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Rio 2016: Gabby Douglas’s Olympics experience fits the pattern of how we treat black female athletes

Gabby Douglas.
Gabby Douglas.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Four years ago, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Gabby Douglas became the first black American woman to win gymnastics’ most prestigious title: Olympic individual all-around champion. She was 16 at the time, a bundle of flash and grace in a metallic leotard. Looking back at her best event, the uneven bars, is like watching a superhero use her powers for the first time.

Douglas almost seems uncertain of her own ability, still figuring out how much power to pump into each swing. Her talent is undeniable:

To her competitors and the audience, Douglas was catching so much effortless air that she made her release skills — a beautiful Tkatchev in a piked position and a regular Tkatchev — look like completely different moves than what her competitors were doing. Her dismount, a floaty double layout, was beautiful. And then she hit the landing.

That’s when you see it. Her lightness. Douglas can’t even hold the pose for a second. She doesn’t want to. She unleashes an unapologetic, bright smile, bouncing up and down.

Watching Douglas now, in 2016, it’s striking to realize that that version of Douglas is gone. Her skills are still there. Her bars routine, at the team event final, was the second best of the night.

But Douglas is different now.

At a press conference on Sunday, Douglas was on the verge of tears. Some of it was due to her dismal performance at the event finals, where she finished in seventh place. But Douglas has also had to deal with some challenges that few other American athletes have had to endure at these Olympic Games.

Prior to the Olympics, many questioned whether she should even be on the team. After the team’s gold medal win, Douglas’s hair became the subject of ridicule again, a flashback to 2012. When that subsided, she was told she wasn’t a good American because she didn’t place her hand over her heart during the national anthem. And leading up to the event final for the bars, she had to assure people she was a good teammate because she apparently didn’t appear happy enough in the stands while rooting for teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles.

"When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand up on my heart or me being very salty in the stands, they’re really criticizing me, and it doesn’t really feel good," Douglas said at the conference. "It was a little bit hurtful."

Even though Douglas became (with Raisman) the first American gymnast to win three gold medals over two Olympics (prior to Biles’s vault finals win this weekend), it will apparently never be enough to convince her haters that America should be proud of her. And the way Douglas has been treated is a signal that there will always be people who are unable to handle it when black people, and black women specifically, achieve success.

The hostile double standard that Gabby Douglas faces

Earlier this past week, there was a narrative that Douglas, who has represented the United States in two Olympics and devoted her life to these teams, is an unpatriotic, bad American.

The gist: Douglas didn’t put her hand over her heart when the national anthem was played during Team USA’s medal ceremony, and is therefore a terrible representative of America.

Here’s the double standard.

When the anthem was played during Michael Phelps’s medal ceremony for his win in the 200-meter butterfly, someone chanted "O!" — a tradition in Baltimore that celebrates the Baltimore Orioles (Phelps was born in the city). He began laughing, cracking up on the podium. Yet no one has accused Phelps of hating America.

Douglas and Phelps are two fantastic athletes who represent the United States. Both had different responses to the national anthem. Neither one was a show of disrespect or of some kind of American defiance. But some people are talking about how one is an endearing American hero and how the other, the black athlete, is an unpatriotic disgrace.

"Truth is, they would have found some other reason to hate on her. Sadly, that’s always been the case when it comes to Gabby," sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote at Yahoo. "Some of it is rooted in discomfort, if not outright racism, of the critics."

Wetzel isn’t wrong.

Gabby Douglas isn’t a bad teammate

Douglas apologized to her critics and attempted to quash the national anthem scandal. When she did, another rootless scandal arose: that she wasn’t happy enough for her teammates because of a split-second shot of her on television where she wasn’t smiling.

It’s strange that people would expect a person to apologize for emotions she didn’t have. For emotions projected upon her by viewers. Plus, Douglas is a competitive, high-caliber athlete who missed out on the all-around competition because of a rule that only allows two athletes per country to compete in the eventShe should be angry and competitive. She shouldn’t have to apologize.

