Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas do backflips over the competition for 50 Greatest Black Athletes
From breaking ground to athletic dominance, these gymnasts belong in the top 10
Even on a list of outstandings, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas stand out.
When The Undefeated and SurveyMonkey polled more than 10,000 Americans to come up with the all-time, definitive word on the 50 Greatest Black Athletes, gymnasts Biles and Douglas came in at Nos. 8 and 9, respectively. The only other woman to even crack the top 10 was Queen Serena Williams at No. 6.
Leaving aside disagreements — I’m not here for arguments from folks who want to call out our means, motives, methods or madness — their presence in the top tier represents a remarkable display of the dominance, inspiration and impact the poll was attempting to measure. And also, surely, it is a marker of cultural change, especially considering how underrepresented African-Americans have historically been in gymnastics.
Biles, 20, had already won three straight world all-around gymnastics titles before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There, she helped the U.S. team earn a gold medal and won personal golds in the individual all-around, vault and floor exercises, and a bronze in the balance beam, to become the most decorated American gymnast ever.
Writing in The New Yorker, Reeves Wiedeman captured part of why Biles is properly included at the top of our list: “As I watched a group of gymnasts from New Zealand, whose every action looked pained, I was reminded of the physical awkwardness of being a teenager, but Biles moved from apparatus to apparatus like a shark in open water. In Everett, several people compared Biles to Michael Jordan, for her ability to escape gravity; and to Michael Phelps, for the perfect match of her body to her sport; and to Serena Williams, for her total dominance. I thought of Stephen Curry, who has made a habit of performing impossibly difficult athletic feats with no apparent effort.”
But for all the order-of-magnitude difference she has registered in the sport, Biles was not the first African-American woman to win individual all-around Olympic gold. That distinction belongs to Douglas, 21, who became an all-around champion in 2012 and whose improbable appearance four years later in Rio — perhaps more than any other sport, gymnastics is dominated by the young — helped lead the team to another gold, further distinguishing her in the canon of athletic achievement. Especially notable: Her breakthrough all-around gold came after generations of limited visibility and participation by blacks. This feat was the equivalent of Doug Williams quarterbacking a Super Bowl winner.
The first black Olympic gymnasts (Ron Galimore and Luci Collins) were part of the 1980 team that boycotted the Olympics in Moscow. Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino shared in a team bronze medal in 1992. Douglas won her gold only 16 years later.
Former rhythmic gymnast Wendy Hilliard, a member of the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame and a former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation (the first African-American to occupy that role), was present when both Douglas and Biles won their all-around gold medals.
She says their “exciting and well-deserved” top-10 recognition comes with a higher, and perhaps more hidden, degree of difficulty than that of many other athletes.
The need for elaborate equipment or facilities, “the expense of the sport, the amount of time and effort families and parents really have to dedicate to such a young athlete,” all hinder African-American involvement in sports such as gymnastics, swimming and figure skating that require sustained youth training.
Aside from the economic and cultural barriers, the sheer physicality of gymnastics sets it apart, Hilliard says. Injury is always a twitch away, and the grueling years of many thousands of repetitions, starting in preschool, often go unforgiven by the body.
“I think what possibly non-gymnasts don’t understand is, one, how difficult it is to make an Olympic team, and the fact that your greatness only happens kind of once every four years,” Hilliard said. It’s a singular kind of pressure because “we don’t have seasons that go on and on like baseball, football or basketball.” Having a legacy that’s so irrevocably time-stamped means “what they do is incredibly impactful and difficult because the window is so short.”
Short like the list of the greatest black athletes of all time.