Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Racism in Gymnastics: Simone Biles Edition

Ever since African American Simone Biles dominated at last week's world championships, winning the all around and floor golds in addition to medals on beam and vault, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, race-wise. I knew that we couldn't go through a whole meet in the internet age without someone nastily bringing it up.

But I refuse to comb through Tumblr and Twitter, searching for racist comments from anonymous trolls. Finding hateful people on the internet is hardly newsworthy. But when one of Biles' competitors and the federations that represents her says something unspeakably racist? Well, sadly that's news.

Carlotta Ferlito competed against Simone Biles in both the all-around and beam event finals and gave some colorful interviews after each competition. At first, I was only aware of what she said after beam when she complained that it was unfair that the Americans had submitted an inquiry, which was granted and resulted in bumping Ferlito's teammate, Vanessa Ferrari into 4th place and out of the medals. (Hey genius--the inquiry wasn't about her execution. You can't protest an E-score. It was about her start value.)

Ferlito felt that this was unfair, that the Americans had undue sway over officials, apparently forgetting that Bruno Grandi, a fellow Italian, was actually the head of the International Gymnastics Federation. She talked about how Simone Biles' routine was the worse she had seen from the newly crowned world champion in Antwerp, which is technically true. It was Biles' shakiest routine on beam at Worlds. But that doesn't mean that it still wasn't better than Ferrari or Ferlito's efforts. After all, execution isn't just about wobbles. As one wise podcaster on Gymcastic said, "Maybe she should go back and look at her own leaps," referring to Ferlito's janky form. (Her dismount was also incredibly sloppy in the legs department.)

The point, however, is not to point to flaws in Ferlito's gymnastics but to point to a lack of self-awareness on the Italian's part.

This didn't trouble me that much. It mostly sounded like the rantings of an athlete fresh off of competitive disappointment. Not the biggest crime in the world.

What I didn't know at the time was what she had said to the Italian media after the all-around finals. After Biles won the title over fellow American Kyla Ross, Ferlito remarked, "I told Vanny (Vanessa Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin black so that we could win, too."

Whoa. That sort of took my breath away. Let's unpack this, shall we?

Ferlito is suggesting is that having black skin makes it easier to win, that somehow you get a pass from the judges? Ferlito, honey, in the history of the world, having black skin has not led to being judged more favorably or being given the benefit of the doubt. Not by the police, not by the criminal justice system, and not by gymnastics judges. There have been two all-around champions that are black. That's it. Sweetie, having black skin makes nothing in life easier.

Implicit in her remarks is the classic affirmative action argument of undeservedness, that Biles doesn't fully merit the accolades that have come her way. (She only got into the college because she's black. Or she only got hired because she's black. And so on and so forth.) Or that she doesn't work as hard because she possesses a black body, which supposedly makes it easier to win. Either way, she is implying that Biles didn't fully earn her win (despite being the most consistent gymnast all week, along with Ross).

I'll grant that Ferlito is probably unaware of the long history of blackface in the United States and how offensive it is to African Americans and how it was used to exploit them while also humiliating and degrading them. (There's a great book that looks into phenomenon of blackface called Blackface, White Noise. My people, the Jews, were big offenders when it came to using blackface in performance.) Still, to suggest that all it would take to beat your competitor was to masquerade as a different race is pretty awful.

Ferlito apologized for her comments in the modern apology forum--Twitter. So end of story? I wish.

The Italian Gymnastics Federation moved to defend its athlete and ended up making the whole thing even worse. On their Facebook page, they attempt to explain Ferlito's comments thusly:

"Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the CoP [Code of Points] is opening chances for coloured people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field.
The same comparison could be made between Biles and Ross, both from the US, a multi-racial country that is able to adapt to the constant changes in CoP.
Why are there no black swimmers? Because their physical features don’t suit the sport.  
Is gymnastics suiting coloured features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?"


(Check out a screen cap of this statement in the original Italian here. It is also where I took the translation from.) 

Whoa. This is even crazier than Ferlito's blackface remarks. (I'm not going to touch the swimming remarks but I know there are black swimmers who win medals at the world and Olympic level.)

