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The Double-Edged Sword Of Black Olympic Champions

Can black Americans only receive praise when we are slaving away for the country — either on the front lines or on an Olympic stage?

I’m not a gymnast. I tumbled a bit and flew high on the uneven bars when I was younger, but I gave up that interest for horseback riding when I was 10.

My sister, Kyra, is the gymnast in the family. She started out in the same tumbling class as me, but that wasn’t enough for her. Eventually, she began to search for a team with which she could competitively perform. For a while, she settled with a local competitive cheer squad but was soon outperforming all the other squad members and her instructors had nothing left to teach her. In high school she began traveling two hours away four times a week to train at a state-of-the-art gym. Kyra was dedicated and, as her big sister, I was very proud of how she commanded the attention of the judges on the floor and beam. She had learned a certain level of confidence that can only come from competing — and competing very well. Her hard work pays off at every competition. I have never felt prouder than the day Kyra FaceTimed me while holding the shiny silver state all-around medal she had just won.

Kyra accomplished all this as a young woman of color without many role models who looked like her. But that changed in 2012 when she taught me about Gabby Douglas. My heart swelled seeing her eyes shine when she babbled about Gabby’s chances of making the USA Olympic team. I had role models for my different interests: Maya Angelou for writing, Serena Williams for tennis, Condoleezza Rice for politics. But there hadn’t been many visible African-American female gymnasts for my sister to look up to since the Magnificent Seven — the 1996 gold medal–winning team, and one of the first to have prominently featured an African-American gymnast.

Finally seeing herself represented in her sport mattered so much to Kyra that summer. Our family sat in front of our television and cheered on “the Flying Squirrel” as she represented the United States in the London Olympics. Then hope, joy, and an overwhelming number of other feelings filled the room as we watched Gabby — a gymnast from our home state of Virginia — become the first African-American woman in history to be the individual all-around champion. I was simply happy that my little sister had found fresh motivation from the success of a girl who looked just like her, allowing her commitment to her sport to grow. If Gabby could do it, why couldn’t Kyra? As Gabby accepted her gold medal and stood tall at the top of the podium, I knew I would never have to push my sister toward her goals. Her inspiration was right there on the television.

A few months later, I bought Kyra a ticket to see the Fierce Five during one of their Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastic Champions’ shows. Since she was too mesmerized to take pictures, I took them for her so that one day she can smile fondly while looking at a shot of Gabby in midair and think, I want to be like Gabby Douglas because she looks just like me. Her black is beautiful, and so is mine. She has done it — and so can I. As we chased the gymnasts’ tour bus after the show, the only black girls in the crowd, I wished that Gabby would get up and wave to us. She wasn’t facing our direction at first, but then someone on the bus pointed us out to her. She came to the bus’s window, waved, made a heart sign, and effectively became my little sister’s idol.

Now there’s a new representative of black girl magic in the gymnastics world: Simone Biles. Not only has Simone dominated the sport, but she also stood side by side with Gabby when she returned to the competitive arena for the Olympic trials. Two black girls on the same national team?! What?! Every sports analyst and news outlet deemed Biles a shoo-in for Rio while Gabby was said to be making an unbelievable comeback. Watching Gabby fight for her spot and Simone confidently hold her No. 1 position made me proud to be an African-American.

It’s not every day that I feel like that. In fact, as proud as Gabby and Simone make me, I also struggle to recognize that they are also cheered on by the same people that stay silent when police take justice into their own hands. Much of white America doesn’t support them because they are breaking the glass ceiling for black athletes, but because they are increasing the number of Olympic medals for the American team. It’s a weird type of patriotism and — as someone whose ancestors’ labor built this country, but for whom the country was not built — I struggle to cheer for Team USA over these individual athletes. I live a disillusioned American Dream. It’s hard to love a place that takes away my dignity, my rights, and my happiness whenever it pleases, that took the lives of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice. It’s hard to recognize that the Olympics are excellent PR for our country and seem to try to erase the damage this nation has inflicted on its own citizens.

Gabby and Simone are not only excellent role models, therefore, but also representative of a bigger conversation: Can black Americans only receive love and praise when we are slaving away for the country — either on the front lines or on an Olympic stage? While it is not really surprising, it is appalling that people have the audacity to criticize Gabby’s appearance during competitions or criticize Simone for being adopted. They each have multiple Olympic gold medals but still do not get the respect they deserve because they’re part of a culture that is angry that two black girls are dominating a field.

Yet despite facing haters on a daily basis, these girls still exceed everyone’s expectations. Their black excellence should make people step back and think about inequality in this country and inspire more young black girls to not only shoot for the stars but to love their blackness, too.

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