Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Speaks Out, Is Smacked Down

After US gymnast Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas made history after becoming the first person of African descent to win individual Olympic gold, I wrote that whether willingly or not she had joined the pantheon of political athletes. When it comes to “jocks for justice” there are two broad categories: “the explicit” and “the representative.” “The explicit” are people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Steve Nash: athletes who explicitly used their cultural capital to make political stands. The “representative” are those who become political symbols because they were trailblazers in their respective sports. Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Greg Louganis don’t necessarily have a record of political stands, but by virtue of their talent and ability to break through barriers, they carry the aspirations of countless others. Well, Gabrielle Douglas, is, at age 16, making a transition to being more explicit. She’s also learning that this comes with a price.

In the blush of Olympic Gold, the Washington Post wrote the following: “Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought.”

Now in the Olympics aftermath, she has come forward to say that others have chosen to see it for her. Ms. Douglas recounted her experiences with bullying and racism at the Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Oprah Winfrey. She said, “One of my teammates was like, ‘Can you scrape the bar?’ And they were like, ‘Why doesn’t Gabby do it, she’s our slave?’ I definitely felt isolated, I felt ‘Why am I deserving this? Is it because I’m black?’ I was scared at my old gym to show my potential.… I was just holding back.” She also shared that it was an atmosphere where, “I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out.”

Douglas should be praised for speaking out about what she faced. But instead it’s earning an outrageous response.

Randy Stageberg, a world-class gymnast who trained at Excalibur, said, “The accusations that are being made against the gymnasts and coaches are just sickening…. Gabby was never a victim. In fact, many would say she was one of the favorites…. funny how it is just now coming up.”

What gives Stageburg the paranormal ability to account for discussions she didn’t witness, she does not disclose.

Excalibur Gymnastics CEO Gustavo Maure also accused Douglas of being “a liar.” “Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake.”

Another gymnast, Kristina Coccia, defended Excalibur by saying there was no racism at the gym and then followed up with this whammy: “What Gabby is saying makes me sick. She should stop playing the victim and pay back the money she owes.” (There is no mention of what money Ms. Coccia is referring to or why that would be any of her concern.)

The response by Excalibur Gyms frankly speaks for itself. It also doesn’t pass any kind of a smell test. Generations of black athletes have learned that speaking out about racism is the fastest route to commercial obsolescence. You don’t see Curt Flood on the Wheaties Box.

As Gabrielle Douglas aims to become a massive crossover commercial star, there is no compelling reason for her to speak about these experiences unless they’re true and she hopes to make it easier for the next “outsider” who comes to the gym. As for Excalibur Gym, the I would just say that based on experience of living in the area, the possibility that there could be people with racist ideas in Virginia Beach is like saying Seattle has the possibility of rain.

The people at Excalibur could have and should have said, “We’re aware that racism is a problem in our world and in our state. We aim to provide as nurturing an environment as possible and will continue to work to be better.” Instead, Gabrielle Douglas is “a liar” “playing the victim” and makes people “sick.” To put it mildly, the people defending Excalibur aren’t doing themselves any favors. In fact, they seem intent on proving Ms. Douglas’s point: that Excalibur Gymnasium has more than its share of bullies.

6 Reader Comments | Add a comment

solid

I really appreciate the defending of Gabby. At 16, she's still growing up and the hate mail she's receiving is inexplicable. I'm not surprised about Excalibur trying to save themselves, but the comments from competitors/fellow alumni are very close minded and shocking.
What I think you should talk more about in these articles is how the reaction of institution and peers will shape these young athletes as they grow up. Will Gabby remember all of this hate mail the next time she speaks out? Or will there even be a next time?

solid

Great point Miro. I am in total agreement with you

so because you lived in VA Beach,

any and all unsubstantiated claims about racism should never be questioned. Good to know. And I'm sorry, from a business perspective, to think there is no benefit to a potential revision of what happened (or didn't) at Excalibur is rather ignorant. You don't think a "look what I had to endure" narrative wouldn't benefit Gabby? I have no idea what she is saying is true or not, and I probably wouldn't have responded in the same manner, but to say they should sit on their hands when their reputation is at stake is quite ridiculous.

Gator misses the point

@gator32301, you seem to have missed the point completely. This people didn't defend their business, they attacked a minor. She didn't identify anyone specifically, yet they were specific with their claims against her. They're response to her is analogous to calling a female rape victim a slut, or what she asked for it. Racism still exissts, particularly in the form of individual prejudice. I would say it is somehwhat omnipresent below the mason-dixon line. Would you also defend a school where a student is bullied? I'm baffled by your lack of compassion for a young girl who spoke her mind and shared her prior experiences. The response that Dave Z modeled would have been appropriate. What was actually said about her shows the true colors of this facility. Your response gator shows yours as well

true colors

@Julio: Be careful of stereotyping an entire region of the country, at risk of showing your true colors yourself.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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