Last year, I wrote a story for Deadspin which parsed how "artistic" or "artistry" is often a coded way of talking about body type. Thin, lithe gymnasts are often called artistic. Now, "artistry" is being employed to describe race as well. Spokesperson David Ciaralli, who penned the statement, seems to equate elegance with whiteness and power/brute force with blackness. Why does this sound familiar? Because it's the language of racism. White were cultured, elegant if you will. Black people were "savages" or had some sort of animalistic raw power. 

Let's analyze this a bit more. He suggests that the Russians and Romanians were able to dominate due to their elegance, not their acrobatics. Say what? 

Since when were the Russians and Romanians not acrobatic? The double double on floor exercise that both Biles and Ferrari perform is called the Silivas in the Code of Points, named for that famed African American gymnast Daniela Silivas? NO. It's named for the Romanian legend. Or what about the crazy skills of Tatiana Gutsu? Or the whole 1989 Soviet squad? I could go on and on and on giving examples of the Soviets and Romanians' extreme feats of athleticism but you get the idea. Russia and Romania dominated because they had the hardest skills and did them exceptionally well. What Ciaralli is really talking about is their appearance--they had the "artistic" physique and they were white. Black people, on the other hand, are not elegant. Fact: No black person has ever been a ballerina. Oh wait, this.

Obviously the "colored people" the Italian is referring to are current Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and Biles. In lumping them together, he makes the classic racist mistake, which is assuming that people of a minority are exactly the same. Biles and Douglas may both be African-American with bubbly personalities but that's where the similarities mostly end. Gymnastically knowledgeable people will tell you that Biles and Douglas do not do the same "type" of gymnastics. Biles has the powerhouse physique like a Shawn Johnson. She does very hard tumbling and a powerful vault. On beam, she uses skills like a standing full (though not at this world championships) and a full-in dismount to rack up her bonus points.

Douglas has a more lithe body, a more "European" body style to use the language of the IGF. She could do an Amanar but it wouldn't be described as powerful any more than Viktoria's Komova's Amanar could be. Her tumbling on floor was hard but she didn't make floor finals with it. Her best events were beam and bars, especially the latter. These are not the power events.

But as far Ciaralli is concerned, they're both the same. They're both black and therefore blessed with black power (not nationalist movement kind). This is also classically racist.

Let's look at the facts for a minute: while Ferrari and Ferlito had great meets, the reason they didn't get on the AA podium is because they lack the difficulty to compete and not just on the power events. (Ferrari, in fact, won the silver on floor.)

And it's not like Biles was the only one doing some of the big skills. They couldn't have surpassed Romania's Larisa Iordache or Aliya Mustafina either. Those two are the European types in the meet. Fact of the matter is, while they have a standout in Ferrari, who has been the team leader for years, they don't have the talent or abilities of the other teams--American, Russian, Chinese, or Romanian. They don't have the up-and-coming talent of Canada or Great Britain. (Hey Ciaralli--Canadian and seeming white person Victoria Moors debuted a double twisting double layout on floor in Antwerp, which is by far the hardest tumbling move in women's floor exercise. What does that do to your "colored people are powerful" theory? How about McKayla Maroney on vault? Or Giulia Steingruber on vault and floor where she does a full twisting double layout and another double layout? Again, I could go on and on and on but you get the idea.)

I don't think Ferlito should be punished forever for her remarks, but what she said was racist as much as she asserts otherwise. She thinks that not hating black people makes you not racist, but racism isn't necessarily based in animus. It's institutionalized in our systems. It frame our thoughts and how we regard the accomplishments of people of color. It allows one to look at a stupendous athlete (and all around adorable person) like Biles and reduce her accomplishment to the fact of her skin color, to imply that she doesn't fully deserve them, or because she's "powerful" she hasn't worked as hard as others. And that's a pretty awful thing to say about a fellow gymnast.

UPDATE: I think we all need to watch Jay Smooth's video about how to talk about racist comments. It's not a "who they are" conversation but a "what they did" conversation.

