Gabby Douglas and the True Story of the Olympics
This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.
Gabby Douglas – winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.
Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.
The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.
Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.
Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.
Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.
Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.
As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.
What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.
Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.
Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.
In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .
The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.
It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.
We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.
The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.
And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?
The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.
The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national. Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.