Posted on | July 29, 2012 | 46 Comments
U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglass, 16, is nicknamed “The Flying Squirrel.”
“The reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber left the Olympic gymnastics arena in tears on Sunday after failing to qualify for the finals of the all-around competition.
“Wieber, 17, of DeWitt, Mich., was long considered one of the favorites to win the gold medal in the sport’s glamour event. . . .
“But in the qualifying round Sunday, Wieber simply could not deliver.”
— New York Times
Can we talk about Olympic women’s gymnastics as a cultural phenomenon? As a focus of widespread interest, the sport entered public consciousness in 1972 with Russian gold medalist Olga Korbut’s performance in Munich, then intensified in 1976 when Rumania’s Nadia Comaneci scored an unprecedented perfect “10” in Montreal.
Comaneci won the gold medal when she was only 14 years old.
She had been training at coach Bela Karolyi’s gymnastics school since she was 7. While she was being celebrated with slow-motion montages on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Nadia was also being declared a “Hero of Socialist Labor” by Rumania’s vicious dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.
The general American attitude toward such feats during the Cold War was that, yes, of course the Communist countries dominated certain sports where, in a totalitarian dictatorship, children could be sent to train year-round at early ages in order to provide their governments with a propaganda coup in international athletic competition.
We weren’t too impressed with the quadrennial Helga-and-Boris Show at the Olympics: Yeah, the East Germans just won the women’s shotput.
America had football and NASCAR and Arnold Palmer. We didn’t give a damn about some hypermuscular Commie sideshow freak.
Women’s gymnastics, however, was different. For some reason, the spectacle of petite teenagers doing backflips and cartwheels had a marketing appeal that other sports lacked. Women’s gymnastics had the same basic “ballerina princess” vibe as figure skating.
This was especially true of the floor exercise. The vault, the uneven bars, the balance beam — yeah, OK, but the floor exercise was performed to music, so it was like dancing, and this appealed to the whole “ballerina princess” fantasy embedded deeply in the mind of every girl who ever took six weeks of dance lessons.
So while Americans moms have never gone nuts encouraging their daughters to compete with Helga the German shotput champ, from 1976 onward there was a rush of moms signing up their little girls for gymnastics. It’s not about athletics, it’s about the princess fantasy.
We are not supposed to notice or comment on this phenomenon, because it contradicts the androgynous gender-neutral ethos of feminism. The fact that the Olympic princess phenomenon represents the preferences of women themselves — the persistent admiration of distinctly feminine traits — is one of those “false consciousness” things, a violation of the egalitarian ideal that the gender theorists insist is an expression of oppressive patriarchal norms.
Feminists believe that men and women are exactly the same in their aptitudes and interests. Any observable difference between them can only be the result of discriminatory sexist social expectations. Larry Summers was practically lynched at Harvard University for doubting this.
Kyla Ross, 15, is the youngest U.S. Olympic gymnast
Something else you’re not supposed to notice or comment on: As a cultural ideal, women’s gymnastics is kind of weird.
In no other sport are top competitors so young. Kyla Ross, 15, is the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team, whose other members — Gabby Douglass and McKayla Maroney, both 16, Jordyn Wieber, 17, and Aly Raisman, 18 — bring the average age up to 16.4.
Three-fifths of the U.S. team members are no older than the minimum age of 16 (Ross is able to compete because she turns 16 before the end of the calendar year) and none is 19 or older.
Basically, by the time you’re old enough to buy a drink, you’re over the hill in world-class women’s gymnastics which, for the sake of honesty, should be renamed girl’s gymnastics.
Four years ago, it was suspected that some of the Chinese gymnasts were underage — not the first time such suspicions had arisen.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Chinese were caught using a 14-year-old on their team. In no other sport does youth provide such an advantage, as the New York Times explains:
Using younger, but obviously world-class, gymnasts is an advantage because small bodies in earlier stages of puberty can pull off bigger tricks in the air. Growing taller and maturing, with accompanying breasts and hips, complicates flips and twists.
In other words, it’s not a sport for grown-ups. Pubescent girls can perform at levels that no mature woman can hope to match, and the petite physique type which is ideal for women’s gymnastics is ideal in no other sport. As a matter of fact, the intense training and strict diet required of a top competitive gymnast has the effect of delaying normal physical development.
Olympic gymnasts can therefore be described as abnormal in roughly the same sense that a 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive tackle is abnormal. But the gigantic tackle isn’t an NFL All-Pro at 15 years old and a washed-up has-been by age 20.
Feminists complain that Barbie dolls present little girls with an impossible ideal, but isn’t the same thing true of Olympic gymnastics?
We aren’t supposed to notice or mention this, because the celebration of Olympic achievement — “USA! USA! USA!” — is marketed so heavily on TV as to permit no space for critical thought.
Responsible adulthood, however, requires us to resist the mindless consumption of whatever TV is selling, and “Olympic fever” is a made-for-TV commodity whose value should be viewed skeptically.
If there is to be a competition to determine which nation has the most highly-skilled diminutive adolescent girls, it is my patriotic duty to hope that America wins the contest. But I reserve the right to observe that this is a freakishly weird thing to compete over.
UPDATE: Linked by Ann Althouse who quotes her own 1988 letter to the New York Times, suggesting that the sport of gymnastics artificially favors a certain body type. That’s not my point at all. Rather, I am pointing to the cultural factors that made this one sport (rather than say, the mile run or the pentathlon) such a celebrated part of Olympic competition. It’s a matter of market appeal, and the popularity of women’s gymnastics therefore has a significance — it tells us something about our culture, although I’m not sure what that something is.