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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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