Why the Women's Gymnastics Team's Greatness Is Revolutionary

Athletic exceptionalism as a political statement

The U.S. Women's Gymnastics team Credit: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

It's understandable if you have a difficult time trying to find the words to describe the performance Simone Biles put on during the 2013 World Championship. Words escape the best of us. Watching the mix of power, near flawless handling of difficult dismounts, and the sheer joy that infuses her performance it's easy to see why she's the most decorated American gymnasts in World Championship history and why she'll be representing the United States at this year's Olympics. She's reached heights and pulled off tricky moves like her signature "Biles" double flip that has led her to be considered the most talented gymnast in the history of the sport


But Biles' rise to greatness isn't just remarkable for her skills and the amount of medals she has gained in just a few short years – but for her identity as well given how short-lived the history of women of color in gymnastics is. Alongside Laurie Hernandez, of Puerto Rican descent, and fellow African-American Gabby Douglas, Biles represents the most diverse U.S. women's gymnastics team in Olympics history at a time when diversity and the safety of people of color is at the forefront of the national conversation. 

A few days before the team was announced, Philando Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and fatally shot by police. The video of Castile bleeding to death is recorded and put on Facebook by his girlfriend who was in the car with him. In the same month Melissa Ventura – a mother of three with a history of mental illness – was shot and killed by two sheriff deputies in Arizona responding to a domestic disturbance. These events and the ones like them that preceded them may seem to have little in common to one another, but they exist on a continuum that demonstrates the value American culture puts on black and brown bodies. These girls are symbols not only of their own dreams but those of their coaches, families, and as Olympians, their country. The image of these women of color being the best in their field make the racism of this country and the sport of gymnastics even more starkly apparent.

Every generation has its revolutionary athletes who make their name at the Olympics, ones who truly redefine a sport with their skills and sheer presence while bringing to the surface the complex politics of America itself; from Muhammad Ali in 1960 to Florence Griffith Joyner blazing a trail at the 1988 Olympics. Laurie Hernandez is the first U.S. born Latina to be part of the Olympic team since Tracee Talavera in 1984. It was only in 1996 that Dominique Dawes became the first black woman to win an individual medal in artistic gymnastics. Four years earlier Dawes and teammate Betty Okino became the first black women to win Olympic gymnastics medals. 

Even today, while watching gymnastics, you'll often hear how "the Russian look is preferred." The genesis of this term isn't clear. But in the mid-1970s the sport went through a revolution led by gymnasts like the Romanian Nadia Comăneci. More aptly, in her book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes sportswriter Joan Ryan attributes the changing expectations and aesthetics of the sport to Romanian "Béla Károlyi and his wife, Márta, whose relocation to the U.S. in 1981 helped lift American women's gymnastics to new heights, in part by extending the ruthlessly authoritarian approach Károlyi had honed at home." From an article in The Atlantic Comăneci goes as far to say, "Béla single-handedly refashioned the U.S. system of gymnastics."

"The Russian look" is a coded way that gymnastics upholds the image of white, blonde, extremely young girls as aspirational. Black athletes, no matter the sport, are often remarked upon as not being "elegant," "refined" or "graceful" despite their actual performance and style. Serena Williams is the most obvious example of this dynamic. But Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner, considered the fastest women of her time, also dealt with intense scrutiny during the late 1980s on her fashion choices, physicality, and whether or not she ever used steroids. The nexus of desires within gymnastics and their racialized underpinnings are brought to light in the face of Douglas' and Biles' success.

The history of black women in gymnastics may be frustratingly recent, but the racial dynamics of what they represent to the sport are deeply ingrained in how America treats the skills of people of color as transcendent while positing that these talents are only due to their race. There is a profound disconnect in witnessing black gymnasts like Biles and Douglas praised for their talents on a global stage while the very country they're representing doesn't recognize the humanity of the men and women who look like them. It is one of the starkest representations of how America has always treated black and brown bodies. Black bodies are especially exoticized, commodified and denigrated. To be a black woman is to learn all too young that the farther away from whiteness – an intrinsic ideal of gymnastics – the less desirable, the less feminine you'll be considered. This dynamic is especially apparent in the career of Serena Williams who has, in the past, been insultingly described as "masculine" – which is, sadly, one of the least offensive insults lobbed at one of the greatest tennis players ever on a regular basis. 

To be a black woman in America is to understand that when Douglas racked up her many achievements in 2012 – including winning the gold medal in the individual all-around becoming the first black woman as well as woman of color of any nationality to reach that goal – she was viciously critiqued for her hair not being presentable. Never mind that she's an athlete not a model. Never mind that her hair looks just fine and works in the ways it needs to. Of course, for black women hair is never just hair – it's weighted by politics and hierarchies outside of our control. To be a black woman in America is to be told subtly, regularly, even loudly that being great is never good enough. To be a black woman in America is to be told you must be quiet in the face of racism lest you be damned for your anger no matter how just. 

