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  • The White World of Sports: What Gabby Douglas’ vault into Olympic history means

    Late last night, minutes after NBC aired the much-anticipated cuticle-picker that was the Olympic women's all-around gymnastics finals—hours after the event actually took place, of course—the broadcast director cut from an on-floor interview with gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas to a broadcast booth somewhere nearby. In it sat longtime NBC commentator and sports journalism veteran Bob Costas, his prime-time-friendly, man-child hairdo in perfect position.

    "You know, it's a happy measure of how far we've come that it doesn't seem all that remarkable, but still it's noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women's all-around in gymnastics," Costas intoned, his besuited left elbow resting comfortably on the anchor desk. "The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself."

    In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president of the United States) is often called into question, Costas's scripted deep thought—his "little homily,” as one Twitterer called it—was at worst dishonest, at best naive. What leveled barriers, I wondered, was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered of cultural observers—the type who assert the legitimacy of phrases like "post-racial"—would believe that Gabby Douglas' challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by pretty much any news story or feature profile on the 16-year old gymnast, all of which make no secret of the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics? "Bob Costas just re-affirmed that the success of a black person means we're not racist anymore. THANK GOD THAT'S OVER," wrote the political writer Ana Marie Cox. A few moments later she offered a revision of sorts: "Ok what he said was 'a barrier has fallen' or somesuch but one person over the wall does not a fallen barrier make. TAKES NOTHING FROM GABS."

    Costas, of course, did have a point: Our ideas about ourselves, no matter our color, often prove as limiting and toxic as the external and institutional roadblocks put in our way. But you can't have one without the other. In this, Douglas' triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically "white" sport.
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