Last week in Belgium Simone Biles made history by becoming the first woman of color to win an all-around title at the world championships, just a year after Gabby Douglas took the top spot at the Olympic Games.
Biles's win, unlike Douglas's, took virtually no one by surprise. She was coming off of a terrific rookie senior season, placing second at the American Cup and winning the national title on her first try. She looked sharp all week in Antwerp, enjoying consistent training sessions and showing the most difficult routines of any of the gymnasts. If she hit in the competition, she would win. Which she did, taking first place over teammate and Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross.
Most seem pleased with the all-around results, including Ross who had been leading Biles by a slim margin heading into the final rotation. Third-place finisher and former world champion Aliya Mustafina was also satisfied with her bronze after rebounding from a disastrous preliminary round performance.
But Carlotta Ferlito, an 18-year-old Italian who finished 11th, wasn't so impressed with Biles's win. Talking to the Italian media, she said, "I told Vanessa [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too."
Once the shit hit the Twitter, the Italian gymnast apologized for her remarks. Unfortunately, her gymnastics federation stepped in to defend her and things got even more racist. More racist than blackface? Yes, more racist than blackface.
On their Facebook page, spokesperson David Ciaralli posted a note, trying to explain how what Ferlito said wasn't really racist; rather, she was noting a "trend" in women's gymnastics whereby the rules supposedly favor black athletes. He wrote:
"Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the Code of Points is opening chances for colored 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."
After bringing up that racist oldie but goodie—blacks aren't good swimmers—he ends with this whopper, "Is gymnastics suiting colored features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?"
As Louis C.K. noted, no white person in their right mind wishes to be black. Ferlito doesn't want to be black (but after the backlash, she might wish to be invisible for a while). She's an athlete—she wants to win. And on some level, perhaps subconscious, she thinks that the rules favor elements that can only be performed by athletes of color. (I'll get back to that.) Or perhaps she believes there's affirmative action in gymnastics judging whereby black athletes are judged more favorably? Because black people being given the benefit of the doubt is something that happens all the time in real life.
What is this belief based on? That's where Ciaralli's remarks about artistry come in.
They are part of a larger ongoing conversation amongst coaches, athletes, judges, and fans as to the direction of the sport, on whether it moves in a more artistic direction or towards power and tricks, as though those are mutually exclusive categories. Most of these debates usually end with artistry supporters reminding everyone that the sport is called "artistic gymnastics," never mind that no one can agree what "artistry" in gymnastics means.
Last year, I wrote about how "artistic" or "artistry" is coded language for body type. Lithe and flexible gymnasts are routinely called "artistic" regardless of how well they dance or engage with the music or audience. Short, muscular gymnasts such as former Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson or Biles are not considered "artistic" regardless of how they move or connect. (I've seen Biles perform live twice now—she can really sell a routine.)
This, however, is the first time I've seen "artistry" brought up in the context of race. He's pitting the "European" (read: white) body types on the "artistic" side against "powerful" and black. And given that many fans feel that increasing difficulty demands are destroying the supposed artistic nature of the sport, Ciaralli's statements, for those who follow the sport closely, essentially turned Biles into the powerful bull in the elegant gymnastics china shop.
The use of "powerful" in gymnastics is similar to how certain code words are used for African-American athletes in other sports. White players, since they're not considered innately physically gifted, are talked about in terms of their mental capabilities and hard work—they have "grit," they "hustle," they're "scrappy." A study that analyzed announcer comments from 1,156 men's and women's college basketball games found that black players were characterized as "athletic" and "physically powerful" and "possessing great jumping abilities." The language of intelligence and leadership was used to describe the white players.
A separate study, tallying 4,745 descriptors for black and white NFL quarterbacks, found that "Black quarterbacks were primarily described with words and phrases that emphasized their physical gifts and their lack of mental prowess. Conversely, white quarterbacks were described as less physically gifted, but more mentally prepared for the game and less likely to make mental errors."
Swap out "intelligence" for "artistry" and you've got exactly what Ciaralli was saying in his statement about Biles and black gymnasts.