10 comments:

Grace said...

Thanks for writing this article. I was aghast when I read the quote by Carlotta Ferlito. I was floored when I saw the "explanation" by the Italian Federation. As African American gymnasts start to excel, I am afraid that these types of comments will increase. It gives us all a chance to discuss important issues.

cpt.Hook said...

Is it smart to punish a teenager ( teenager = underdeveloped brain ) if you are an adult? Often teenagers are literally don't understand the consequences of their actions. I can understand where her frustration comes from. Inquiry of both Americans were accepted and inquiry of the Russian wasn't ( Hey genius--the inquiry wasn't about her execution too) and it was not the first time. I never liked Ferrari's beam but, I don't think Simone's was better. All this tension comes from this preferential treatment from judges to Americans. I think all judging should be opened and only this way we can avoid such conflicts in the future.

Sara B. Dorrien said...

Thank you for this. Intelligent, eloquent, absolutely needed.

Andrea Gagliardi said...

This is great. The only thing I would add is mentioning Kyla Ross' own very mixed racial heritage. She's more tally, skinny and lithe than any of the star Europeans without an ounce of European blood.

Dvora Meyers said...

Andrea, that is a great point. Thanks!

Jodelle Vasquez said...

Well, Kyla does have ounces of European blood. "Filipino" and "Puerto Rican" are not races and represent mixtures that do include European contributions.

Thanks, Dvora. I think it's important to call racism what it is. The remarks were not simply "stupid."

PaRiAugust said...

Thank you for reporting this story.

I'm very sorry that Simone Biles has to put up with this kind of garbage. When I read that the guilty athlete, and the adult official(s) backing her up, were Italian, this unfortunately sounded familiar. Here's why:

Example 1 - politics. Here is a 2013 article (there are many more) regarding the treatment of the first Italian cabinet minister of African origin - please note the remarks and behaviour of some of the other politicians, as well as those in the general public:
http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/italy-immigration.qmt

Example 2 - sports; particularly, Italy's most popular sport, soccer. Here is a 2013 article about Italian soccer (if you google "soccer Italy racism", there are a lot more articles about the subject, too):
http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/9338962/

Truly appalling.

Dvora Meyers said...

PaRi, while I am aware of the state of racism and racial discourse in Italy, I chose to limit myself to what Ferlito and the federation said, as per the Jay Smooth video.

bugsta2012 said...

I wish people would talk about Spanish people in kids gymnastics because those judges in mass. Are really racist people ..the coaches not just my kids coach but the other coaches couldn't understand the scoring when a couple of them told ther students to watch my kid do her floor as she did a perfect front pike that no1 could do or didn't hav it yet in ther routine n a few more things on the floor and got a very low score from the red head judge that always give her a low score n the old lady with the short hair n I told them it's cause her last name is morales they always give her low scores and will give sum of her teammates a high score to try n play it off as ther routine are not difficult at all ect... I grew up with a lot of white racist people in my area when I moved when I was young and those judges are the same kind of people.. Trust me my white side would say it's cause her name you know that ..mind you that I'm half white Canadian ...just sad that they shatter her like that when she's one of the few with the biggest smile on her floor as it gets dimmer with every comp

bugsta2012 said...

I wish people would talk about Spanish people in kids gymnastics because those judges in mass. Are really racist people ..the coaches not just my kids coach but the other coaches couldn't understand the scoring when a couple of them told ther students to watch my kid do her floor as she did a perfect front pike that no1 could do or didn't hav it yet in ther routine n a few more things on the floor and got a very low score from the red head judge that always give her a low score n the old lady with the short hair n I told them it's cause her last name is morales they always give her low scores and will give sum of her teammates a high score to try n play it off as ther routine are not difficult at all ect... I grew up with a lot of white racist people in my area when I moved when I was young and those judges are the same kind of people.. Trust me my white side would say it's cause her name you know that ..mind you that I'm half white Canadian ...just sad that they shatter her like that when she's one of the few with the biggest smile on her floor as it gets dimmer with every comp