No Surprise: American Women’s Gymnastics’ Racist History


Debbie says:

simone biles

I don’t usually watch much of the Olympics, but last night at the home of friends I did see Simone Biles’ amazing vaulting performance.  So I was especially interested this morning in Lindsay Gibbs’ piece at ThinkProgress:  “America’s Painful Journey From Prejudice To Greatness In Women’s Gymnastics.”

We pretty much have to assume that every place where African-American people succeed has a history of struggle and exclusion. Gibbs lays out exactly how women’s gymnastics fits this narrative:

Here’s Zerrell  (correct spelling may be Zerell) Johnson Welch, a coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Rio (text from the video):

“I was probably the only black girl, African American, in my class,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was very daunting… stressful, frustrating, isolating, and hurtful at times.”

Welch stuck with the sport, but was constantly bombarded with reminders that she was different, particularly by coaches who were unfamiliar with hair and body types that didn’t fall within the narrow confines of typical gymnasts.

“I remember [a male coach] making a comment about my rump, my bump, my butt,” she said. “I didn’t really become self-conscious of that until he actually brought it to my attention. And it was done in a joking way but it wasn’t a joking way to me at all. Not at all.”

Welch is amazingly hard to research on the Internet, regardless of how you spell or hyphenate her name. (She didn’t compete because by the time she was 17, her family simply couldn’t afford to keep her coaching going.) Gibbs implies that Welch is the coach of the whole Olympic women’s gymnastics team, so features about her should be everywhere. Her obscurity is hard to explain by any argument other than simple racism.

Her message, however, is deeply familiar. Laurie and I have been saying this since we started working together:

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be,” she said.

Gibbs’ article goes on to

  • tell some of Gabby Douglas’ (defending all-around womens’ gymnastics champion) stories of racism she has encountered,
  • interview Alexandria Brown, mother of two gymnasts of color
  • interrogate the division between “grace and beauty” (European standards) and “power” (more commonly associated with athletes of color)
  • dissect the incomprehensible cost of raising a competitive gymnast

Forbes estimates the average cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast is about $15,000 per year. Multiply that by the five to eight years of training, and parents can find themselves shelling out around $120,000.

  • profile the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, started by an African-American former gymnast to bring gymnastics to American communities of color
  • and return to Welch for the other side of the “people who look like me” coin:

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you.”

That is a point Laurie and I make less often, and I’m grateful to Welch for making it so clearly. It is incredibly important in whatever you do to see people who don’t look like you. And at the same time, those of us who may look like those who have gone before us in any arena, then really really need to understand, in our bones and our guts, that we don’t represent the only way people should look.

When Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas show their stuff in Rio, I’ll be appreciating them not just for who they are, but for the battles they — and the women who went before them — have fought to make it possible for them to get the acclaim they deserve.