Five-Ring Circus

Why I’m Proud a Black Gymnast Won Olympic Gold

Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas on the podium after winning the gold medal in the individual all-around final.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Gabby Douglas has become the first black individual all-around gymnastics gold medalist in the Olympics, as well as just the fourth American woman to win the event. (The others: Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, and Nastia Liukin.) I couldn’t be prouder. Sure, Jordyn Wieber, the reigning all-around world champion, came into the games with a lot of hype, but Gabby’s the only one I’ve really been paying attention to. I could say it’s because she’s an amazing athlete (she makes it all look so effortless, like Astaire in his dancing shoes) and that would be partially true. But a big reason why I’ve been cheering so hard for her is that the 16-year-old from Virginia looks like me, and that makes me incredibly happy.

I don’t usually throw my support blindly behind anyone of color, whether they’re athletes or politicians or business owners. In fact, I consciously avoid it since that can lead to ill-informed and naïve decisions. But seeing a young black girl perform such amazing feats in a sport where black faces are so rare has been nothing short of exhilarating, and it makes me throw aside my worries about having a racial bias towards a specific athlete.

If Gabby Douglas ran track or played on the U.S. women’s basketball team, I might not know her name. Because of the sport she’s chosen, her race is a huge part of her identity. After winning the all-around gold, the play-by-play commentator on NBC’s online stream declared it “a wonderful moment for black athletes in gymnastics.” While the entire U.S. gymnastics team faced the intense scrutiny of the media as they tried to win gold, Gabby has to deal with the additional burden of being the only black athlete on the team. In a country where whiteness is dominant but leaves room for other defining characteristics, black Americans more often have to contend with monolithic representations. Black people are this, and black people are that. And black people are not gymnasts.

In her short time in the public eye, Gabby has said everything exactly right. She acknowledges her place in history, but isn’t defined by it. She is focused on maximizing her own performance, but she also hopes to inspire others. In an interview with Seventeen prior to her qualification for the Olympics, she described what going to London would mean to her: “Making the team would mean so much! I’m the youngest one competing and I’m African American. I think that would just inspire people and inspire a nation. I would love to be a role model.”

Now that she has two gold medals, Gabby will have the chance to inspire and influence a generation of young girls. When Dominique Dawes won gold in the team all-around in 1996 as one of Team USA’s Magnificent Seven, Douglas hadn’t yet turned one-year-old. I was only eight, but I knew who Dawes was, and while I never aspired to be a gymnast—I stuck with dance training—I understood her presence in the Olympics was a big deal.

Today, Dawes’ legacy is still very much alive. Her Facebook page is full of tributes like this one:

[My daughter] was only 3 years old when she [watched] you at the Olympics. At that time, she was the only little black girl in her gymnastics class and was excited to see another girl who looked like her on TV and at a gymnastics [meet] (you). She is now attending college at Tuskegee in Alabama. She and I are enjoying watching Gabby and the U.S. team go for Gold. I hope life has been good for you. Blessings to you.

But it goes beyond just wanting to be a gymnast, or watching Cullen Jones and aspiring to become a great swimmer, or even seeing the Williams sisters excel and wanting to play tennis. The reason why I cheer so hard for Gabby Douglas is that she has defied the expectations and stereotypes in her chosen field. By winning gold, she has inspired the rest of us non-athletes to excel on our own, no matter how sparsely represented we may be.