Everyone loves a winner. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when someone comes up short, why do people have to be so mean?
The social media attacks on Gabby Douglas at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer have not only been unfair, they’ve been downright inhumane.
Once it became clear early in the Games that Douglas wasn’t going to be able to soar to the heights she did in London in 2012, her critics set out to destroy her on the internet.
The talented athlete lovingly referred to as “the flying squirrel” four years ago has now become “#crabbygabby” on Twitter.
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What we have here is a classic case of cyberbullying, aimed at turning a hero into a victim. Most of us don’t like what we’re seeing, but it’s out of our hands. Only Douglas has the power to make sure the bullies don’t win.
They accused Douglas of being unpatriotic for not placing her hand over her heart while the “Star-Spangled Banner” was being played. They had nothing to say, however, when four-time gold medalist Michael Phelps laughed during the national anthem.
Then they suggested that Douglas seemed jealous sitting in the stands watching teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman compete in the all-around finals. In their view, one of the world’s most iconic sports figures had become unsportsmanlike.
They called her names, joked about her coarse hair and labeled her a loser – because that’s what bullies do.
Bullies are nothing more than cowards with a pulpit. They poke around looking for insecurities, and once they spot a weakness, they pounce like a swarm of honeybees to a field of wildflowers.
It’s easy to understand how someone who was once crowned America’s sweetheart could be rattled by all this negativity. After her final event on the uneven bars, where she came in seventh, Douglas said the criticism had been “really hurtful.” And she cried.
That’s allowed. Sometimes even the fiercest competitors get down in the dumps. But the heroes pull themselves up and keep fighting. No one knows that better than Douglas. She just has to remember who she is.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, Douglas drew the world’s attention when she became the first African-American woman to win the individual all-around title in gymnastics.
She entranced us with her stylish and energetic floor exercises in London. She soared to great heights, twirling and spinning in the air as though it were natural. The crowd was so into her performance that they began clapping along with the music.
But that was just part of it. Douglas soared above everyone in the preliminary trials, becoming the only female athlete to qualify for the individual all-around, bars and beam finals. And in the finals, she earned the highest score of anyone, propelling the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, known as the “Fierce Five,” to gold.
Snarky remarks about her hair were floating around cyberspace then as well, but the champion didn’t seem to care. For a while, we couldn’t get enough of the teenager. And she worked hard to build her brand.
Her photo appeared on special-edition boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. She graced the cover of Essence Magazine, while Glamour named her a woman of the year. A Lifetime movie was made about her, and her family appeared on a reality TV show. Her emoji, Gabbymoji, became a best-seller. A Barbie doll was even created for her.
This time around, though, Douglas, who started gymnastics when she was 6, didn’t do as well as we expected. The performance certainly wasn’t how she pictured her comeback – on top and doing amazing gymnastics, she said.
Regardless of her showing this year, Douglas is still an American hero – as are all of the Olympic athletes who train tirelessly and devote their lives to the sport they love.
Americans must not forget who Gabby Douglas is. But more importantly, Douglas has to show those bullies what a champion is. A champion flings useless criticism off her shoulders without giving it a second thought. And a champion never stops believing in herself, even when others have.
Following her victory in 2012, Douglas told NBC News how she gets through challenges.
“If you push through the hard days, then you can get through anything,” she said.
This is clearly one of those hard days, but I’m hoping she won’t allow the bullies to win. I’m rooting for Douglas to dig deep inside and find that champion who still lives within.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.