Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

This piece is dedicated to Sha'Carri Richardson, but not for the reasons you might be thinking...

First of all I believe the suspension, while draconian and wholly unrelated to her ability to perform, was unfortunate but fair. Richardson may still get to compete in the Games, just not for an individual medal. She can run in the relays, which can earn her some hardware. And she's young enough that this will only set her up for a great comeback in 2024 (which is sooner than we all realize, since these Games were delayed due to the pandemic).

I had not intended to write anything more formal about this situation with Richardson, but then I happened to catch the last hour of I, Tonya, the film about former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came away from that movie with all kinds of sympathy and mixed emotions about the way Harding got treated all of those years ago. While I recalled the broad outline of what purportedly occurred (that Harding orchestrated a physical attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan), I did not remember all of the individual players who were implicated in the matter. However, I do recall that I took a side...

And now nearly 30 years later, I have a very different read on the entire matter. 

When I tuned into the movie, it was midway at the point where Harding allegedly arranged for Kerrigan to receive a death threat, which to her understanding would be a phone call. So as not to spoil anything, that isn't exactly how things went down. Instead, the rivalry between the two women became a lot more personal. Other aspects of what we probably didn't realize or know at the time include the abusive nature of the relationship Harding had with her ex-husband, her complicated relationship with her mother, and the lack of support she endured from the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA).

I had to re-examine my own personal biases from that time about the image of figure skaters and the "type" of people who were considered representative of the sport. In particular, I thought back to the juxtaposition of Harding to Kerrigan, and how the rivalry between the two women shaped perceptions of them both on and off the ice. Even before the attack, Kerrigan enjoyed more public support as America's Sweetheart, while Harding was dubbed the Bad Girl of Skating. I hadn't thought about them or this incident in years, not even when the movie was released in 2017, but once I sat with it for a few minutes, it immediately dawned on me how not much has changed with respect to how women are scrutinized in athletics.

Even though most folks would argue that this is kind of a reach, Sha'Carri Richardson and Tonya Harding (and a bunch of other women I plan to mention in this piece), are kindred spirits who made (and will make) history.

Think about it. The critiques of Harding had everything to do with the image the USFSA sought to present to the world of American figure skaters as graceful, elegant, and poised ice princesses. A ballerina on blades. In the pantheon of memorable American champions, there were the legendary Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamil, and Tai Babilonia, then the modern champion Kristi Yamaguchi, who won the gold medal in 1992. Yamaguchi's natural successor could have either been Harding or Kerrigan, with Kerrigan in the sweet spot, having won the bronze. Harding was more athletic as the first American woman to land a triple Axel in competition, but the subjective nature of skating prized artistry and presentation above stunts (something that bedeviled France's Surya Bonaly).

And at the mention of Surya Bonaly, I thought about a long-abandoned draft from a piece I wanted to write about her a few years ago. It was after I had read an article about her (in a now-defunct publication) that reflected on her career, including the obvious racism she faced in competition. Interestingly, a few aspects of Bonaly's story were similar to Harding's: handmade costumes, loud makeup, and the unlikely rise from obscurity to national champion. There was the added element of racism, which certainly wasn't applicable to Harding, but to the extent that Bonaly was a pioneer for Black women achieving prominence in an elite sport where we had not been visible, the skating rivalry of that era should have been between them. 

However, a Harding-Bonaly rivalry was not meant to be. Instead, Bonaly was simultaneously lauded and penalized for her athleticism. She could perform BACKFLIPS on ice, but got points deducted whenever she successfully executed one. She was deemed deficient in the artistry of skating, which was the same critique of Harding, who was more of an athlete than an ice performer. The subjective nature of the scoring prevented both women from obtaining Olympic medals. Harding was criticized as the exact opposite of graceful in contrast to her teammates, with her loud colors, hair scrunchie, and white trash associates. The fact that she had overcome abuse and had dedicated her life to skating was not a narrative that could be spun to make her more likable, not even when Kerrigan was quickly downgraded from Sweetheart to Spoiled Sore Loser

The thing is, nobody is interested in seeing a movie about Nancy Kerrigan or Kristi Yamaguchi, not even on Lifetime. They were celebrated and enjoyed their moment in the bright glare of fame, but the most interesting thing that either woman has done in recent years is appear on Dancing with the Stars (as did Harding). Perhaps Bonaly can get tapped for an upcoming season...

