other hand got three questions about her shortcomings — her mistakes during the floor exercise, the belief among the coaching staff that she couldn’t handle the pressure, and her feelings about coming in ahead of her teammate (who presumably) deserved it more. The fourth and final question asked her how she felt to be there, and like Black girls used to this kind of passive aggressive white hostility are so deft at doing, she responded with an affirmation of confidence in herself.
And then she gave that big beautiful smile that everyone keeps focusing on.
Her smile is beautiful to be sure. And a world in which Black girls smile, giddy from the joy of being able to pursue their dreams, is a world I want more of.
But after having read Toni Morrison’s analysis of Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings for the Supreme Court, and the copious amount of times that Congressmen referred to his great smile and jovial personality (rather than his record of legal scholarship and groundbreaking rulings), I am suspicious of these kinds of smile politics.
Perhaps, focusing on her smile makes Gabby seem non-threatening. And make no mistake–she’s in it to win it.
It remains unclear to me why Kyla Ross is not subjected to similar kinds of coverage, but I think that she is exoticized a bit on the one hand, and on the other, while she is a strong part of the team, she hasn’t presented herself as a threat to any of the individual goals set by the white girls on the team. But Gabby’s ambitions and her ability to achieve them are clear.
I guess I should be used to this kind of shamtastery in the sports commentating after years of watching the Williams Sisters dominate women’s tennis. But it still irks me. Even so, I’m cheering on Team USA, and I’m #teamGabby all the way!
Feel free to weigh in:
Are y’all watching the Olympics?
What are your fave sports/athletes?
Have y’all noticed this differential coverage in the Olympics?