In 1996, when Dominque Dawes became the first black woman to win an individual gymnastics medal at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, critics said her look wasn't quite right.
In 2012, Gabby Douglas became the first black woman to win the title of Individual All-Around Champion at the London Summer Olympics. She was then asked again and again to comment on critiques about her hair.
In 2013, Simone Biles became the first black woman to be world all-around champion at the gymnastics World Championship. Following her win, Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli said there was "a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of colour (well-known for power) while penalising the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years." Ciarelli also said black people were unsuited to be field managers, general managers, or swimmers.
Black women athletes, especially the ones who make it to the very top, have faced a history of being criticized for their bodies, their hair and their strength. In performative sports, like gymnastics, figure skating, and ballet, they're often subject to more elusive critiques about style and grace. The exact meaning of these comments can be hard to pin down but, they still send a clear message. This is not a black woman's sport. Black women don't belong here.
Which is part of what makes a video that went viral this weekend so exciting. It shows a young woman named Sophina DeJesus, a senior on the gymnastics team at UCLA who identifies as African American and Puerto Rican, incorporate dance moves into her Saturday floor routine that are strongly rooted in blackness.
She whips, nae naes, and hits the quan while also expertly landing difficult tumbling sequences. The routine earned her a 9.925 from the judges, but the crowd was screaming for a 10. On Facebook, the video has been watched over 26 million times.
DeJesus's routine doesn't show an athlete dominating at a traditionally white sport despite her race. It was an athlete celebrating her race in the context of a traditionally white sport. In under two minutes, DeJesus — blue hair, hip-hop beats and all — showed that black bodies and black culture belong in gymnastics.
Nevertheless, that sensibility probably won't carry over to higher level competitions, at least for now. In an interview with the New York Times, former Olympic silver medalist and former Bruin Samantha Peszek said that "international judges seem to appreciate more traditional style of floor choreography," and that the strict Olympic requirements don't allow much room for "elaborate choreography."
But that doesn't mean you won't be able to get your fix of hip-hop-infused backflips. DeJesus's UCLA team competes again on February 13, and every weekend after that until mid-April.
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