Gymnastics, Media, Olympics

Gymnastics and the Narrative of Criticism

It took me a while to get my thoughts together on this particular topic. It’s one with a ton of levels, and one you can only scratch the surface of in a blog post.

In thinking about the criticism Gabby Douglas has been forced to endure this past week, I noticed something about “new media” coverage of women U.S. Olympic gymnasts. Since 2004, at least 1 member of every team has been unfairly criticized in the press for no good reason.

2004: Courtney Kupets got criticized for “putting her personal interests above the team” when she couldn’t compete her beam routine in team finals due to an injury that flared up, and competed in individual finals later that week. The outlet neglected to highlight the fact she competed on floor in the rotation following beam.

2008: Alicia Sacramone got blamed for being the main cause for not winning the team gold – a medal the U.S. likely wasn’t going to win without massive help from China. She recently did an interview saying people found her college email to continue harassing her months afterward.

2012: A number of outlets tried calling Jordyn Wieber’s Olympics a “failure” because she missed the all-around final, despite placing 4th in qualifications and being 2-per-countried out. Plus, there were the critiques of Gabby’s appearance.

(It should be noted, you could go further back. The 2000 team didn’t get much love in the press, and it’s well documented the struggle members of the 1992 team have endured to see their bronze as an accomplishment and not a “failure” as they were led to believe. Even for all the success of the 1996 team, I remember some unkind words after the all-around final directed towards the 3 gymnasts who competed.)

And for Rio, like clockwork, the trolls have been out for gymnasts from virtually every country. Expected, but disheartening and no less disappointing.

But for Gabby, the stones cast come from so many directions that it makes her case special.

First off, her performance was fine. From a pure gymnastics sense, her comeback was 100% amazing. She is the first women’s Olympic all-around champion to return to the Olympics since 1980 and should be applauded for regaining her international competition form.

The off-the-mat stuff is where the whirlwind is happening. Granted, because Gabby is a black woman in America her actions (and perceived errors) are magnified.

Truth be told, I’ve been watching the competition via the online live streams during the day with gym fans instead of during the prime time TV coverage with the more mainstream audience. Because of this, I’ve probably missed some talking points.

I was sad to see talk return to her hair. I didn’t see much “new” hair criticism per se, rather a rehashing of 2012 and people realizing how deep those moments cut them as well. I think the hair talk could’ve been brushed off if that were all — but not in combination with the hits that came next.

The blowup about her not having her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony for the team gold medal was truly out of proportion. No, I don’t think there was any meaning behind it or that it was some kind of stand being taken. Just a 20-year-old in the moment of fulfilling a dream that had a detail slide. Might I add, a detail that technically isn’t even protocol for the national anthem. In the U.S., placing your hand over you heart is only protocol for the pledge of allegiance.

Admittedly, when I first saw the footage of the team cheering for Simone Biles and Aly Raisman during the all-around final and Gabby being comparatively reserved and aloof, I knew someone somewhere was going to say something. But, isn’t it possible that Gabby is just a person that doesn’t show emotion outwardly like the others who were around her in that moment? Or maybe there was something else on her mind unrelated to what was going on in the moment? No one really knows except her.

I guess if you’re trying to pull a lesson from this mess, it might be a lesson in framing.

The framing of her comeback by those around her appears to have been mishandled. This time around her position on the team was more of a role player. The words “repeat” or “defend” shouldn’t have been used at all. Not with Simone around. The talk from her camp created an expectation she couldn’t get back to.

She and Simone occupy largely the same lane in mainstream perception. Comparisons were inevitable, but the expectations could’ve been tempered better. If there’s one thing the general American sports populace loves more than success, it’s riffing on (or flat tearing down) those who don’t reach expectations.

In addition, many have remarked about her seeming detached. As the New York Times said, she is “Gabby, Inc.” She is the breadwinner and main source of family income. She may not admit it, but seeing her market potential decline in recent months has been weighing on her. You could see her demeanor flip in the short span of time it took to get from the Secret Classic in early June to Olympic Trials in July, where she was quoted as saying “I lost the joy. I forgot what it means to go out and have fun, and it’s catching up.”

(As an aside, that was the moment a lot of gym fans, myself included, started feeling really bad for her. We were seeing a young woman being thrust into a situation she couldn’t win.)

As alluded to above, the attacks on Gabby also are an example the societal construct of American media — and not just in sports. Look at the political process. Look at a number of TV shows that do well. Look at the news, “if it bleeds, it leads.” When it comes to media consumption, America as a whole leans toward sensational.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what exactly needs to change, but it’s obvious mainstream media needs to take more care when writing about gymnasts during the Olympics — and maybe just in its general reporting as well.


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