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Celebrating Diversity: the 2016 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team

Celebrating Diversity: the 2016 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team

When I think about race-related problems in this country (and I think about them often), it’s easy for me to get emotional: frustrated, sad, and infuriated. That emotion can be good when it fuels me to do something proactive, but it can also be damaging when it is left unchecked, draining me of all energy and happiness. Because I struggle with the latter, I’m now making a concerted effort to balance my recurring displeasure with little moments of celebrating diversity progress.

The 2016 United States Women’s Gymnastics Team is a reason to smile about diversity. In addition to its well-deserved hype on the talent front, this team is getting a lot of attention (e.g., here, here, and here) because its racial makeup is actually representative of the wonderful melting pot that is America. The U.S. has for the first time, two (ahMAYzing) Black gymnasts, a Latina gymnast, a Jewish gymnast, and one – just one – White (non-Jewish) gymnast.

You guys. Diversity is happening in gymnastics. This makes me so happy. Here’s why:

1.     Gymnastics is an expensive sport and is therefore not broadly accessible. Compared to something like Track & Field, where you see many athletes from historically underprivileged groups excelling, gymnastics requires a lot of resources. As minority communities are more likely to struggle economically, this means that minorities have had less access to the facilities and coaches needed to drive success in sports like gymnastics.

2.     Competition outcomes in gymnastics are at the mercy of judges, whose biases can maintain barriers. Let’s face it, the sport is not 100% objective. There is no finish line that clearly determines the winner. Judges – usually White (at least in the U.S.) – decide who is best. Of course there are rules designed to keep things as fair as possible, but it ultimately comes down to the judging panel’s discretion. So of course bias can – and certainly at some points did – affect outcomes.

3.     Gymnastics is a sport where body-type bias runs deep. As we discussed here, body shaming Black female athletes is a thing, and it is especially problematic in highly feminized sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, and dance (yes, professional dance is a sport). The gymnastics community has lionized tiny, pixie-like, girlish physiques since the 1970’s era of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. But times are changing, and American gymnastics no longer seems to ooze with discriminatory ideals of thin Whiteness.

4.     Not only does body-type matter in gymnastics, but feminine beauty is valued, too. This issue is (hopefully) less problematic in the actual competition, but it still clouds how the public responds to successful gymnasts. It’s no secret that mainstream America prefers White ideals of beauty. Case in point in the reception of gymnasts: remember when Gabby Douglas made history by winning the Women’s All-Around gold at the 2012 London Olympics? You would have hoped that winning arguably the most difficult individual medal of the entire Olympics would be all people could talk about, but no, they talked about her hair. They criticized her hair. What on earth was wrong with Douglas’ hair, if not just the fact that it’s the hair of a Black girl? (Note: in the grand scheme of gymnastics hair, Douglas was/is actually killing it. There have been some, uh, interesting styles.) So far, there has been no prominent criticism of anyone’s appearance on the 2016 team, which gives me great hope that we’re getting a little less discriminatory and shallow.

All of these shifts make me wonder if we partly have gymnastics’ new scoring system to thank. Implemented in 2006, the new Code of Points rewards gymnasts for cramming as many difficult and exhausting skills into a routine as possible. No longer is a perfect 10 the goal – the sky is now the limit, with extra points accruing for every risky skill performed. It seems the grace and artistic components are losing traction, and the sport is now requiring an unprecedented amount of strength.

Could this explain why American gymnastics has recently been trending toward more muscular gymnasts being most successful? Could this also partially account for greater success of prominent gymnasts of Color – less room for bias in the scoring? If you don’t need to conform to existing stereotypes about appearance, but you just need to be damn good, perhaps gymnastics now has a fairer playing field for athletes of all races.

With race issues still being so fraught in the U.S., this is clearly not a time to sit down, stop fighting, and declare diversity problems solved. However, it is a nice moment to take a deep breath and smile at living proof that progress - however small - is happening.

 

Image of Team USA, from left: Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian. Source: Twitter user USAGym

 

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