‘Black Girl Magic’ break Olympic ceiling

Four years ago, Gabrielle Douglas knocked off the mythical notion that a black woman could never be good enough to win a gold medal in the white-dominated sport of gymnastics at the Olympics in the individual competition.

She didn’t just win one gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics; Douglas took home two, obliterating the racist glass ceiling that has come to define her sport.

Three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes had cracked that ceiling when she performed good enough to make the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and win a team gold medal. But when it came to performing in the individual events, Dawes crumbled, winning only bronze in the floor exercise.

Still, that was a first for an African American woman.

Sixteen  years would go by after Dawes’ groundbreaking showing before Douglas officially changed the course of Olympic and American gymnastics history with her breathtaking performance in the individual all-around competition to take gold in that event.

That was just a first step.

Gabby Douglas is the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal during the Olympics (2012). Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
Gabby Douglas is the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal during the Olympics (2012). Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

Fast forward to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Douglas’ fellow American gymnast and Team USA teammate Simone Biles gave that glass barrier a kick in the pants with her four gold medals demolition of the competition. And it wasn’t even close.

NBC, which owns the broadcasting rights to the Rio Olympics, tried its best to play up this equal duality level of competition between Biles and her teammate Aly Raisman. There was no  competition except the imaginary one that NBC tried to create. Quite simply, Biles is the best gymnast in the world.

She has proven that over the last several years, winning a total of 19 world championships and Olympic medals. Let’s see, that’s head and shoulders better than America’s white darlings Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin.

In 2012, Team USA gymnasts McKayla Maroney Jordyn Wieber were the sweethearts of everyone’s affection. Neither Maroney nor Wieber are fit enough to even carry Biles’ gym bag.

Biles took home five medals in all from this Olympic Games. That’s a pretty awesome achievement. It also was an international statement Biles made loud and clear. This is her moment in the sun, not one for Biles and Raisman to share as if they’re equals. They are not. There is the best, then second-best or third-best or whatever.

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is the greatest American the sport has ever seen. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is the greatest American the sport has ever seen. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

Biles gave the world the best ever performance by an American gymnast during an Olympic competition. What we saw with Biles, Douglas and even Dawes is that the barriers are coming down. They’re coming down slowly, but they’re coming down. Those barriers can only come down when opportunity meet up with potential.

What Biles, Douglas and Dawes have achieved is no different than what Venus and Serena Williams, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Alice Coachman and other history-making African American women in sports have done in the past. The road can be lonely when you’re traveling it by yourself. However, greatness, as these women have all illustrated, is not defined or regulated by the color of your skin.

That is where Simone Manuel is at. The Stanford University student won two gold medals (women’s 100-meter freestyle, women’s 4 x 100 medley relay) and two silver medals (women’s 50-meter freestyle, women’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay) from this year’s Olympics.

Manuel just took a wrecking ball to another long-held stereotype about blacks not being able to hold their own in the water with their white counterparts. We can thank late Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis for explaining this to us. 

“Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy,” Campanis once said.

Manuel didn’t just dust off those racist cobwebs, hopefully she buried them.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1120 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.