Gabby Douglas, one of the Team USA gymnasts who received overwhelming attention four years ago for her amazing performances and personality throughout the London games, has been coming under fire for her behavior on the podium after Team USA won the women's all-around the other night. And honestly, I can't stand it.
This post is a response to a controversy summarized in this article from the LA Times. All opinions expressed in my post are my own. Photo sourced from the same article.
So the debate here is, what is proper podium behavior? Gabby didn't have her hand over her heart during the anthem. She didn't cry or smile or even laugh like Michael Phelps did (but that was okay because his teammates were making him do it, right). She stood there solemnly with her hands clasped in front of her. THE HORROR!
As a multi-sport athlete, I have stood for the anthem many, many, many times throughout my career. Hundreds of anthems, maybe even a thousand. Sometimes it was just instrumental, a recording; other times, it was a live, unaccompanied singer. Every time, it was the same anthem, and it meant the same thing to me every time - regardless of how I was standing during it. My body language changed day to day, because life is different day to day. You can bet that before a particularly big game, I was practically chomping at the bit during that anthem, bouncing as much as I could get away with, keeping my energy up so I could tear out of the gate the moment I was able. But there were other days when, for a wide variety of reasons, I just stood there. Solemnly, hands clasped in front of me. Just like Gabby.
And you know what? It's completely okay to stand for the anthem that way, if that's how you're feeling. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics frequently makes athletes act with more emotion while their anthem plays, but there's more to a human being than any one particular moment. Gabby was denied a chance to compete for another event for which she was the third-highest qualifier because of a silly rule. Don't you think maybe that might have been on her mind a bit? "Oh hey, I could be maybe doing this again in a couple days, but even though I've earned my chance, I'm not allowed because my teammates are also awesome." How would you feel?
Photo source: TeamUSA.org
Maybe that wasn't part of it, though apparently the media wants to say Gabby was "pouting" on the podium and if that's what you want to call it, I'd say her exclusion from the individual all-around is probably a fair reason for her to be a little more subdued despite the team excitement. Or maybe instead she's exhausted and overwhelmed - y'know, like she literally said she was. It's the Olympics, man! The culmination of some of the most rigourous training programs in existence! Weeks of tension, excitement, disappointment, emotion, travel, everything that can overwhelm and exhaust a person. Even the gold medal high can only take someone so far. After all, no matter how amazing these athletes are, they're still only human.
Bottom line: lay off Gabby Douglas. Maybe she had an off day. Maybe her heart really DID fully appreciate the "weight of their [the words of the national anthem] meaning" but her body simply couldn't convey it in a certain way. Can we please stop beating up on Gabby and accept that she is a human being who is going through an absolutely insane time in her life (AGAIN) and that maybe it's not only possible but acceptable for a person to still be reverent without putting their hand on their heart? Let's just get over it and put our support behind ALL of our athletes - Gabby still has more competition ahead of her, and she needs her country on her side, not adding to her stress and breaking her concentration. In the end, that's probably all this was anyway: an athlete who still has major events pending and didn't get caught up in the celebration too early.
Get it, Gabby. USA, ALL THE WAY!
UPDATES - I am going to be updating this post as I get feedback from readers, as I think some of what has been said to me about this issue is very interesting and informative.
1. There IS an official Flag Code that dictates all non-military personnel place their hand over their heart while the anthem is playing. I knew there were flag codes for the military but did not know there was an official United States code that applies to everyone. Perhaps it would be relevant to include this information in an Olympic participant's pre-Games preparation? Maybe have a Team USA meeting or email or something so everyone is on the same page? There are many times when Olympians don't have their hand over their heart during the anthem, but if that's the actual official way to respect the anthem, let's make sure everyone knows!
2. On the other hand, let's look at American professional sports world. Take, for instance, the championship Cavs team pictured above. Only one of them has their hand over their heart - the rest are standing much like Gabby (and like myself at most events, with hands clasped behind the back). I don't think I've ever seen a full team with hand-to-heart for an anthem, not in baseball nor basketball nor football, nor any other sport I've seen televised. We don't tell these athletes they are being disrespectful, or smear their names or give them any other kind of grief over the way they stand. No one is doing anything intentionally disrespectful, no one is causing a ruckus or trying to steal the attention away from the flag or anthem. They probably don't know about Flag Code either! We can't hold our Olympic athletes to a different standard than our paid professionals when it comes to this kind of thing, can we?
So let's hear your side - do you think Gabby's solemnity was inappropriate? What IS appropriate behavior during one of your young life's most emotional and defining moments? Do you think that someone who has already been through the excitment and emotion might have a different response the next time around?