And now I'm going to do that thing that I wish I didn't have to do, which is give you a few examples of white, European athleticism and power in the sport of gymnastics. As any halfway intelligent follower of gymnastics can tell you, gymnastics has long been dominated by Russian and Romanian athletes precisely because they performed the hardest, most athletic skills. The tucked double-double on floor that both Biles and the Italian Ferrari perform? First introduced to women's floor exercise by legendary Romanian gymnast Daniela Silivaș. The two and half twisting vault that made Maroney famous? Named for the Romanian Simona Amânar, who completed it at the Sydney Olympics. In 1992, Soviet trickster Tatiana Gutsu, who did a crazy beam routine chock full of skills that are still considered hard 20 years later, beat out American Shannon Miller though many considered the Oklahoman to be more artistic.
And at the 2013 World Championships, Canadian and seemingly white person Victoria Moors became the first woman to ever perform a laid out double twisting double somersault on floor, which is the hardest tumbling element being performed in the women's competition. It now bears her name and was awarded the highest possible rating in the Code of Points. (Seriously, check out the first pass. It's crazy.)
I could cite many more examples, but you get the idea. White gymnasts perform extreme feats of athleticism to win medals all the time and always have. Some might have been more graceful than others, but all were daredevils. It's not the 1940s—you don't win medals in women's gymnastics by doing leaps across the beam.
So what about this supposed trend of black gymnasts succeeding at the expense of the artistic ones that Ciaralli cites? Well if a "trend" means two gymnasts, then yes, we've got a trend on our hands. Last summer, Douglas won the Olympic all-around, and now Biles has taken the same title at the world championships. Those are the only two women of color to win the all-around title. That's it. Just two. This makes Ferlito's comments about increasing her odds for winning by donning blackface akin to those who think that since Barack Obama won the last two presidential elections, it means that it's now easier to become president if you're black. As comedian Emily Heller said on Conan in response to a woman who suggested that people voted for Obama solely because he's black, "There's kind of a lot of stuff that happens to black people just because they are black. The presidency is like the least common."
Ditto for being black and winning gymnastics titles. Biles's father, when asked about Ferlito's statements, commented that it's "normally not in her favor being black, at least not in the world we live in."
By lumping Douglas and Biles together, the Italians make that classic and basest racist assumption—believing that members of the same minority group possess the same traits. But to the gymnastically knowledgeable, Biles and Douglas don't do the same type of gymnastics. Douglas possesses the lithe "European" physique of which Ciaralli is so enamored. She could pull off difficult moves on floor and vault, but was not considered unusually powerful. He strongest apparatus was the uneven bars, an event that demands greater technique and finesse.
Biles, on the other hand, is absolutely a power gymnast. She will never do a switch ring on beam, as Douglas did. Her worst event is bars (though she still managed a fourth-place finish in the event). She is more like Shawn Johnson in physique and skill selection. They both were known for their incredible difficulty on floor exercise, performing the same tucked double twisting double somersault as an opening pass. They racked up difficulty on beam using tumbling skills instead of dance elements.
What Douglas and Biles and do share is extreme physical talent, because there is no such thing as an international elite gymnast who isn't physically gifted. Every NBC fluff piece about Olympic gymnasts starts with how early on, their parents/coaches/siblings noticed how strong/focused/flexible they were when they were quite young. They're not competing against you and me and the rest of the mediocres; they're squaring off against other X-Men. So is Biles gifted? Absolutely. But so are Aliya Mustafina, Kyla Ross, McKayla Maroney, Larisa Iordache, Vanessa Ferrari, and even Carlotta Ferlito. No one gets to that level with merely average physical gifts. If desire and hard work were all it took, I'd be an Olympic champion. (I hope to be one in my next life.)
All the girls in the all-around final in Antwerp are tremendous athletes. They got to the competition through a combination of physical talent and hard work and succeeded under a new, demanding Code of Points. For Ferlito to suggest that Biles got to the top of the podium due to luck (or more luck than any other gymnast needs to be uninjured at the time of a major competition) or her skin color is a pretty awful, racist, factually unsupportable thing to say about a fellow gymnast.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.