The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Olympic Princess Fantasy

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.


46 Responses to “The Olympic Princess Fantasy”

  1. ravenshrike
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    There was an entire movie about this, along with the  insanity of the scoring.

  2. J.C. Cleaver
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

     Stick It –

    I’m not sure I’d call it “weird”… at least no more weird than the NFL, or any other sports event.

    It’s “weird” if you’re looking at it (and supporting it) from a feminist perspective, though… definitely.

  3. Kristi
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    At no point in my life did I ever think this was any different than little-kid beauty pageants. It’s the same thing almost exactly. 
    Plus I’m old enough to remember that National Lampoon record with that one part about gymnastics in it. You know which one, I bet. 

  4. Charles G Hill
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    For the record, Nadia eventually married Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, and they’re living happily ever after in Norman, Oklahoma.

  5. Dianna Deeley
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    I’ve always admired the strength and balance of gymnasts. These days, though, I watch and all I can think of is the damage to their joints and shudder. 

  6. Don Surber
    July 29th, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    “Everybody please denounce me as a hateful unpatriotic sexist swine”

    Your wish=my command, you hateful unpatriotic sexist swine

  7. robertstacymccain
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    Never heard anything about gymnastics from National Lampoon. Gymnastics is less weird than “Toddlers & Tiaras,” but that’s not saying much.

  8. robertstacymccain
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

    Yeah, but in Oklahoma, everybody lives happily ever after.

  9. Charles
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    Just avert your eyes and wait for the women’s beach volleyball.

  10. Adjoran
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

     Until Elizabeth Warren forecloses on their mortgage and flips their house, at least.

  11. Dan Collins
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:19 pm


  12. bradley
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

     “Gymnasty” off the That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick album.

    Here’s a link to it.

  13. Bob Belvedere
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    Our concerns change as we get older – I’ve thought the same thing.

  14. Bob Belvedere
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    I’d do it, but then I’d have to denounce myself.

  15. Bob Belvedere
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    I well rember Olga and Nadia: I was a teenager at the time and watched Women’s Gymnastics for the babes.  Unlike most girls in my age group, these gals had adult-like gams [it should be noted, however, that when Gymnastics conflicted with The Golddiggers* on TV, the latter won hands (and legs) down every time].

    Now as an old man of fifty, I see it though as party-time for pedophiles.

    Now, as for Women’s Vollyball, well….


  16. Anamika
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    10 Tropes About Women That Women Should Stop Laughing About

    […]It’s too easy to sit back and laugh at something like this while remaining blind to its more insidious elements. Because what Estes is describing, tongue in cheek or not, is a stereotype of a woman that a lot of people actually do believe exists. (If you’ve been to college at any point in the last 50 years, you probably remember someone referring to that girl who was just there for her “MRS” degree, no?) What’s ultimately gross about those jokes and this piece is that they’re just another vehicle for woman-bashing, albeit one cloaked in extreme ridiculousness or even in a kind of presumed feminism, aka, women shouldn’t go to college to try to find husbands. But to mock women for, say, actively wanting to get married (while on the other side of the coin, mocking them for not doing that) presents a situation in which women are stereotyped and criticized for whatever they choose—and whatever they choose has to do with men in these and most examples. In fact, a look at some of the most common stereotypes about women indicate a frightening reality: In the collective mind, sometimes there is no way for women to behave.

    In the vein of our 9 articles “for women” that journalists should stop writing, here are 10 stereotypes about women that we should be very careful about passing off as meaningless jokes. […] Read more

    Question to men here:

    What male stereotype do you identify with even realizing that it isn’t fair to pin it on you?

  17. richard mcenroe
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

     I would have thought the shortage of 160 pound female gymnasts would have turned you off the sport.

    And hey, remember Robin Williams’ routine about gymnastics…

  18. Dan Collins
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

     I’m sorry, did you say something? I was watching TV.

  19. Quartermaster
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    That’s OK. Everyone knows us conservatives have low self esteem.

  20. Quartermaster
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    You mean “Sexist pig,” or something very close.

  21. Anamika
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

    I guess every princess needs a prince in polyester to be in charge of where things are kept.

    Someone will always look for the pea. Someone will always play the princess and the queen.

  22. richard mcenroe
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

     Sorry, I was busy cleaning my guns at the kitchen table in a sleeveless t-shirt.  Come again?

  23. Anamika
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    If this doesn’t entertain you, ok, whine about it. Or, go play Farmville, Cityville or be a princess in Castleville. Better yet, go play with your halberd and some mud.

  24. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:52 pm
  25. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    Only in Norman.  Only in Norman.  Go Soooooooners!  

  26. Mike G.
    July 29th, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

     So, which category do you belong in? I would say “Feminazi Shrew”, but I don’t want to be presumptuous.

  27. Quartermaster
    July 29th, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

    Waaaaaaaaaay to thin.

  28. robertstacymccain
    July 29th, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

    Yeah, I was 12 in 1972 and 16 in 1976, and this sport — teenage girls in leotards — had a natural appeal to the adolescent male. That’s a given. What makes Olympic gymnastics such a huge audience-getter, however, is the sport’s appeal to a female viewership, which was what I was trying to examine.

    Any adult guy who’s into women’s gymnastics — I dunno, maybe they need to get Chris Hansen of Dateline NBC to do an intro: “Have a seat there.”

  29. McGehee
    July 29th, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    But if he’s a hateful unpatriotic sexist swine, what’s to denounce?

  30. PGlenn
    July 29th, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    RSM: I thought it would never happen! After all these years, I’ve finally encountered some critical feminism toward which I’m sympathetic.

