Gabby Douglas stood beneath the Rio Olympic Arena, still in her Team USA leotard, trying hard to understand how she had become the most unpatriotic athlete in Rio. Tears welled in her eyes. She tried hard to talk but no words came out. Her pauses were long and uncomfortable.
“I’ve been trying to stay off the internet because there’s so much negativity,” she said.
It showed on Sunday, in Douglas’s final performance of this Olympics and maybe in the Games ever. Douglas finished sixth in the uneven bars, far from the medal stand she owned four years ago in London, and shook her head, confused and perplexed. What had she done wrong? Nothing made sense.
“I mean, you do [Olympics] for your country, and you do it for yourself, and you do it for other people … and I step back and I’m like: wait, what did I do to disrespect the people? How have I offended them? What have I done? When I stand back I’m like: what? I was standing in respect for USA. I’m coming out there representing them to the best of my abilities, so how would I be in disrespect?
“I don’t get that part. Sorry.”
Douglas has been besieged in recent days, mostly for the fact she didn’t put her hand on her heart during the anthem. It probably wouldn’t have been an issue had the rest of the US gymnasts on the medal stand alongside her done the same. The protocol is a murky one for athletes. Many don’t do so during medal ceremonies. Hawkins said in the Reuters interview that they are a military family and that people in the military either salute the flag or stand to attention.
“I sit back and I don’t know why. I’m just like, what?” Douglas said. “When they talk about my hair, or me not putting my hand on my heart, or me being very salty in the stands and really criticizing me … it really doesn’t feel good. For me it was a little bit hurtful.”
Her voice started to crack. She paused.
“First I get: ‘You’ve been a good sport’ and then they turn on you. But it was hurtful and it was kind of a lot to deal with. You have to stay away from that, but everything I had to go through, and everything I’ve gone through has been a lot this time around, and I apologize if what may have been me being really mad in the stands. I was supporting [team-mate] Aly [Raisman] and I always support them in everything they do, so I never want anyone to take it as I just wanted attention – ever. I support them, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it.”
A team press attache tried to change questions back toward her performance on Sunday, but that wasn’t much help. She had not been herself, not the gymnast from London and it was obvious. She seemed rattled, frustrated and stunned. How did everything go so wrong?
“When you go through a lot and you have so many people against you, sometimes it just determines your character,” she said. “Are you going to stand or are you going to crumble? In the face of everything, you still stand and I have no regrets coming back [to the Olympics]. It’s been an amazing experience, an amazing journey so far, and it’s teaching me a lot. It’s teaching me so much.”
She was asked if she would have returned to the Olympics if she had known she would only win one gold medal – the team event. She said yes, that she still enjoyed everything that went with the Olympics like the practices, the living with team-mates and group meals at the cafeteria. Everything except what happened in the arena and on social media. She said she had learned from these past few days and will be stronger for the experience.
Her mother had suggested to Reuters that some of the comments made about her were racially driven, which seems almost certain, especially the way she has been attacked for her hair and not having her hand on her heart.
“I read certain comments, and I’m like: ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, that is far from me and far from my personality,’” Douglas said. “And people just attacking you and your hair, blah, blah, blah. I mean, did I chose my hair texture? No. And I’m actually grateful, you know, having this hair on my head. Sometimes it’s like: ‘wow!’”
And soon London’s great American champion walked away, out of an Olympics of disappointment and frustration with attacks from her own country. And she is understandably confused as to why.