But even when black excellence is acknowledged, it's rarely respected. Being excellent did not protect former Olympian John Carlos from the backlash of raising his fist as a symbol of black activism during the 1968 Olympics. Being excellent, nay the best in her field, hasn't protected Serena Williams from the confluence of sexism and racism that has colored her career or how she trails behind Maria Sharapova in spokesperson deals despite being the better player. Being excellent hasn't and won't protect Biles, Douglas, or Hernandez from the confluence of racial critiques and expectations they deal with.

The criticism of Douglas extends beyond her hair to her performance. There has been a larger conversation in regards to what direction gymnastics is going as a sport. A false dichotomy has formed between two forms – "artistic, elegant" and one that hinges on "power." The two are of course not mutually exclusive. But they have become a veiled way to discuss what kind of players deserve praise. For Deadspin, Dvora Meyers wrote, "[A]rtistic" or "artistry" is coded language for body type. Lithe and flexible gymnasts are routinely called "artistic" regardless of how well they dance or engage with the music or audience. Short, muscular gymnasts such as former Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson or Biles are not considered "artistic" regardless of how they move or connect. (I've seen Biles perform live twice now—she can really sell a routine.)” But this terminology has also quickly become more than a way to hit at different body types but race.

When Carlotta Ferlitto placed 11th to Biles' First during the 2013 Word Championships, the Italian gymnast had the bright idea to say on video that she told her teammate "next time we should also paint our skin black so we could win too." The idea that being black is an advantage in gymnastics is already ridiculous considering the history of the sport without having to bring black face into it. And if the changes of the sport were really benefitting black players (as if they all have the same style and skills) wouldn't we be seeing more of them on the international stage? It gets worse. The spokesperson for the Italian Gymnastics Federation David Ciaralli defended Ferlitto positing, "Is gymnastics suiting colored features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?" Biles’ father criticized the racist comments saying, "normally not in her favor being black, at least not in the world we live in."

"Everybody wanna be a black girl but nobody wanna be a black girl," as the writer Doreen St. Felix put it. How else can you explain the underpinnings of Ciaralli and Ferlitto's statements? What Ferlitto says suggests that the reason for Biles' success isn't her training, determination or talent, but her blackness as if anyone mediocre could get to that position as an athlete let alone be considered the best of her generation. Ciaralli also conflates Biles and Douglas. But if you've watched their routines his comments become even more ridiculous as they conflate the technique of two very different gymnasts on race alone.

Take a look at their floor routines during this year's Olympic Gymnastics trials. While Douglas prizes incorporating a sort of fun, flirty dance style with a grace that is more traditional, Biles prefers tricks and, yes, power. Meyers puts it well writing, "Douglas possesses the lithe "European" physique of which Ciaralli is so enamored. She could pull off difficult moves on floor and vault, but was not considered unusually powerful. He strongest apparatus was the uneven bars, an event that demands greater technique and finesse. Biles, on the other hand, is absolutely a power gymnast."

While Hernandez doesn't deal with the same level of racially coded criticisms surrounding her looks or performance she’s very aware of what it means for a Latina to be on a global stage. In an interview with The Guardian she said, "I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles."

All three girls are aware of what it means to be where they are, what greatness means when it has to be fought for on so many levels. Douglas, in a 2012 interview with Oprah, even went as far to openly discuss the racism she was targeted with by her peers when training at a Virginia gym. "I was the only African-American at that gym. I definitely felt isolated. Why am I deserving this? Is it because I’m black? – those thoughts were going through my mind," Douglas said.

The mere presence of Hernandez, Biles and Douglas on this level of the sport chips away at the racist expectations. It means fans, coaches and judges have to face the racism that has underscored gymnastics. Their continued success means America must face what it means to enjoy the skills of black performers and athletes who in their own home country deal with bigotry on a daily basis. While none of the gymnasts have directly commented on police brutality they are aware of what it means for them specifically and the communities they come from to be on such a global stage for their talent and determination. Douglas once said, "Because the sport is predominately a white sport, so I'm glad that I'm seeing more African-Americans out there. No matter what race you are, no matter what nationality you are, you always should pursue your dream." 

Biles feels a bit differently. She's aware of the optics of being the first black girl to reach her heights but says, "I just do my gymnastics because I like to have fun. I don’t bring race into it." The mere presence of these three girls of color dominating a sport that implicitly and explicitly tries to keep them out proves to be political act in itself.