Sacrifices are not in vain, they pay off in the end.” This was one of the poignant remarks of Gabriel (Gabby) Douglas, who this year became the first African American woman to win the Olympic individual all-around gymnastics title in an explosive performance. She is only the fourth American woman to achieve this distinction. In spite of perceived slights of omission by a leading newspaper which excluded Gabby from the team picture, and coverage by the contracted networks which excluded Gabby from the initial shot after team U.S.A. won the gold, pride across the country in America’s newest gymnastics star was deep.
It is important that the media create impressions of fairness. The remarkable feats and disciplined practice of our Olympic athletes should be untainted by media bias and offer an open window to view and compare minority participation with that of other nations. By doing so, inspired youth can see themselves in these achievements and create a vision and hope as barriers are removed from high-profile elite sports that bring enormous personal and financial rewards.
In a post-award ceremony interview of, a leading network Olympic commentator delivered a rather naïve summation of the significance of her win, saying: “Gabby will be an inspiration to other African American girls who can achieve the same.” The commentator went on to suggest that imaginary barriers or restrictions may be the cause for the absence of African Americans in this elite sport. The fact of the matter is that Gabby will inspire girls of color, but achieving greatness in any sport is about more than inspiration — it’s about opportunity to achieve, which has been denied African American athletes in elite, expensive sports such as swimming, gymnastics, rowing and ice skating. Not only is training at this level cost-prohibitive for most black families, it requires a four to five-day weekly commitment to practice. Of equal importance is dependency on local swimming, gymnastics and rowing clubs and skating centers that have the best coaches and access to competitions. These are private venues which have historically excluded blacks.
Clearly, track and field and basketball are dominated by blacks whose opportunities come out of free athletic venues in local parks, recreation centers and public schools, places where skills can be developed free of charge. It’s all about class and costs. What makes America exceptional is its pool of diverse, creative and intellectual talent unlike no other country. No doubt progress is being made, though slowly. Given the opportunity, blacks have excelled at the highest elite levels in track and field, golf and tennis, and yes, gymnastics.
Let us not forget Olympian Dominique Dawes, the first African American to win an individual medal for floor exercise in 1996 and a member of the 2000 Olympic gymnastics team. We saw her beaming in the audience this week, confident as Gabby moved her legacy forward. We will need to identify athletes of color early if we are to expand participation in elite level Olympic sports traditionally populated by whites.
Gabby Pride will be with us for years to come. Will we ever forget the pride spilling across her mother, Natalie Hawkins’s, face? We were moved by this mother’s sacrifice which allowed Gabby at age 14 to pursue her Olympic dream by leaving home in Virginia Beach to live with a white host family, the Partons, in Iowa to train with the best gymnastics coach in the country — Coach Liang Chou. The Partons must be applauded along with Ms. Hawkins, who sold her jewelry, worked extra shifts to pay for Gabby’s training and sadly saw her daughter only four times in two years.
Gabby’s story has inspired not just African Americans but a nation of young women who see their destiny in these Olympic Games. There has been a 55 per cent increase in interest in gymnastics since team USA’s performance. Gabby’s broad, winning smile and deep understanding of what it takes to be a champion and her amazing poise, graciousness and love of country will be the enduring message of this extraordinary athlete and the amazing 2012 Olympics.
Gazette correspondent Bettye Foster Baker lives in Gettysburg, Pa., and Oak Bluffs.