Gabby Dou­glas’ crit­ics can take a fly­ing leap

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruben Navarette Jr.

— If Gabby Dou­glas is feel­ing de­pressed and picked on, she can blame it on Rio.

In the Lon­don games of 2012, the U.S. Olympian was a cel­e­brated gold-medal win­ner and the first AfricanAmer­i­can to win the in­di­vid­ual all-around ti­tle in gym­nas­tics. Later, Dou­glas’ face landed on a ce­real box and mag­a­zine cov­ers. Her story was the sub­ject of a Life­time movie, and a Bar­bie doll was cre­ated in her like­ness. She was a rock star.

But this year, the re­turn­ing cham­pion be­came what her mother, Natalie Hawkins, de­scribed to CNN as “the brunt of crit­i­cism and ha-

SAN DIEGO

tred” af­ter an on­slaught of cruel and snarky com­ments on so­cial me­dia. Some of the re­marks were more per­sonal than oth­ers, but most of them were down­right mean.

For starters, the trolls crit­i­cized Dou­glas’ coarse hair, which as we should all know by now is a sen­si­tive sub­ject for many African-Amer­i­can women. The at­tack was es­pe­cially sad and ironic given that, at least on Twit­ter, this line of crit­i­cism seemed to come largely from other African-Amer­i­cans. In one of the tamer ex­am­ples, @chan­cole­mann chimed in: “So no­body did gabby Dou­glas’s hair be­fore the olympics?”

The crit­ics also chided Dou­glas for not plac­ing her hand over her heart dur­ing the na­tional an­them af­ter she and her fel­low Amer­i­cans won gold in the team com­pe­ti­tion.

The gym­nast later re­sponded in a tweet that she meant no dis­re­spect, and she apol­o­gized to any­one who was of­fended. She ex­plained that — dur­ing the “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” — she al­ways stands at at­ten­tion with her arms at her sides “out of re­spect for our country.”

Other crit­ics at­tacked her for not ap­pear­ing sup­port­ive of her team­mates when they per­formed well, and for look­ing glum at var­i­ous points dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. On Twit­ter, she was dubbed “#crab­by­gabby.”

And keep in mind, all this was hap­pen­ing as Dou­glas’ team­mate, the phe­nom­e­nal Si­mone Biles — who is also African-Amer­i­can — was blow­ing away the com­pe­ti­tion on her way to three more gold medals, in­clud­ing the in­di­vid­ual all-around ti­tle.

The cynic in me says that, in the minds of some, there wasn’t enough room to root for two African-Amer­i­can gym­nasts on the same team. So the crit­ics and the me­dia cre­ated a nar­ra­tive where one could do no wrong, and the other couldn’t get any­thing right.

The haters might have got­ten in her head. She came in a dis­tant seventh in the in­di­vid­ual com­pe­ti­tion on the un­even bars. Af­ter that dis­ap­point­ing fin­ish, the 20-year-old ad­mit­ted that the at­tacks had been “re­ally hurt­ful.”

Part of the rea­son could be that, ac­cord­ing to her mother, Dou­glas is highly sen­si­tive and in­ter­nal­izes ev­ery­thing.

“She’s like a sponge,” Hawkins told CNN. “Ev­ery­thing that you say to her, she just ab­sorbs it.”

See, that right there is the prob­lem.

In re­cent days, fans have come to Dou­glas’ de­fense and ad­vised her to ig­nore the bul­lies and stay strong.

I’ll sec­ond that. But I’ll also add one more piece of ad­vice that I’ve tried to ap­ply in my own life: When Dou­glas has praise lav­ished upon her, she has to learn not to take that se­ri­ously ei­ther. Oth­er­wise, she’s set­ting her­self up for a big fall when she goes — as do many pub­lic fig­ures — from be­ing the toast of town to just be­ing toast.

As the old say­ing goes, there is a dan­ger in be­liev­ing your own press clip­pings. If your suc­cess goes to your head, you’re go­ing to be shocked one day when you re­al­ize not ev­ery­one adores you. You’ve got to keep a sense of per­spec­tive, in the good times as well as the bad.

This can be hard to do. We all like to be told we’re great peo­ple who are do­ing great things.

In my case, I like to joke that this is not much of a prob­lem be­cause praise is such a for­eign con­cept. In the life of a colum­nist, crit­i­cisms usu­ally out­num­ber ku­dos 10-to-1. So much so that, when I’m be­ing in­tro­duced for a speech, with overly gen­er­ous re­marks, I get un­com­fort­able. I’m just not used to it.

Go­ing for­ward, Dou­glas needs to just live her life, and fo­cus on ac­com­plish­ing her next set of goals. She’ll be much hap­pier if she stops soak­ing up what other peo­ple say about her, whether it’s pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive.

She can take com­fort in the sup­port of her fans, friends and fam­ily. The naysay­ers — in lan­guage Dou­glas will ap­pre­ci­ate — can take a fly­ing leap.

Ruben Navarette Jr. is a syn­di­cated colum­nist from the Wash­ing­ton Post. His email is reuben@ruben­navarette.com.

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