Gabby, Serena, and the Perils of Sports Pioneers

Lia Neal, Gabby Douglas, Serena Williams Photo Illustration by 731 Lexinton; Photos by Dave Hogan/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images, Michael Regan/Getty Images, William West/Getty Images

Let’s face it: Gabrielle Douglas has an unusual head of hair for gymnastics. When the Olympic gymnast was flipping and spinning her way to a gold medal, her thick straightened hair began to fall out of its sleek ponytail. Some viewers at home became upset: It looked unkempt, a bit uneven, not done in a style that represents “true” African American hair. In fact, the fierce Twitter debate over the young gymnast’s hair has become one of the more memorable legacies of the London Games. The politics of dealing with curly hair in competition hasn’t been much of an issue in a sport where African American athletes are rarely seen at the elite level.

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