Carrying On: Vaulting success despite racism

October 24, 2013

When you Google search “Simone Biles,” the top hits are not about how she left Belgium earlier this month as the most decorated gymnast of the 2013 World Championships. They do not praise her Amanar vault that could impress two-time, reigning World Champion McKayla Maroney. And they don’t discuss her floor exercise, which was packed with some of the most difficult skills in the world, one of those being recently named after the 16-year-old gymnast. Instead, the top hits from “Simone Biles” are about her race—more specifically, racist comments made by 18-year-old Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito at this year’s Gymnastics World Championship.

In an interview with the Italian media, Ferlito said to teammate Vanessa Ferrari, “Next time we should also paint our skin black so that we could win, too.” While certainly naïve and immature, was her comment intended to be racist?

I doubt Ferlito is familiar with the details of the American Civil Rights movement, much less the history of blackface. Living in Italy this semester, I’ve realized that America, despite its lingering race problems, is in fact one of the most racially tolerant countries in the world. Italy, on the other hand, is not. There aren’t many minorities in Italy, much less black people. Therefore, racism isn’t viewed as it is in the United States. The Sicilian teenage girl has not been raised in a culture in which children are taught to think carefully before saying anything that could be construed as racially discriminatory.

In order for her comment to be intentionally racist, Ferlito would have insinuated that Biles was inferior because she was black. This is not the case here. On the most basic level, she was just noticing the recent success of Biles and Olympic champion Gabrielle Douglas—arguably similar to the way I jest that I should dye my hair blonde and wear Lululemon in order to win the sport of boys at Georgetown. Does that mean I have a deep prejudice against blondes? No, it simply means I have noticed their success at attaining male companionship.

Ferlito’s comments were catty and juvenile, surely, but the interpretation of them is what intrinsically connected Biles’s race to her success.

Though her parents were justifiably angry, Biles brushed it off and did not want to let catty remarks take away from her “victorious moment.” Ferlito apologized for her remarks via Twitter, but, to throw in another insult, Italy’s gymnastics federation issued another apology via Facebook that worsened the incident:

“Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of color (well-known for power) while penalizing the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years.”

Clearly there is a cultural divide here about what is and isn’t appropriate to say, but what is most concerning about the federation’s comment was its gross ignorance.

Firstly, the success of Douglas and Biles this year hardly constitutes a trend, and, furthermore, they are completely different gymnasts. Pairing them together as similar would be like saying long-lined Nastia Liukin and petite powerhouse Shawn Johnson are anything alike in style when, in fact, like Douglas and Biles, they are polar opposites.

However, the main flaw was labeling a shift in focus from elegance to difficulty as opening “new chances to athletes of color (well-known for power).” The Amanar that gave Air-Maroney her name? Named after Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar at the Sydney Olympic Games. Ever heard of the “Moors?” Maybe not yet, but white Canadian gymnast Victoria Moors’s double twisting somersault—the hardest element on floor with the highest Code of Points rating today—was named after her at this year’s worlds. Both powerful gymnasts, both Caucasian, and neither of them can do a switch leap on beam—a highly graceful technical element—as elegantly as Gabby Douglas.

Yes, the spokesperson for the gymnastics ministry is terrible at damage control. But the most offensive part of this story is that the mainstream media ran with the racial controversy narrative and failed to mention her successes as a gymnast. Articles in USA Today, CNN, and ESPN glossed over her awe-inspiring performances in Belgium before analyzing how her race factored into them. Instead of praising how Biles was the only American (note how I said American and not black American) to advance to every world final event—all-around, balance beam, floor, and uneven bars—since gymnastics legend Shannon Miller, the media pitied her for being subject to ignorant comments made by a catty, jealous teenager.

The Federation of International Gymnastics got tired of gymnasts playing it safe with their skills and wanted to distinguish artistic gymnastics as an athletic, challenging sport. This has nothing to do with Biles—connecting her race to her powerful style is completely irrelevant and inaccurate. Biles is not a powerful gymnast because she is black. Biles is not a successful gymnast because she rose to the top “in spite of” being black. Biles is a talented athlete because she persevered to get where she is. Attributing that success, or the success of any other athlete, to the color their skin is the real insult here.

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