My worst moment

Hand on heart, criticism of Douglas is unfair

Women's artistic gymnastics fascinates me, for it is unfathomable how all the strength required for the flips, leaps and twists can be packed into pint-sized girls who exude such grace.

So I made my way to the Rio Olympic Arena on Aug 7 to catch the best of these gymnasts - a first glimpse of Simone Biles, but also of 2012 individual all-around champion Gabby Douglas, whom I missed at the London Games.

What I saw that day was beauty in motion as the American team, known as the "Final Five", took the gold easily. What I learnt after their leap to the top of the podium, against Douglas in particular, was sheer ugliness.

Instead of being celebrated for being part of back-to-back gold-winning teams, she was flamed online.

Douglas was criticised - unfairly, in my opinion - for everything, from her physical appearance to her smile (or perceived lack thereof) to how she chose to sing her national anthem (at attention and not with her hand placed on her heart).


Gabby Douglas (second from left) of the United States standing at attention and singing the national anthem while her team-mates placed their hands on their hearts. The action sparked online criticism. PHOTO: REUTERS

She was called "unpatriotic", her hair was not straight enough, and there was even a hashtag #crabbygabby trending.

It angered me that people were talking about how her hair was not "proper" by conventional standards, instead of celebrating her extraordinary achievements.

It baffled me that Douglas had so quickly gone from being the 2012 Games' darling - she became the first African-American woman to win the prestigious all-around event - to being perceived as the diva of the 2016 Games and became the target of such sexist remarks.

I dare venture to say that among the 46 American gold medals, there were a handful of athletes who did not have their hands over their hearts for the victory ceremony.

And when was the last time a male athlete was subject to criticism because his hair was not coiffed enough?

It should be noted that of the 563 athletes representing the United States, a majority (299) were women. Of the US' 46 gold medals, 27 were won by women.

Fortunately, while Douglas' heart was broken, her spirit was not.

She soldiered on in the individual uneven bars event and said later: "Where there is hate, love is more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Hand on heart, criticism of Douglas is unfair'. Print Edition | Subscribe