Taking the joy out of gymnastics
CHICAGO NBC will be happy to know that its “social Olympics” strategy worked on me—all the chatter on my social media networks led me to actually download an app to my iPad to watch video of the games.
Too bad what I saw didn’t keep me interested in following the games’ soap-opera-like developments, not even my old favorite: women’s gymnastics.
I’ll spare you the details about how, when I was 10, I sat enraptured by the women’s gymnastics team during the 1984 Summer Olympics—that summer practically every little girl in America was mesmerized by the acrobatic power and finesse of Mary Lou Retton. And we all took to tumbling on the carpet in front of the TV, pointing our toes and wishing we could so happily fly through the air.
But unlike much of the gymnastics events I sat through last week, Retton and the rest of the 1984 American team had something I saw very little of during this Olympics: lyricism, fluidity and, most of all, artistic beauty.
Raw, explosive power? Yes. Bare-knuckled competition? Of course. Unparalleled muscular athleticism? Beyond a doubt.
But also grim determination on the women’s faces not only before a routine but also during, when the pure joy of living a once-in-a-lifetime moment at the pinnacle of a career should have been happily savored. The pervasive get-’er-done-quick flicking movements robbed balance beam, floor and rhythmic performances of balletic grace and replaced it with competitive cheerleading’s snap and speed.
After an evening of watching women’s vault, balance beam and floor exercises, I wondered if maybe I was just feeling a bit of nostalgia that makes happy childhood memories so perfect that no present-day reality could ever compare.
But I wasn’t the only one to notice. In addition to other lamentations, The Washington Post’s sportswriter Liz Clarke nailed it in an article titled “Olympic gymnastics: As sport evolves, the joy is harder to spot.”
“Women’s gymnastics have become so technically rigorous and physically demanding that the battle for Olympic gold leaves little room for the artistry and joy that have made the sport one of the games’ most popular,” Clarke wrote, detailing how the bliss on the athletes’ faces comes only after the exertion is complete and even then seems more like relief. “With the sport’s difficulty escalating so rapidly, it’s no wonder the ‘game face’ of modern-day gymnasts tends to be a clenched jaw rather than a radiant smile.”
All sports, even all arts, evolve. But what a shame to see acrobatic near-impossibility overtake a sport that for years drew adoring crowds who were inspired not only by the wonder of this particular type of athleticism but also by the joy on the faces of the young women performing it. More explosive technical proficiency isn’t a fair trade for a little less beauty and elegance.
I could be wrong on that count—young viewers who are inspired to pursue this sport from watching these performances may never know the difference. Still, women’s gymnastics has lost my interest for now, and I won’t be pining to see it evolve any more.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.