Though USA Gymnast Gabby Douglas said she had a “fantastic time” at the Rio Olympics, her experience at the 2016 games probably could’ve been better.
Douglas was dragged by the media throughout the games. She endured resurfaced critiques about her hair in addition to being labeled unpatriotic and a bad teammate. At the moment of her shaming, it was unfair and messy.
But when her treatment is compared to USA Swimmer Ryan Lochte’s, the differences stand out. After Lochte vandalized a gas station and lied about it, calling the encounter an armed robbery, he was given the benefit of the doubt while having his hand held in the aftermath of his actions being exposed.
On September 7, he was suspended for 10 months by the International Olympics Committee, United States Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, but it doesn’t change the initial response to Lochtegate.
Some were quick to point out the different responses between him and Douglas, citing the firestorm the gymnast encountered versus the initial victimization of Lochte. But for the majority of those condemning Lochte, there were still people who felt the need to leave the ordeal as a drunken mistake and move on.
— Rosa (@missrecinos) August 20, 2016
so some drunk guys did something stupid. AND….?#Lochtegate
— Jenny (@jenh171) August 21, 2016
— Lorraine Gavican (@lorrigaga) August 21, 2016
A cause for the criticism or lack thereof for these two star athletes is undoubtedly race. As Douglas suffers from the double jeopardy of the race and gender hierarchy, critiques are loosely hurled her way. But she must maintain a level of grace not expected of white athletes – she must avoid the Angry Black Woman stereotype as well. For Lochte, his white male privilege gives him the luxury of almost being absolved of his crimes because there’s a more promising future at stake, creating the dangerous illusion that “boys will be boys” as he dodges responsibility for any wrongdoing.
A1) We saw inequality at the Olympics. Gabby Douglas is ridiculed for her hair, but Lochte is laughed at for lying. #herchat
— Haley Bosselman (@haleybosselman) August 25, 2016
When Douglas first came to the global scene at the London Olympics in 2012, the hair comments were quick to come and flippant. The simple bun she rocked as she gracefully flipped, twisted and spun her way to becoming the first black woman in Olympic history to win gold in the individual all-around wasn’t good enough to please the audiences she wowed with her athletic prowess.
That's unacceptable for gabby Douglas hair to b looking like that
— CA$H™⛽️ (@__devynnn) August 22, 2016
Let me do Gabby Douglas' hair
— the kid. (@KEI_Lime_) August 8, 2016
As hair talk resurfaced this year, 2012’s irrelevant discussion was conflated into her 2016 narrative: She misrepresented America and had a bad attitude. Instead of having her hand on her heart during the National Anthem, she stood at attention, and as teammate Simone Biles won gold during the individual all-around, a camera pan just so happened to catch Douglas sitting, seemingly unenthusiastic as other Final Five members jumped for joy.
Gabby Douglas is so disrespectful , she couldn't even stand up to cheer on her teammates?..
— Niaaaaa (@niaaoctaviaa8) August 12, 2016
She was portrayed as slighted, unimpressed and disrespectful. It wasn’t funny like when McKayla Maroney was caught pursing her lips after winning a silver medal in 2012.
— Corinna Hoffman (@CorinnaHoffman) August 21, 2016
So disgusted by #GabbyDouglas blatant disrespect for her country on the OLYMPIC podium. Hand over your heart or get off the stage.
— Melissa (@melissatippets1) August 10, 2016
— Eric Sanders (@SandersFirmPC) August 23, 2016
Those stark differences in response reveal the fragility of black superstardom, specifically for the black woman. It’s not limited to sports, either, but for every 15 minutes of fame a black woman experiences, it’s hastened. Scrutiny arises from the smallest of faults, and it’s clear that the star is inherently walking on thin ice.
So thin that open frustration in response isn’t an option. It shows an anger that’s used to portray someone who’s constantly disgruntled, exacerbating the situation. It’s probably the reason that Douglas apologized to the world for things beyond her control.
Small or even non-issues are blown out of proportion, and the person in question is ultimately being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. While it not only trivializes all this person has done to get to this point, it also shows how dispensable black women are to society, as their historic vulnerability allows for unjust condemnation.
And when someone like Lochte, who got away with multiple crimes amidst an international controversy that otherwise would’ve been a major career detriment to an athlete of color, it constructs a troubling ideal as to who can be guilty of wrongdoing.
This concept was unsurprisingly reiterated by IOC Spokesman Mario Andrada in response to Lochtegate when he said, “Let’s give these kids a break.”
For a grown-ass, 32-year-old man to be excused as a kid for a crime is ludicrous and unsurprising, but also symbolic of how white privilege can be problematic. Because he acted childlike doesn’t mean he should be treated as one, yet when one has white male privilege, they’re essentially born with pockets full of “get out of jail free cards.”
And Lochte cashed in because, like many people on the internet have suggested, if the three other vandal swimmers including Lochte were black or people of color, the response from the IOC and public would’ve been much different.
Lochte has already lost four major endorsements. But in light of those setbacks, he landed two new endorsements and joined Dancing With the Stars for its next season. It’s a quick recovery, and given how quickly people are able to forget, as he progresses through the competition, talk of his Olympic scandal will have subsided.
Aside from Matt Lauer’s primetime sit-down with Locthe where he challenged the swimmer’s story, accountability was hard to find. IOC officials said the swimmers were just trying to have fun in Rio, while Lochte’s statement danced around the fact that he lied. Access Hollywood Host Billy Bush, who was a Rio correspondent for NBC, initially broke Locthe’s robbery account, but never questioned it. He even defended the account as Al Roker refuted its entirety, repeatedly calling Lochte a liar.
Roker was right.
White privilege offers a sturdy sword in defense to ward off many harsh realities of life, and Lochte’s basically gave him a forcefield. Throughout the whole fiasco, his language constantly indicated wanting to move forward, as if the reason he was in trouble never existed, because he’s aware of the fact that he can truly swim away from this problem. He’ll keep saying he’s sorry and that he made a mistake out of fear for repercussions, and there’ll be enough people wanting to see him succeed that he’ll still be able to thrive.
It’s a shame any olympian, Douglas or Lochte, faced this type of adversity during a major moment in their careers. But the differing response to the their drama shows a greater problem stemming from implications of race and how they relate to the type of attention that’s given to certain figures.
The spotlight will remain on both Douglas and Lochte. The latter will be dancing on televisions across the country this fall, and Douglas, while recently a judge for the Miss America 2017 competition, will continue to compete against opponents and long-standing double-standards.