Saturday, August 4, 2012

Olympic Star: Sweat, Blood, Tears and Hair Gel

Every four years, gymnastics programs across the country (across the world, maybe) experience an admissions surge. That's because no one captures the imagination of little girls quite like Nastia Liukin or Mary Lou Retton. (Or, in my own childhood, Cathy Rigby.) 

While my daughter took gymnastics, the Olympian to watch was Carly Patterson. There were posters of her all around the gym and the girls made "Good Luck, Carly" cards to send off to Athens. 

Now, there's a new star.

Earlier this week, 16-year old Gabby Douglas made history when she became the first African-American to win the gold medal for all-around women's gymnastics at the Olympics. (She's only the third American of any color to do so.) As you can imagine, she's also all-around the Internet. But a considerable amount of the cyber buzz isn't about her floor routine (described by the Bleacher Report as "One of the most clutch performances ever").

It's about her hair.

Say what?

If you Google "Gabby Douglas hair," you'll get 182,000 hits. That's 182 thousand stories, posts and tweets that are taking the spotlight off her fantastic achievement and inspirational story, and shining it instead on her head.

Serena Williams, world champion tennis player (who has also been criticized for her abundant, at times unruly locks) called the debate, "Ridiculous." I agree.

There are two issues here. One is that Gabby is African-American. Her hair doesn't naturally adhere to the perfectly smooth (perfectly Caucasian) bun we expect on our gymnasts. So, her hair looked a little unkempt when she was up on the podium (after, need I repeat, making Olympic history). Should she have stopped mid-routine so a hairdresser could add some gel? Sheesh. 

The other issue is that Gabby is a woman. Our society demands that even supernaturally gifted athletes, who happen to be female, look neat and tidy and "pretty." Can we stop with the superficial objectification? And, will someone please tell Michael Phelps to find a comb?

Gabby Douglas has an awe-inspiring background. At a very young age (even younger than her current very young age), she was determined to make it to the top of her sport. She left her Virginia Beach home to work with renowned trainer Liang Chow in West Des Moines, living with a host family there.

After her win, Gabby, also known as the "Flying Squirrel,"  explained her success on The Today Show:

“I just want people to know it took a lot. It took a lot of hard days in the gym and determination, passion and drive. Gold medals are made out of your sweat, blood and tears, and effort in the gym every day, and sacrificing a lot that you have to do.”

Are you listening, little girls?

Here's the bottom line. Gabby is not a hair product model; she's a world-class competitor. Let's all forget the do and focus on this radiant young woman's achievement. You can relive her exuberant performance here. You may notice that she has an Ace bandage on her ankle. 

If you can take your eyes away from her hair.

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