    I normally make fun of women’s sports, but girls gymnastics is different. Women’s world cup soccer and olympic basketball, e.g., just suck – they can’t play. My reaction to those contrived events is a partonizing guffaw. 

    With girls gymnastics, I’m awed at their brilliance, yet watching it I get an overwhelming feeling of dread. It has sort of a 21st century Dickensian aspect to it. Why don’t they just go ahead and get 15 year old boys to practice power lifting, while they’re at it?

    And, yeah, I know that 15 year old girls are a lot better at gymnastics than 15 year old boys are at powerlifting, but the long-term effects might not be much different. 

  31. jc collins
    July 29th, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    Rates plus5 on the ick factor.  I mean, I’d be proud of my daughter, butreally, having a bunch of old guys pretending that it’s all about grace, poise, and co-ordination is just…

    Teach ’em Tai Kwon Do, or something that doesn’t end with menarche and also teaches grace, poise, and co-ordination, as well as kicking ass as a lagniappe.

  32. The Olympics Make No Sense « Andrew J. Patrick
    July 29th, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

    […] more on the inherent creepiness of girls’ women’s gymnastics, see Stacy […]

  33. K-Bob
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:23 am

     “they can’t play”

    You aren’t paying attention, then.  Women’s netball (sort of like basketball) is a heavily watched sport in a lot of countries. Worldwide, womens soccer and volleyball are competitive as hell.  The top pro women could probably beat the top college amateur men.  That’s not a bad crossover point before letting the guys run with the “real deal.”

    Most men can’t compete at the collegiate level.

  34. K-Bob
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    Or the EPA takes over any puddles and ditches on their property.

  35. K-Bob
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    I think the part of the sport I like is anything-but-the-floor-exercise.  The floor exercise is just plain creepy.  Something about the sight of such young kids waggling suggestively makes me cringe.  Just go back to tumbling and flips, for the love of God.

    But watching Mary Lou Retton win her gold medal on the vault was one of the most amazing moments in sport, ever.  And it looks like an actual sport, too.  Unlike those damn streamers and hip waggles.

    Call me weird, but I’d far rather watch Kimberly Rhode win a fifth consecutive Olympics medal, at her age and with her decidedly non-gymnast build.  Now that was some serious shootin’.

  36. Bob Belvedere
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:46 am

    I understood your point.  I just got nostalgic for a more innocent time before I discovered Sweet Sweet Connie, Cynthia Plastercaster, and Miss Pamela.

  37. Bob Belvedere
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    Sorry, I was busy telling my wife what her assignments around the house were this week, while I had her cooking my dinner.  Come again, trollop?

  38. Bob Belvedere
    July 30th, 2012 @ 7:53 am

    Yeah, but K-Bob, your argument falls apart when you take into account the fact that the rest of the world sucks – big time.

  39. 1bulwetweft
    July 30th, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    Shush – women’s beach volleyball is on!

    Where’s my beer, wench?!

  40. PGlenn
    July 30th, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    I’m not familiar with netball. I’ll take your word for that.

    I very seriously doubt that the U.S. Women’s World Cup team, which as you know is basically a very high-level “all star” team in that sport, would be able to compete with a mid-level men’s collegiate team. For example, these ladies pass and defend very poorly, I’m afraid. Off the top of my head, I’ll take Duquesne’s men’s team over the U.S. ladies all day long, but I doubt we can arrange that match-up (I’d be accused of being a 21st century Bobby Riggs).

    Volleyball – I have no idea. Fine, though. Women also excel at very long distance running (100 mile races). I also conceded that women excel at gymnastics. My point wasn’t really that women are bad at all sports – they must certainly are not. But that we’re supposed to pretend that women’s basketball is a viable commercial commodity. 

  41. SDN
    July 30th, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

     “Why don’t they just go ahead and get 15 year old boys to practice power lifting, while they’re at it?”

    You must not be familiar with high school football. The weight training regimen of the typical star lineman produces some power lifting physiques, even without biochemical assistance.

  42. richard mcenroe
    July 30th, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

     Twitter Crash “person” of interest in new Olympics Scandal…

  43. K-Bob
    July 30th, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    I dunno. Australia is nice. Canada is nice. Britain is nice when you discount London and everything within 50 miles of it. (London is about as British as Indianapolis these days, if Indianapolis were full of foreigners.)

    I think all of those places should be made states, and South-Central, coastal California should be chopped out and given away. Sort of a “bay enlargement” project.

    Keep San Diego; put up a bigger fence.

    What else should we do with our imaginary, giant scissors?

  44. K-Bob
    July 30th, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    I disagree with you on that point about the Olympic women vs. collegiate men.  Besides, on any given day, I’ve seen pro men’s soccer, basketball, and hockey where they pass like little girls.

    I’ve followed the U. of Michigan women’s soccer team, and while there isn’t a female Beckham or Pele, there are some very good players.

    If you’ve noticed the women’s volleyball this year, the ball is moving much faster these days.  I think in a few years you’ll see similar speedup in the action with women’s soccer.

  45. USA! USA! USA! : The Other McCain
    July 30th, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    […] graduate of Stanford University, where she twice led the team in scoring. Readers may remember my complaints about the scrawny little girls of Olympic gymnastics.No such complaints about Melissa Seidemann.Having alerted my colleague Dan Collins, I declare […]

  46. Olympic Boob Shot? USA! USA! USA! : The Other McCain
    August 2nd, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    […] drooling over those lanky beach volleyball chicks — or even getting twisted thrills watching jailbait gymnasts, you sick freaks — who told you that women’s water polo is the sport to watch for […]