RIO DE JANEIRO — Gabby Douglas earned her spot on the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team because Martha Karolyi believed in the reigning Olympic all-around champion’s track record of performing under pressure. Douglas was a quick study, too, accustomed to performing under the unrelenting evaluation of Olympic judges.
What neither Karolyi nor Douglas could have anticipated — because they shouldn’t have had to — was the harsh judgment the 20-year-old gymnast would face when not performing. The toll of those judgments reached a threshhold Sunday afternoon, after Douglas had gutted through a rough patch in her final competitive event, the uneven-bars final, to finish a disappointing seventh in a field of eight. Afterward, confronted by brusque questions regarding ill-founded social media criticism, she broke down in tears in a secluded corner just off the competition floor of Rio Olympic Arena.
I was among the reporters present for the interview in the Olympic mixed zone. Less than 24 hours later, the interview exchange haunts me. And my heart breaks for Douglas, an Olympic champion who defied the odds in qualifying for a second Olympic team in hopes of defending her title.
I have no doubt Douglas could handle the disappointment of being unable to replicate, at 20, the acrobatic feats that were possible at 16. Champions sign up for defeat every time they step into a competitive arena, knowing that it’s a possible outcome. But she should not have been forced to answer criticism — so much of it picayune, unfounded and unfair — that had nothing to do with her performance in competition.
Gymnastics is a judged sport. But the judging of female athletes — by journalists, bloggers, mean-spirited squawkers — has gotten out of hand. Douglas was critiqued on social media for absurd reasons: the placement of her hands during the national anthem follow the U.S. team’s gold medal performance, and her countenance in a televised moment during the individual all-around competition (for which she did not qualify solely because of a much-debated rule that allows just two entrants per country.) When Michael Phelps is hailed for his menacing scowl or celebrated for his during-anthem guffaws, one wonders what exactly inspires such anonymous shots at another Olympic champion such as Douglas.
Putting aside such motivations for a moment, forcing Douglas to answer such baseless critiques in the moments following her final competition seemed cruel and unusual.
After each Olympic event, the medalists hold a formal news conference, seated as a dais, that’s conducted by a moderator, with translators taking part as needed.
The other competitors (and sometimes medalists, also) file through what’s known as a “mixed zone,” similar to an airline check-in line, with athletes on one side of a waist-high barrier and, on the other side, reporters who group themselves by nationality and pose questions in a free-for-all manner, tape recorders and cameras outstretched.
Roughly a dozen reporters were on hand for Douglas’s final Olympic interview, most representing U.S. media outlets. She started bravely, explaining that she would leave Rio “rejoicing” even though she’d hoped to do better.
Then came the question that startled her: “Do you think your Olympics got ruined?” Soon after came another that confused Douglas, asking what she might have done differently this week. She sought clarification, as if unsure whether she was being asked for particulars on her uneven-bars routine? Her performance in the team finals? Qualifying?
Douglas already had issued a statement about her patriotism days earlier, in which she made clear she meant no disrespect in standing at attention. It’s unclear if she was familiar with the other quibbles referenced by the reporter. The U.S. women’s gymnastics team is kept in a carefully controlled bubble at Olympic Games. And Douglas had made a point of staying off social media, she explained, because of the negativity directed at her.
She might have been hearing the criticism for the first time. She might have pushed it to the back of her mind for the duration of the Games, as champion athletes do, compartmentalizing for later review.
Either way, her eyes pooled. And she fought the tears just as she had fought the hitch in her routine.
Finally, asked if she second-guessed her decision to return for a second Olympics, Douglas, a three-time gold medalist, didn’t waver.
“For me, when you go through a lot, and you have so many difficulties, and people [are] against you sometimes; it kind of just determines your character,” Douglas said. “Are you going to stand, or are you going to crumble? In the face of everything, still stand.
“I have no regrets coming back for a second Olympics. It’s been an amazing experience, an amazing journey so far. And it’s teaching me a lot.”
At least to this close observer of the past week, Douglas appeared to be the one with the least to learn.