This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.
Gabby Douglas began the Rio Olympics the same way she began the London Olympics four years ago — with a gold medal in the team competition.
But after that, her Olympic journeys quickly diverged. While in London, Douglas finished on top of the world as the first African American to ever win gold in the all around competition, this year she ended up standing in a corner at the Olympic Arena, facing the wall and sobbing.
Results wise, her tears were understandable. Due to a ridiculous two-competitors-per-country rule, Douglas missed out on a chance to defend her all around title. (She qualified in third place overall, but her teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, who ended up winning gold and silver in the event, both scored higher than she did.) Then on Sunday, her hopes for an individual medal in Rio came to an end when she faltered during her routine in the uneven bars finals, and finished in seventh place.
“I tried to stay off the internet because there’s just so much negativity.”
But Douglas wasn’t crying in the corner because of the way her performances on the mat were judged; rather, she was crying because the judging didn’t stop after her routines did.
In the last week, everything from Douglas’s smile to her hair, her hand placement during the national anthem to her cheering style during Raisman and Biles’ all-around routines, has invited criticism and controversy.
all you need to know about America is that even if a black girl like Gabrielle Douglas wins gold medals she'll be antagonized over nothing
— farwz (@farwzz) August 15, 2016
“I tried to stay off the internet because there’s just so much negativity,” Douglas said on Sunday. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart [on the medal podium] or I look depressed. … It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”
The criticism didn’t just come from anonymous online trolls, either. Bill Plaschke, famed sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, was not impressed with her form on the podium, writing that Douglas was “slouching” and “pouting” as the Final Five received their gold medals on Tuesday.
“Even during moments when she showed a smile, her body language was disconnected,” Plaschke wrote. “The difference in aura with the other American gymnasts was palpable.”
Just like the condemnation Douglas received in London, this round of attacks is rife with thinly-veiled racism and sexism. Only this time, she doesn’t have the individual gold to help deflect them.
If she’s not smiling, she’s angry. If she’s not sparkling, she’s dull. The default is always analysis is always negative, never neutral.
Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, told Reuters that she considers the constant criticisms “bullying.” It has, she said, left Douglas heartbroken.
“She’s had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin. They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn’t smiling enough, she’s unpatriotic. Then it went to not supporting your teammates. Now you’re ‘Crabby Gabby,’” Hawkins said.
“You name it and she got trampled. What did she ever do to anyone?”
Of course, Douglas hasn’t done anything to deserve this treatment. She has quite literally changed the face of the sport. She trailblazed a path for Biles and all African American gymnasts who will come after her. She helped the United States win back-to-back team gold medals in the Olympics for the first time in history.
Douglas could have retired from the sport after 2012, on the peak of the mountain, and indulged in her fame throughout the rest of her teens. Instead, she rededicated herself to the sport and set out to become the first all around champion to repeat at the Olympics since 1968.
Her reputation didn’t earn her a spot in Rio. Her hard work and talent did.
So who cares Douglas didn’t put her hand on her heart during the national anthem? She has spent her entire childhood and young adulthood training and competing for her country, representing the stars and stripes with pride. She has inspired thousands of girls across the nation to take up gymnastics, many of whom likely didn’t know if there was a place in the sport for them until Douglas won gold in London.
And so what if she wasn’t jumping up and down with joy from the stands while watching her two teammates compete for the prize she had dreamed about during so many long and hard practices over the past few years?
According to Biles and Raisman, Douglas spent the morning of the all around competition helping them prepare, and was the first to congratulate them afterwards.
— Gabby Douglas (@gabrielledoug) August 12, 2016
There are no indications that she has ever let her personal disappointment negatively impact the rest of her team. Even on Sunday, after she’d botched her uneven bars routine and before her tear-filled press conference, she was there to congratulate her teammate Madison Kocian as she won silver in the same event. On Monday, she was back in the stands, cheering on Biles and Laurie Hernandez in the balance beam finals.
But Douglas is not a professional cheerleader. She is not required to be bubbly and smiling, gracious and demure at all times. She is a world-class athlete, and an extremely driven, savvy 20-year-old.
Due to the rules of the sport, Douglas is obligated to dance and smile and perform during her gymnastics routines, and to make dangerous, gravity-defying acrobatics look effortless and enjoyable.
Those requirements do not exist outside of competition, and she certainly doesn’t owe us an apology if she doesn’t comply with them. Unfortunately, she felt that she needed to give us one anyways.
“I’ve been through a lot. A lot. Sometimes I sit back and say, ‘Wait. What did I do to disrespect people? What have I done to disrespect the USA?’
“I don’t get that part,” she said. “I’m sorry.”