RIO DE JANEIRO – In the aftermath of the greatest team performance in women’s gymnastics history, the buzz is about … Gabby Douglas’ arm at her side during the national anthem.
Douglas, the Olympic all-around champion at the 2012 London Games, created a stir because she was, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “slumped with her hands held casually in front of her as if she had just finished last.”
Meanwhile, across Olympic Park at the pool, Michael Phelps laughed during the national anthem and it was treated (appropriately) as harmless.
Douglas — who, by the way, is representing her country simply by competing — was accused of being unpatriotic on social media, to such an extent that she felt the need to apologize on Twitter.
“In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played,” she wrote. “I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone. I’m so overwhelmed at what our team accomplished today and overjoyed that we were able to bring home another gold for our country!”
It’s too bad she felt she had to apologize. And it’s too bad this has competed for attention with a truly remarkable fortnight for a group of American women. Perhaps Douglas was completely exhausted after a difficult four years. Perhaps she has some stress or anxiety in her life that the public doesn’t know about. Perhaps she simply forgot to put her hand over her heart. All of those reasons would be justifiable. Yet for some reason, Douglas rarely gets the benefit of the doubt.
Remember what happened in 2012 when Douglas won all-around gold? The conversation on social media back then was about her hair. Four years later, there’s now a story on Allure’s site titled, “People Are Still Talking About Gabby Douglas’s Hair.”
It was worse than that, according to a 2012 story in Vanity Fair. Douglas said she was told by a staff member at her gym “she might want to consider reconstructive surgery on her nose because of its flatness.”
Those are the kind of comments that can undermine confidence and happiness, especially for a teenager in a spotlight that few of us can fathom.
We have no idea what might be going on in Douglas’ life these days. She changed coaches during the U.S. Olympic trials, which was a shock to many in the gymnastics community and a sign of possible turmoil. Still, she made the return trip to the Summer Games, which is an extremely rare feat and one that is celebrated justifiably in the case of Aly Raisman.
It was Raisman who narrowly beat out Douglas at qualifications, meaning Douglas will part with her all-around crown here on Thursday. Douglas’ response to that in the mixed zone was complete support. She said all the right things about Raisman and the team, even though she had just lost.
And still, the critics have come out.
The gymnastics discussion is separate. Disagreement about whether Laurie Hernandez should have been entered in the all-around competition here is valid. There is an argument to be made that Douglas shouldn’t be on the team after her struggles at trials. But that is a sports discussion. Douglas is dealing with personal scrutiny here. And she shouldn’t be.
It wasn’t as if Douglas covered her ears during the anthem or turned her back. Her face, although hardly ebullient, did not convey disdain. There are photos of her smiling during the anthem. And there aren’t even team rules about expression on the podium. Just stand and face the flag. That’s what Douglas did throughout.
And again, this is someone who has competed for her country, in red, white, and blue, in two separate Olympics. This is a team of unprecedented talent and achievement – one that drew raves from opponents after the team all-around competition. Gabby Douglas, like her teammates, has made America look like a winner.
That’s fairly patriotic, no?
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