World Champion Gymnast Focuses on Talent, Not Racism

Simone Biles looks past the international taunts to concentrate on training for the 2016 Olympics.

Simone Biles competing during the balance beam event of the women's all-around final at the 44th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, on Oct. 4, 2013. JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Off the mat, she has also learned what racism looks like on an international stage.

“My mom said, ‘People will say things, but you just have to go back and see what you accomplished and be happy for what you did,’” Simone says softly.

In October, just after Simone was crowned the world’s greatest gymnast, an Italian competitor named Carlotta Ferlito made off-color remarks in reference to Simone and kicked off an international uproar.

“I told [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too,” Ferlito said in an interview.

To boot, Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli added fuel to the fire on the organization’s Facebook page by posting the following in Italian:

Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field … Is gymnastics suiting colored features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?

Ferlito has since apologized, tweeting she’s “just a human,” and so has the Italian Gymnastics Federation. The USA Gymnastics organization has announced that it is investigating the comments.

For many, the Italian controversy reintroduced the stereotypical argument of blacks being “built” for physical sports and slavery. At Deadspin, writer Dvora Meyers likened the hurtful comments to the storied comparisons between black and white football players, quoting from a study analyzing the terms used to describe NFL quarterbacks:

“Black quarterbacks were primarily described with words and phrases that emphasized their physical gifts and their lack of mental prowess. Conversely, white quarterbacks were described as less physically gifted, but more mentally prepared for the game and less likely to make mental errors.” Swap out “intelligence” for “artistry” and you’ve got exactly what Ciaralli was saying in his statement about Biles and black gymnasts.

Although Simone says she wasn’t surprised by her competitor’s reaction, her parents have been working to protect their daughter from future attacks, verbal or otherwise. “I talked to her about it that day and since then, saying, ‘We’re not going to address this,’” Nellie Biles says. “What was more devastating: A really good thing had just taken place for my daughter, and we all were trying to absorb it because it’s such a surreal experience.”