Devaluing greatness

Devaluing greatness

August 7th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Gabby Douglas

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Today, Gabby Douglas, America's sweetheart of the London Olympics, competes for the final time in these games. The "Flying Squirrel," as she is known for her aerial abilities, hopes to add a medal in the individual balance beam final to go with the pair of gold medals she already earned in the individual and team all-around competitions.

Impressively, she is the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. Perhaps more remarkably, she is the first black person ever to win the individual all-around gymnastics title in the Olympics.

Sadly, awkward attempts at political correctness actually have understated the magnitude of Douglas' achievement.

After she captured gold in gymnastics' highest prize, the individual all-around, NBC's Bob Costas announced that Douglas was, "the first African-American to win the women's all-around in gymnastics."

NBC's talking hairdo was not incorrect - Douglas is the first African-American to win the women's all-around in gymnastics. But she's also the first black person to win gymnastics all-around gold. Period. American or not.

Given the rich history of the modern Olympics, which spans 116 years and 32 Summer Olympic games - and has included tens of thousands of black athletes - being the first black person to accomplish the feat is much more impressive than just being the first black American to do so.

Demographically, it also is extraordinary to be the first black person to win a gold medal in gymnastics all-around. The 2010 U.S. census tallied about 39 million black Americans. That number is dwarfed by the 1.4 billion black people in the entire world, according to an estimate by Clutch, an online magazine.

That means that by calling Douglas the first African-American to win the individual all-around title, instead of the first black person to earn the gold, Bob Costas undersold Douglas' triumph by 3,500 percent.

Costas was far from the only celebrity or professional yapper to diminish Douglas' accomplishments by describing her as the "first African-American to ...".

Condoleezza Rice, certainly no stranger to being the answer to trivia questions because of both her skin color and gender, made the same mistake. So did ESPN's Jemele Hill, herself a black woman.

The Washington Post's Liz Clarke and "Today Show" contributor Jillian Eugenios also understated the cultural importance of Douglas' gold by declaring her the first African-American to win the title.

The Daily Beast, CNN.com, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, the Huffington Post and ABC ran similar stories praising Douglas as being the first African-American Olympic gymnastics champion, rather than giving her the full credit she deserves.

The 16-year-old gymnast is not the first Olympic champion to get short shrift from commentators and columnists tripping over themselves trying not to use the word "black" to describe an athlete.

In 2002, American Vonetta Flowers was called the first African-American athlete to win a Winter Olympic gold medal by Bob Costas and others.

Flowers, who earned her gold medal as part of a two-person women's bobsled team at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, wasn't just the first African-American to win gold in the Winter Olympics. She was the first black person to stand atop the podium in any of the 19 Winter Olympics held to that point.

If a black person in the United States prefers to be called an African-American, fine. No complaints here. Assuming every black person in the world is American, however, is truly ignorant.

No one benefits when political correctness comes at the cost of making a statement incorrect, or devaluing the accomplishments of inspirational history makers.

In order for Gabby Douglas to receive the credit she truly deserves, people like Bob Costas are going to have to realize that her accomplishments are important, not because she's an African-American, but because she's black.