gabby douglas rio
Gymnast Gabby Douglas in Rio.

The Twitterverse can be very petty.

After the US women’s team dominated the team gymnastics competition and won gold at the Rio Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas got hit by a social media storm. Why? Because she did not have her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony.

One of the uglier images that made the rounds was an image of two photos placed in contrast to each other: one of the US women’s gymnastics team and the other of the US 4×100 men’s freestyle swim team. The top caption was “Understand the difference”. Under a picture of the swim team, in which Ryan Held is wiping tears from his eyes, are the words “took hand off of heart momentarily to hide tears of pride, joy, and accomplishment.” Underneath the picture of the US women’s gymnastics team, which shows Gabby Douglas with her hands at her side, are the words “blatant disrespect”.

Douglas is an American star of the 2012 London Olympics, a member of arguably the hardest working gymnastics team in history, who has spent countless days and hours in practice and pain to help bring golden glory to the US again in Rio. Here she was, being ripped apart online because she did not have her hand on heart.

The onslaught was so swift and vicious, Douglas felt compelled to apologize:

In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played. I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone. I’m so overwhelmed at what our team accomplished today and overjoyed that we were able to bring home another gold for our country!

Douglas had no reason to apologize. Fortunately, the better angels of the Twitterverse nature agreed, and came to Douglas’ defense.

David Wottle on Winners Podium
David Wottle at the Muinch Games in 1972, Munich, Germany  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But we’ve seen this movie before.

  • In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games after their respective first and third-place finishes in the 200-meter finals because they lowered their heads and raised their fists in protest of the state of Blacks in America.
  • In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, Dave Wottle won the 800-meter finals in dramatic fashion. At the awards ceremony, he stood at attention, his hand on heart and his trademark white golf cap on head during the playing of the American national anthem. Well, tongues wagged, and the press kept asking Wottle if he was protesting something. Wottle replied very sheepishly that he simply forgot he was wearing it. Wottle is lucky that the Internet was not a factor our lives yet.
  • And for decades, the simple act of carrying the flag in the opening ceremony was a matter of consternation for Americans. Perhaps it’s the fact that America was born out of war of independence from a King in Europe. But it became customary for the flag bearer leading the American team in an Olympic opening ceremony would not dip their flag to the host country’s leader as sign of respect. While Americans dipped and not dipped over the decades, the USOC then decided in 1936 after the Berlin Games to make it policy for the US flag bearer not to dip.

In 1964, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, then head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, went as far as to recommend that the medal ceremony be dropped from the Olympics. According to a AP report, Brundage said at a press conference that “he doesn’t want national flags raised and anthems played after medal performances in the various sports because they only help to generate extreme nationalism.”

Brundage hopes to eliminate olympics victory ceremony
October 24, 1964 AP

Americans can have thin skins. Raw interpretations of what acts, what behaviors, what words are viewed as patriotic are openly voiced at the water cooler, in the press, and of course in the 21st century, most flamboyantly on the internet. This is true in sports competitions between nations as it is true in the political discourse of the US presidential campaign.

Perhaps it’s fruitless to say that calmer heads should prevail, other cheeks should be turned. But for what it’s worth, President Abraham Lincoln said it best. America’s 16th president presided over one of the most politically tumultuous periods in American history, and in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he addressed a country on the verge of civil war. The quote below are the most famous from that address, and resonate today:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln

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David Wottle on Winners Podium
02 Sep 1972, Munich, Germany — Hand over heart, America;s David Wottle stands on winner’s podium after receiving the Gold Medal in the Olympic men’s 800 meter race here today 9/2, with Soviet Silver Medal winner Evgeni Arzhanov in front of him, and Mike Boit (left) of Kenya, the Bronze medalist, behind. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
You couldn’t miss him. In the finals of the 800 meter race at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, he was the only one wearing a cap. And he was all the way in the back of the pack.

But Dave Wottle did not remain in the back. The Kenyans were setting the pace. Then the Soviet star, Yevgeniy Arzhanov, took the lead with two hundred meters to go, and Wottle of Bowling Green State University is in fifth at the beginning of his kick. As the American broadcasters shout excitedly in this particularly partisan call, Wottle passes one runner after another until nipping the Soviet at the tape to win gold.

Most athletes would bask in the warmth of victory – either jumping in jubilation, or smiling endlessly with a quiet sense of accomplishment. Instead, Wottle wore an expressionless mask, perhaps one of shock. And when he stepped up to the winner’s podium, he made a mistake in etiquette that ruined this championship moment for him.

As the American national anthem played, Wottle forgot to remove his cap. And as he mentioned in this profile in the book, Tales of Gold, “I suppose what most people will remember about me as an Olympic athlete is that I was the one who wore a golf cap while running and also that I forgot to take it off on the victory stand. That episode just dampened my whole Olympic experience. I was never so embarrassed in my life! It should have been the happiest day but it wasn’t; I was simply too embarrassed to be totally happy.”

It was 1972, four years removed from the black-fisted protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium in Mexico City, a time when the US was stuck in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and only a few days before Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, taking the Israeli team hostage, and eventually killing them. When people saw Wottle with his white cap on, and his right hand on his left breast, covering the USA patch, they may have wondered what he was protesting. The Vietnam War perhaps?

Wottle was mortified. He said he had absolutely no ill will in wearing the hat, that he simply forgot to take it off.

As Milton Richman wrote in the State Journal-Register, a local Springfield, Illinois newspaper, “The cap sells for 75 cents. You can get it for 35 cents wholesale. Dave Wottle wears it practically everywhere. He wears it when he runs. He wears it when he trains. He