2012 London Olympics Race-Fail Roundup

5 years ago

One of the downsides of the immediacy of news in our fast-paced, technology-driven world is access to too much information and too many opinions from too many people. While watching the 2012 London Olympics, people comment on anything and everything -- including some things that reveal the real state of race relations in the world.

The first race-fail emerged before Gabrielle Douglas even hit the gym floor. The African-American 16-year old gymnast--who was scheduled to compete in more events than her four other team members--was cut out of the camera’s eye and her image was not included in publications after the women’s artistic gymnastic competition, in which Douglas’s performance accounted for one-third of the points and led the team to a gold medal, the media focused more on World Champion Jordyn Wieber, who did not qualify to the individual all-around final competition:

That Wieber had been bested by Douglas long before the Olympics began didn’t change the narrative. Wieber was expected to right that wrong by winning individual gold in London. She was the expected favorite, the media’s chosen one. Yet, as Douglas consistently scored more points than her teammates on apparatus after apparatus, the announcers were stuck with their tired talking points about Douglas’ inconsistency, her nerves, her lack of focus. They could muster no observation about Douglas and what she was doing, other than to note her brilliant smile.

Despite being the only member to compete in all four events and outscoring her teammates on an individual basis, sports commentators downplayed Gabby’s high scores, were silent when it was obvious she had captured the two scores in two of the events, but openly wondered if she could handle the pressure. From Crunk Feminist Quarterly:

(But ) I take serious issue with the media’s coverage of her accomplishments and the sense of white entitlement that permeates that coverage. The coverage magnifies Jordyn’s victories, while minimizing Gabby’s. And it isn’t right. Not to mention that it is classic passive aggressive white racism. (Yeah, I said it.) The kind that injures not by heaping insults but by failing to grant recognition, when it has power to do so.



Aug. 2, 2012 - London, England, United Kingdom - GABRIELLE DOUGLAS, (USA) waves to the crowd after she won the Gold medal in Women's Individual All-Around in the London Olympics 2012 at the North Greenwich Arena. (Credit Image: © Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMAPRESS.com)


Between the success of the team in the Women’s Team Final and Douglas’s win for Individual All-Around Title, the media started acknowledge her, but Internet commenters latched onto another perceived problem (outside of her being Black and being an extremely successful underdog) - her hair:

The self-anointed hair police -- women and men -- have taken to social media sites to complain that Douglas' hair was unkempt during her performances. That she should have gotten it "done" knowing that she would be "representing" black people on an international stage.It appears that some folks had an issue with the fact that the texture of Douglas' hair near her hairline -- which they dubbed "kinky" -- did not match the straightness of her ponytail. With chemically straightened hair, as Douglas' appears to be, hair purists consider it bad grooming if the whole head is not all one texture.


The race-fails were not just perpetrated by non-Blacks; Douglas was publicly torn down by people within her own community. My fellow blogger Tami Winfrey Harris describes this as respectability politics:

Respectability politics work to counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems “respectable.” The approach emerged in reaction to white racism that labeled blackness as “other”—degenerate and substandard—with roots in an assimilationist narrative that prevailed in the late-19th-century United States. Black activists and allies believed that acceptance and respect for African-Americans would come by showing the majority culture “we are just like you.”.......An oppressed community can implicitly endorse deeply flawed values, including many that form the foundation of their own oppression.


Criticisms of Douglas’s hair appeared on Twitter, Facebook and countless blogs and websites that cater to women. While some prayed that this mindless and trivial gossip wouldn’t get back to her, she responded to the Huffington Post about the comments:

The 16-year-old said Sunday she was a little confused when she logged onto her computer after winning her second gold medal in three days and discovered people were debating her pulled-back look.

"I don't know where this is coming from. What's wrong with my hair?" said Douglas, the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in team and all-around competition. "I'm like, `I just made history and people are focused on my hair?' It can be bald or short, it doesn't matter about (my) hair."

Unfortunately Douglas’s mother, Valerie Hawkins, who was publicly humiliated when not only her turbulent financial history was reported, her impending divorce and the rumours that Douglas’s father is an ‘absentee parent’ (he is actually a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard deployed overseas) raised another bone of contention that some commenters had previously noted. How is a Black girl in a predominately White sport going to represent Black womanhood? Was she somehow tainted? While training in Iowa, Douglas lives with a white host family, which, according to her mother, is why her hair might not look as some would like it to be:

"She lives with a white host family and they don’t know anything about taking care of her hair," said Hawkins. "And there’s no black salons in their area [in Iowa] –- not one. We had to work really hard to find a stylist to come and do her hair."

Douglas wasn’t the only Black athlete to be criticized. Elated after her first Gold in women’s individual tennis, Serena Williams was judged after her ‘Crip Walk’ which, as Yahoo Sports asserts, is a “short dance move popularized by gang members in her hometown of Compton.” It is also very common in satirical west-coast hip-hop videos, and to viewers who saw the humorin her silliness. However, blogger Debbie Shlusselfeels that there is a conspiracy going on - that Williams was glorifying gang violence!:

But I’ll tell you what you won’t see these same Black Twitter users attacking: Serena Williams very unclassy “Crip Walk”–a dance done by Crip gang members, er . . . I mean, “gangstaz.” Yup, that’s what we need representing America, a Gold Medalist who, upon winning, glorifies hardened criminals who murder each other–and innocent Americans–for sport.


Even popular veteran commentator, NBC’s Matt Lauer’s wasn’t without a flub. He called Meredith Viera an 'Indian-Giver' after she attempted to take back a pair of Stella McCartney Olympic panties she handed to him. The National Congress of Indian Americans responded with this:

Mr. Lauer’s misinformed choice of words reinforces archaic and hurtful racial stereotypes that date back to colonial America. Early commerce between tribal nations and colonial settlers required the value of goods exchanged to be of equal or greater value, or the trade was not deemed acceptable. Some colonial traders who did not uphold this ethic used this phrase to discredit tribal nations and Native traders. Now, the pejorative phrase has become associated with a person who takes back a gift. This misrepresents the original and modern cultural values of Native Americans, based on fair trade, sharing, and empowering those around them.


What is supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, not just for viewers but also for competitors, The 2012 London Olympics has turned out to reflect the ugly realities that, in a perfect world, it would be nice if we could put them aside for two weeks. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: My apologies, I did not mention the number of controversies surrounding the Chinese athletes at the games. Please read blogger Sarah Keenan's report. 

Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

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