When Gabby Douglas became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around competition, her triumph sparked a great deal of discussion about the sport’s lack of diversity. As Douglas’ own long struggle to succeed made clear, training and traveling costs are great obstacles to many aspiring elite gymnasts - obstacles that are likely to be even greater for those from communities of color where median wealth is lower.
But a recent incident at the World Championships serves as a reminder that the culture of the sport can also prove challenging for aspiring gymnasts of color. After Simone Biles became the first African-American gymnast to win the all-around world title, an Italian gymnast, Carlotta Ferlito, said, "I told (teammate Vanessa Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too."
The remark was not just offensive but ridiculous. The sport of gymnastics is notorious for its lack of diversity, so the idea that a gymnast has any sort of leg up for being black is, if nothing else, silly. After Simone’s father and others expressed outrage on Twitter, Ferlito apologized on Twitter.
Ferlito’s comment highlights the discomfort and isolation that can often greet minority gymnasts in an international sport noted for its historical lack of color. Gabby and her mother made waves when they claimed that she was a victim of bullying and racially charged comments earlier in her gymnastics career.
When I interviewed sports historian Rob Ruck last year about why certain sports are more likely to be dominated by one racial group than another, he said that there are three key variables that ultimately determine a sport’s racial makeup: "A set of environmental and class or socioeconomic factors. Second, when the sport provides certain tangible and material rewards, benefits and opportunities. The third is when a particular sport has acquired a deeply rooted historic meaning to people."
Ruck elaborated that kids are more likely to pursue a sport or activity that their families can afford, but also one that others they know in their community have expressed an interest in pursuing. This means that the fewer people of color there are participating in sports like gymnastics, the fewer kids from communities of color will be likely to pursue the sport.
When one considers that Gabby Douglas and now Simone Biles have both faced racial animus, combined with the financial pressure the sport of gymnastics can put on families, it’s a wonder that any black family would subject their kids to such strain by pursuing this sport over others that are cheaper and likely to be more culturally welcoming.
But of course, if every black family thought that way, we wouldn’t have Douglas, Dominique Dawes or any of the other black gymnastic superstars, and their presence is crucial to inspiring the next generation.
It seems that the key is convincing those in sports that are traditionally lacking in diversity to open their eyes more to the root causes of racial homogeneity in the sport, and to open their minds to creating more cultural sensitivity and more pathways to diversity. In other words, the world of gymnastics could learn a lot from Wendy Hilliard.
Hilliard became the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to represent the United States on its national team and was named to the team a record-setting nine times. Since then she has gone on to coach other rhythmic gymnasts who have won Olympic medals.
But perhaps her greatest contribution to the sport is the foundation she now runs. When I interviewed Hilliard in 2012, she cited the financial obstacles confronting aspiring gymnasts in explaining what inspired her to establish the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, which makes gymnastics coaching affordable for children from nontraditional backgrounds, many of them children of color.
Perhaps one day international and U.S. gymnastics will become just as racially diverse as other sports, meaning that comments like Ferlito’s will become a thing of the past because gymnasts like her will be so used to being surrounded by athletes of color that the entire culture that has allowed people like Ferlito to flourish will shift for the better.
Kelli Goff is special correspondent for The Root, an online source of opinion from a variety of black perspectives.