The White World of Sports: What Gabby Douglas’ vault into Olympic history means

Late last night, minutes after NBC aired the much-anticipated cuticle-picker that was the Olympic women's all-around gymnastics finals—hours after the event actually took place, of course—the broadcast director cut from an on-floor interview with gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas to a broadcast booth somewhere nearby. In it sat longtime NBC commentator and sports journalism veteran Bob Costas, his prime-time-friendly, man-child hairdo in perfect position.

"You know, it's a happy measure of how far we've come that it doesn't seem all that remarkable, but still it's noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women's all-around in gymnastics," Costas intoned, his besuited left elbow resting comfortably on the anchor desk. "The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself."

In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president of the United States) is often called into question, Costas's scripted deep thought—his "little homily,” as one Twitterer called it—was at worst dishonest, at best naive. What leveled barriers, I wondered, was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered of cultural observers—the type who assert the legitimacy of phrases like "post-racial"—would believe that Gabby Douglas' challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by pretty much any news story or feature profile on the 16-year old gymnast, all of which make no secret of the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics? "Bob Costas just re-affirmed that the success of a black person means we're not racist anymore. THANK GOD THAT'S OVER," wrote the political writer Ana Marie Cox. A few moments later she offered a revision of sorts: "Ok what he said was 'a barrier has fallen' or somesuch but one person over the wall does not a fallen barrier make. TAKES NOTHING FROM GABS."

Costas, of course, did have a point: Our ideas about ourselves, no matter our color, often prove as limiting and toxic as the external and institutional roadblocks put in our way. But you can't have one without the other. In this, Douglas' triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically "white" sport.

On that last point: In January, a fact sheet released by the National Women's Law Center reported that less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three-quarters of Caucasian girls do. And a 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61 percent of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black (10.67 percent are Asian and 74.46 percent are Caucasian). Members of USA Gymnastics—coaches, judges or athletes who participate in its sanctioned events—responded to (and within) the survey in a variety of ways, many of them unsympathetic: "This is just another example of political correctness gone CRAZY!" Said another: "As a middle class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any "reach out" programs to me and my family?" And another advised: "Start programs in low income areas. Once people understand you don't have to be a rocket scientist to teach and coach gymnastics, it will flourish. We are too elitist to appeal to the masses."

Elitist? Perhaps. White? Definitely. Speaking of aerospace experts, it also doesn't take an authority on modern propulsion methods to notice that coverage of this first week of the 2012 Olympics has been an overwhelmingly homogenous one. Douglas, her fellow gymnast John Orozco and other Olympians like freestyle swimmer Cullen Jones notwithstanding, the focus on fan favorites like gymnastics and swimming has underscored just how few Americans of color make up the ranks of the non-track-and-field elite. (And don't get me started on crew.) This, of course, is a function of both access and opportunity, and it starts early; as the NWLC report put it, "girls, particularly girls of color, receive far fewer opportunities to play sports than do boys, as well as inferior treatment in areas such as equipment, facilities, coaching and publicity." Doesn't sound to me like so many barriers have been felled after all.

That said, I'm sympathetic to what I suspect Costas tried—and failed—to articulate last night, which is to say, the sometimes contradictory desire to both celebrate history being made and live in a world in which achievements like Douglas' seem ordinary, or, at the very least, unsurprising. But we're not there yet, despite Costas' assertions (protestations?) of societal colorblindness. These competing tensions were evident in today's newspapers—a quick scan of the front pages of the largest papers in the country revealed that only a handful of headlines led with the historic nature of Douglas’ achievement; most others alluded to it or didn’t mention it at all—and in Douglas herself, whose level of fame has risen in direct proportion to the vagueness of her public statements. ("I have an advantage because I'm the underdog and I'm black and no one thinks I'd ever win," she matter-of-factly told a reporter in June. On Friday morning, she watered that down for the "Today" show’s Savannah Guthrie, saying, "Making the history books is definitely one of the perks, and it just feels amazing.”)

But whether or not Douglas directly acknowledges and unpacks the burden of representation that comes with her achievement—and I'm by no means convinced that she owes it to anyone to do so—she "carries the aspirations and expectations of countless others," as The Nation's Dave Zirin put it Thursday night. Her two medals have the potential not only to inspire millions of young girls around the world but also to influence American ideas about what it means to be a "golden girl." (Douglas, who is the first American gymnast to win both the all-around and team gold medals in the same Olympics, will reportedly appear on the box of a special edition of Kellogg's cornflakes.) The 16-year-old's triumph—not to mention her poise, her maturity, her focus, her elegance—will help recalibrate what young females of color believe is within their reach, while also influencing Western ideas and concepts of black womanhood, strength, agency and femininity—which has been historically objectified, sexualized and, it should be noted, feared. (Remember French ice skater Surya Bonaly?) The hope, at least in these quarters, is that Gabby Douglas' all-around triumph is also an all-American one.