Late last night, minutes after NBC aired the much-anticipated cuticle-picker that was the Olympic women’s all-around gymnastics finals—hours after the event actually took place, of course—the broadcast director cut from an on-floor interview with gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas to a broadcast booth somewhere nearby. In it sat longtime NBC commentator and sports journalism veteran Bob Costas, his prime-time-friendly, man-child hairdo in perfect position.
“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics,” Costas intoned, his besuited left elbow resting comfortably on the anchor desk. “The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”
In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president of the United States) is often called into question, Costas’s scripted deep thought—his “little homily,” as one Twitterer called it—was at worst dishonest, at best naive. What leveled barriers, I wondered, was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered of cultural observers—the type who assert the legitimacy of phrases like “post-racial”—would believe that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by pretty much any news story or feature profile on the 16-year old gymnast, all of which make no secret of the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics? “Bob Costas just re-affirmed that the success of a black person means we’re not racist anymore.THANK GOD THAT’S OVER,” wrote the political writer Ana Marie Cox. A few moments later she offered a revision of sorts: “Ok what he said was ‘a barrier has fallen’ or somesuch but one person over the wall does not a fallen barrier make. TAKES NOTHING FROM GABS.”
Costas, of course, did have a point: Our ideas about ourselves, no matter our color, often prove as limiting and toxic as the external and institutional roadblocks put in our way. But you can’t have one without the other. In this, Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically “white” sport.
On that last point: In January, a fact sheet released by the National Women’s Law Center reported that less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three-quarters of Caucasian girls do. And a 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61 percent of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black (10.67 percent are Asian and 74.46 percent are Caucasian). Members of USA Gymnastics—coaches, judges or athletes who participate in its sanctioned events—responded to (and within) the survey in a variety of ways, many of them unsympathetic: “This is just another example of political correctness gone CRAZY!” Said another: “As a middle class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any “reach out” programs to me and my family?” And another advised: “Start programs in low income areas. Once people understand you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to teach and coach gymnastics, it will flourish. We are too elitist to appeal to the masses.”
Read the rest:
U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s individual all-around competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in London
By Anna Holmes. Anna Holmes is the founder of Jezebel.com. She’s also the author of “Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair.” (Ballantine, 2002)