Yet she still did.

"I apologize if [I seemed] really mad in the stands," Douglas said in an interview after the finals for the uneven bars on Sunday. "I wasn’t. I was supporting Aly [Raisman and the rest of Team USA]. And I always will support them and respect them in everything they do. I never want anyone to take it as I was jealous or I wanted attention. Never. I support them, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it."

This strange standard that Douglas has been held to and expected to apologize for — from her appearance to her behavior to the behavior that people project upon her — is something that Phelps and athletes like him (white, successful) don’t face. As is the case with Phelps, his anger was even celebrated when "Phelps face" became a meme and he wagged his finger at rival Chad le Clos.

Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’s mother, addressed Douglas’s haters in an interview with Reuters.

"She's [Douglas] had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin," Hawkins said. "They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn't smiling enough, she's unpatriotic. Then it went to not supporting your teammates."

Some of the petty criticism could be informed by the way Olympic gymnastics attracts a lot of non-sports fans who treat it — and tweet about it — like it’s reality television, and are encouraged by NBC’s coverage and the tired narratives it focuses on.

But the volume and intensity of the vitriol directed at Douglas fits a larger pattern wherein black female athletes, like her teammate Simone Biles and tennis great Serena Williams, are mistreated.

What Douglas has had to deal with is sexism and racism. And no matter how many time she apologizes, no matter what expression is on her face or how she holds herself during an anthem, it will never be good enough for the people who have already made up their minds about her.

Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles aren’t unlike Serena Williams

One major difference between 2016 and 2012 is that Douglas isn’t the only black American female gymnast who’s winning.

With Simone Biles’s win in the OIympic gymnastics individual all-around, it marks the first time that two black women have won the event — considered the most prestigious title in gymnastics — in a row. It’s just like Biles’s World Championship win in 2013, which followed Douglas’s Olympic win — the first time two black women won back-to-back all-arounds in the Olympics and World Championships.

Gymnastics right now isn’t unlike tennis when the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, first came on the scene in the late '90s. The Williams sisters’ success was met with outright attacks (see: Indian Wells), and their behavior was constantly scrutinized. They were considered too cocky (tennis great Martina Navratilova said they were "afraid to show any kind of humility"). Their bodies were lampooned.

"Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black," rival Martina Hingis said at the US Open in 2001.

When Biles won that 2013 World Championship, one of her competitors said something similar.

"I told [fellow gymnast Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too," Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito told the Italian media in the wake of Biles’s victory.

The toxic mix of harassment and respectability politics that Douglas and Biles face (though to a lesser extent when it comes to Biles’s behavior) is something that other gymnasts don’t experience. But it fits the frame of Serena Williams’s professional career.

Throughout Williams’s career, as my colleague Jenée Desmond-Harris explained last year, she’s had to deal with racist and sexist attacks. From being called a gorilla to being called the n-word at a tournament, from getting her body picked apart to being called a man, Williams’s career is punctuated with harassment.

"The racism that underlies the characterizations of [Williams] as hypersexual, aggressive, and animalistic also means that when she dares to express frustration, she's stamped with the infamous 'angry black woman' stereotype," Desmond-Harris wrote.

Dealing with this isn’t easy — just look at Williams’s mixed results.

But Gabby Douglas doesn’t have the luxury of competing in a sport like Serena. Williams has four grand slams, and year after year in which to compete. Douglas's sport comes in four-year bursts, and this was the last time she got to be on the biggest stage.

It's a shame she had to carry the mess of these fake controversies into the competition with her.

It’s hard to see Douglas’s performance in the uneven bar finals — seventh place — after scoring the second-best score on the event in the team finals, and not want to write a better result for her. One that’s free from all the treatment she’s had to deal with this past week. One that an athlete like Gabby Douglas deserves. One that we afford to every other American athlete.

Every win by Serena Williams comes with racism and sexism

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