However, before we make the quadruple toe loop from Harding to Sha'Carri Richardson, there are several other names that deserve mention, beginning with the obvious nod to none other than the late great track star Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo). Last week as the news was unfolding about Richardson's lapse in judgment, some woman took to Twitter to claim that Flo Jo was an "obvious drug user" as indicated by her long acrylics (because marijuana abuse leads to Black women storming the nail and hair salons). The only thing obvious about Flo Jo was her speed, her sex appeal, and the fact that whomever that chick is, she's a bitter, jealous shrew. And for the record, there was never any evidence that Flo Jo abused drugs.

She made history by setting world records and and stacking those medals around her neck with her own unique sense of style. I don't know why some random Australian journalist with no tangible evidence to back up her allegations felt the need to trash a dead Olympian to make her nonsensical argument about smoking weed and nail growth, but this will probably be the only reason why anyone ever remembers her.

The Williams sisters are in this mix too, because around the same time Flo Jo was flashing and Surya Bonaly was flipping off judges, two girls from Compton showed up on the professional tennis circuit with their hair beads and rackets. Previous Black champions blazed trails, but these sisters built interstate highways. They were ridiculed for their appearance, but instead of trying to fit in, they designed their own fashions. They were criticized for exploring outside interests, but that meant they weren't consumed by their sport and are actually interesting people. They advocated for pay equity and won on behalf of every woman who has competed since. Their unapologetic Blackness inspired other Black girls to pick up rackets, so even as their careers approach twilight, there are other young champions in the ranks to help inspire the next generation.

I know this piece is supposed to focus on notable women, but I'm invoking editorial privilege in mentioning the Jamaican men's 1988 bobsled team--a group of sprinters whose quest for Olympic glory became the inspiration for the Disney film Cool Runnings. The fact that they weren't the first tropical nation to compete in the Winter Olympics notwithstanding, the point is that it takes audacity to do the unexpected. And what was written off as a novelty for the men has become a crusade for the women's Jamaican bobsled team, possibly on their way to winning medals. And they are frank that their motivation is to change the complexion of the Winter Games, which in my opinion is rather badass to declare that Black women from the Caribbean can be snow bunnies too.

And if this was just about highlighting the various pioneers, then Debi Thomas deserves recognition for being the first Black woman to win a medal in figure skating. Yet, she was quickly forgotten, until she resurfaced years later in the tabloids, her life a train wreck. She was the epitome of Black Girl Magic before that became a hashtag, but sometimes stars implode and that is what some folks are more interested in witnessing. I'm guessing that there are a lot of people in the world that predict the same fate for Richardson.

Not that weed is on par with mental illness or illegal doping, which is what destroyed Marion Jones, a tragic cautionary Icarus tale of great triumph and tragedy. She became the public face of an Olympic doping scandal that resulted in her losing her medals and world records. Several athletes were implicated, but it was her downfall that served as the catalyst for the kind of rigorous drug testing that disqualified Richardson. 

The thing is, folks can sell more papers when someone stumbles than when they win. Right now, a bunch of folks are opining about the fairness of Richardson's suspension and whether it is racist (which to me it isn't), when the real story is how this young sister took responsibility for her mistake. In a world where folks are claiming alternative facts and embracing lies, this woman declared that there are inescapable truths and unfortunate consequences. So instead of arguing about how she's being mistreated, or admonishing her for the choice to smoke weed and literally blow this opportunity...what if we applauded her for owning it?

And she owns all of it, from showing up to compete in her colorful hair, eyelashes, tattoos, and the acrylics to admitting that she knew better. No need to compare her to other athletes who soldiered on in the face of tragedy, because y'all conveniently omit certain cogent details and are selective with your praise. Y'all didn't applaud Tonya Harding for escaping an abusive marriage. Y'all didn't try to intervene to save Debi Thomas from chronic over-achieving and perfectionism. Y'all knew Marion Jones was headed for disaster and watched her crash. Before she failed this drug test, y'all were debating whether Richardson was respectable enough to get featured on a Wheaties Box. What kind of example is she for our young girls...because she's confident and authentic? Isn't that the message we've been bombarding them with since birth--that you can be your own unique self and be great? When did we add the asterisk *but only if you wear pearls and are VOGUE-cover ready? 

As for the rules are rules crowd...

Rules change all of the time. A bunch of new discriminatory rules and policies went into effect to define who is eligible to compete in sports. Half of Simone Biles' floor routine has been outlawed so that she doesn't dominate the other gymnasts. I'm not saying that weed shouldn't be banned, but we all know it is the exact opposite of performance enhancing. It was a mistake, a costly one, but let it be the lesson Sha'Carri can impart to others. And, let's hope she gets some big-time endorsement deals from OPI, Sally Beauty Supply, and some major CBD distributors.

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