By Angela Vega
As the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio came to a close, the world celebrated countless athletic achievements, outstanding displays of teamwork, moving personal narratives, and inspiring examples of hard work finally paying off.
However, with thorough coverage during the 16 day event, it became evident that the quadrennial celebration laid more upon its Olympic winning podiums than just gold, silver, and bronze medalists.
With this year’s Summer Olympics arose daily discourse on race, gender, and class. As a result, the lighthearted and enjoyable summer event was no exception to the numerous negative effects of institutionalized racism and inequality we see daily.
American gymnast, Gabby Douglas, came under fire in the first week of the Olympic Games for reasons few other athletes had to undergo. Despite being the first African-American woman to hold up the American flag as an individual gymnastics gold medalist, Douglas’ victories and medals were forgotten amidst discussions regarding the appearance and texture of her hair.
“When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand up on my heart or me being very salty in the stands, they’re really criticizing me. It was a little bit hurtful,” Douglas said.
On the verge of tears, Douglas expressed the many challenges she faced in that first week. Finishing in seventh place during the finals for uneven bars, Douglas displayed one of her weakest performances the Olympics. However, on top of that were criticisms viewers observed as racially motivated and uncalled for.
“That phrase [on Douglas’ hair] elicits in every American black woman a particularly dehumanizing and existential dread — a fear, a state of mind, a poison distilled from over 400 years of not having ‘good-enough’ hair,” ESPN style writer, Jill Hudson, said.
Criticism against Douglas, however, did not stop there. She was later accused of an attitude problem after showing a lack of enthusiasm in the stands, along with forgetting to place her hand over her heart during the National Anthem.
Viewers categorized the comments against Douglas as one of many systemic and historic jabs against black women and their portrayal in the world. After putting Douglas’ situation side by side with that of white American athletes such as Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, viewers were able to distinguish signs of white privilege and racism within these issues.
After Lochte’s dishonesty and vandalism scandal during the latter end of the Olympics, the media was quick to defend his unlawful actions as an adult white man, but were fast to dehumanize several young African-American female athletes for trivial reasons.
This, is not the first time the mistreatment of black women in sports has been so apparent. In 2012, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito argued that Simone Biles’ gold medal was merely a result of her skin color.
Later on, Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli, made remarks about the physique of black swimmers and their supposed inability to become good swimmers due to their lack of buoyancy. These comments, however, made the gold medal achieved by SimoneManuel this summer all the more revolutionary as she became the first African-American woman in the Olympics to earn an individual swimming gold medal.
The 2016 Summer Olympics offered spectacular achievements committed by hardworking athletes. On the other hand, daily microaggressions against black men and women has showed the ways in which an Olympic competitor can quickly become an easy target of everyday instances of racism.