Pint-sized gymnastics powerhouse Gabby Douglas stands out for her strength, grace and show stopping routines, particularly on the uneven bars. She also stands out because of her race. The only black gymnast on this year’s U.S. women’s team, she is one of only a few black gymnasts to ever represent the U.S. in Olympics competition (click here to see a slideshow of others). Douglas joins swimming phenom Lia Neal, who became the second black American woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming this past weekend, in flourishing in sports not traditionally known for their racial diversity.
Before the eye rolling begins, this is not a column about rampant racism in sports. But it is an attempt to understand why some sports end up predominated by one racial group versus others, and the long-term social and cultural implications of such segregation on the field, court, or gymnastics mat.
According to Professor Rob Ruck, a sports historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively about why certain sports flourish in certain communities and not others, there are three factors that dictate which “sport takes on significance within a community of people.” First, “A set of environmental and class, or socioeconomic factors. Second, when the sport provides certain tangible and material rewards, benefits and opportunities. The third is when a particular sport has acquired a deeply rooted historic meaning to people.”