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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Micro-Moment Olympics

Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt, and Michael Phelps show us the best and worst of sports fans

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is a small Olympics. Everything has been GIF’d, memed, slow-mo’d, or otherwise captured, blown up, enhanced, and coded for our consumption. This produces some objectively good and pure things. Things that make the fact that Twitter is still free increasingly unbelievable, like this synchronized swimming routine that was hilariously repurposed for hours over the weekend before the NBC Fun Police yanked it down:

Brief moments are amplified, like Michael Phelps’ Mutombo finger wag after winning the 200m butterfly. Or this, which doesn’t really help my point, I just need everyone to know that it exists.

Through sharing and quote-tweeting and photoshopping and generally Getting These Jokes Off, actual accomplishments begin to shrink into the background. Does it matter that Shaunae Miller beat favorite Allyson Felix in the women’s 400m final, or are we just happy that she delivered the final counterpoint to neck leans while doing so? Does anyone even care if Severo Jesus Jurado Lopez and his horse actually won in dressage (they didn’t, and I don’t), or just that Lorenzo (THAT’S THE HORSE’S NAME) was two-stepping to the seminal 1999 hit, “Smooth” by Santana feat. Rob Thomas? Which will you remember: that Usain Bolt beat Justin Gatlin in the final of the 100m again, or that he was smiling as he beat the field in the semifinal by two full strides while more or less jogging?

But bad things also arise from the same (I swore I would never say “meme culture”) meme culture. Everything an athlete does is put under a microscope and picked apart, and people notice things they ordinarily would have glossed over, often at the athlete’s expense.

Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas finished seventh in the uneven bars on Sunday night. It was likely her last Olympic event, and she’s accomplished something major by even making it to Rio. Douglas might’ve hoped to follow up her 2012 gold-medal performance in London (which made her the first black woman ever to win the Olympic all-around title) with a better showing this go-round, but if this is it for her career, she’s had an incredible run. She scored a 15.766 in her only event of the team finals to win her third gold medal, making her and teammate Aly Raisman the only American women in history to accomplish that feat, at the time. Douglas has reached immortality at the age of 20, damn it, and should never have to apologize for anything.

And yet.

Douglas was the lone member of the Final Five who didn’t put her hand over her heart for the National Anthem, when the U.S. was awarded gold last week. This was totally fine, because putting your hand over your heart for the National Anthem isn’t really a thing. The Olympic committee maintains that there is no protocol for National Anthem etiquette. And, by the way, she is an Olympic athlete, so she probably really loves America quite a bit. But still, Douglas was painted as unpatriotic. This was her micro-moment, and people had seized on it. She felt compelled to apologize for herself.

She missed out on a chance to compete in the individual all-around finals. And when Simone Biles and Raisman medaled in the event, Douglas was compelled to apologize for herself again, this time for not cheering her teammates passionately enough for all the amateur cheering experts out there.

You’d be forgiven for being amazed at the last part of that quote. Wow, she’s so mature! Look at all she can bear! But then, you keep reading.

USA Today’s Sam Amick painted a cripplingly sad picture of Douglas, post-media scrum, scrolling and swiping through hateful social media.

It shouldn’t be this way. Douglas has been to the Olympic mountain top twice now. She should be having the time of her life in Rio. But now, instead of focusing on fun moments like her perfect double layout that helped Team USA win gold or even just the adorably awkward dap she gave Raisman after her teammate nailed the vault of her life, Douglas has been harangued to tears by a peanut gallery of body language “experts” and armchair pundits. It’s gotten to the point that there’s a “#LOVE4GABBYUSA” campaign; a well-intentioned attempt to offset the beloved athlete’s being harassed off of social media. It’s wonderful and heartwarming, but that it’s gotten to this point is ridiculous. Mary Lou Retton never had to deal with this shit.

I could say something like “the things we say on the internet actually echo in real life,” but we already know that. Douglas’ plight is only the most recent in a string of countless others like it, instances that have had ranging effects on the affronted, resulting in everything from tears to suicide attempts.

This complete and utter bullshit needs to stop. I hope the U.S. men’s basketball team sorts out their defensive problems and wins gold, just so they can be “unpatriotic” on the medal stand, in solidarity. That would be an image worth remembering.