If you’ve paid attention at all to world news, sporting news, or Buzzfeed memes, you realize the Olympics are underway. As a global event that celebrates athleticism, grit, and grace, the Olympics has it all: intrigue, drama, racial bias.
In particular, I’m talking about the skewering of America’s former darling, gymnast Gabby Douglas in the national media and the evolving story of Ryan Lochte, the decorated US swimmer, and his teammates lying about being robbed at gunpoint.
On its face, these two stories may seem unconnected. How does the expectation that Douglas should overperform Black respectability lest she risk embarrassing the entirety of the black race (pro tip: she’s not responsible for your feelings) relate to four white swimmers? Both of them involve predetermined opinions about race and behavior.
In Douglas’ case, she is a young woman who is no longer the bubbly, happy teenager America met in London in 2012. She is the face of several companies, among them Kellogg’s and Nike. She is an author of a bestselling young adult book. Her personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. She’s also the centerpiece of a reality show “Douglas Family Gold” on the Oxygen network. She’s no longer a carefree teenager, but a businesswoman in her own right.
Yet the criticism surrounding her patriotism, appearance, and what people assume is a salty attitude in the wake of the success of her teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, has likened Douglas to an ungrateful child.
Douglas is a seasoned athlete and fierce competitor and the criticism lobbed against her has been profoundly sexist. I’ve never heard of any male athlete ridiculed for four years because his hair isn’t perfectly styled after performing dangerous, potentially deadly, feats. The expectation that she should smile more is akin to men demanding women smile as they navigate the world.
As my exceptionally talented friend and actress L wrote, “She’s not here to smile for you.”
Perhaps what has been most frustrating has been the expectation that she should be rooting for Simone Biles because the two are both black, without regard to the women’s off-the-floor relationship (they are rumored to be close, btw.). We expect Douglass to perform happiness at all times, which is ironic, given that gymnastics is a sport that requires cheeriness in floor routines, salutes to judges, pre- and post-interviews, and interactions with the crowd whether or not a gymnast feels like smiling after a poor routine, or like Douglas, losing a coveted spot because of fair play rules.
It seems rather ludicrous that we should demand a woman who is forced to play act all day to fake happiness when she lost a monumental chance to secure her athletic legacy. The dismissal of her feelings is yet another way the public has decided she doesn’t get to have feelings if it comes at the expense of viewers’ desires to see sweet, cheery, happy Little Gabby.
Gymnasts put their bodies through tremendous strain, live away from loved ones for months or years as children, and are under an often ruthless public gaze that they must endure in order to do what they love and secure the money to pay for top coaches, lodging, and expenses. Top-level gymnasts are not excelling at a hobby. They are at work.
The desire to chastise Douglas for being human is the desire to “teach” her, while ignoring that she’s played the game longer than we have and more skillfully than we ever could.
Ryan Lochte played a game as well this week, one of the oldest ones in America. He and his teammates, Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz, and Jimmy Feigen created a Brown boogeyman to cover up their behavior. Claiming they were robbed at gunpoint in the wee hours of morning, Lochte made statements in the media about the alleged gunmen posing as police officers, putting a gun to his head and robbing him. Currently, officials claim that the swimmers damaged a gas station toilet and paid the manager of the station cash for damages. Their fabrication was an attempt to capitalize on fears of rampant crime in Rio. When the four white swimmers concocted a story about Latin robbers, they also tapped into a generations-old narrative about dangerous People of Color, intent on preying upon white men, women, and children. False accusations against People of Color have resulted in a tarnished international image that has had far-reaching economic, social, and emotional impact. Emmett Till was murdered because of a false accusation. Black and Brown men have been incarcerated for decades because of false accusations. Lochte and crew utilized a narrative as American as apple pie.
While one might argue the swimmers concocted the lie with no regard to race, they intended to capitalize on existing fears among Olympians and their families about the crime rate in Rio. They expected to be believed. They knew if they got caught, they’d be OK. Thus is the power of white privilege.
Coming from a country where black girls and boys are more likely to be suspended or expelled for the same or similar infractions that their white counterparts commit and where hitting puberty creates new fears about being mistaken as a predator like Tamir Rice, I am reluctant to let Lochte and the others off the hook.
Unless they are completely oblivious to US race relations—there is a chance they are that ignorant—they knew that history gives white people the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes at the expense of someone not white.
While Brian Winter, VP for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas said the swimmers recalled locals’ irritation of “gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it,” Mario Andrade, spokesman for the Rio Olympics Organizing Committee called those grown men “kids.” Lochte is 32.
Therein lies the rub: Gabby Douglas, who has proven herself as a woman committed to family, country, and most importantly being the best athlete she can be, doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. She must perform to the exacting standards of an anonymous public that is multi-varied as the colors in a kaleidoscope. She must be more mature than any of us ever could hope to be while Lochte, Conger, Bentz, and Feigen are “kids” who made a mistake.
Rather than pillory someone for how they pay homage to the flag, clap, or style their hair, we should direct our scorn to worthier matters. Gabby Douglas is not here to smile for you.