Sunday, May 10, 2009


"It's Not the Olympics"

You know, I find it, like many other people in the gymnastics world, a bit sad that the Olympics has become the be-all-and-end-all of the competitive world in this sport.  Of course I love the build up to the 'big one' and i love all the guessing and mad-predicting that goes on in the period before the Olympics, over who will make what team.  I love and hate the finger-crossing over injuries, and the wondering over the wild cards.  
But in some ways i think this relentless focus on it as the pinnacle of competition makes the gymnasts career so much harder.
For one, the age issue wouldn't be such a problem if the World Championships were as considered as important a competition (which they really should be). There wouldn't be as much imperative to train gymnasts to peak at exactly the right time in a four-year space.  We wouldn't have as many issues with underage gymnasts, because if a yearly competition were the focus, everyone would have more of an opportunity  to get on THAT team.  
If a gymnast didn't make the Olympics because of injury, or peaking at the wrong time, it wouldn't be quite so painful and difficult a decision over wether they have the stamina or time and money to devote to themselves to another year, instead of another four (which must seem an interminable amount of time after the end of each quad) years of  hard training.
But the another thing thing that upsets me, is how the ruthless focus on getting to the Olympics works to devalue other gymnastics experiences.  
I was watching, rather belatedly, Gymnastike's coverage of the UCLA team the other night.  Watching Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs talk about the Beijing experience really brought this issue home for me.  I have heard her talk about it before too, and it is obvious she didn't have the competition she wanted to have, missing out on beam finals was particularly hard for her (and me!).  The one thing that struck me though, is the way she talked about how, in every competition leading up to Beijing, if she made a mistake, she would say, or her coach would say, "Oh well, it's not the Olympics" and how every other competition was simply considered training for the big one rather than being treated as an experience in itself.  It sounds, in this interview, as though Elyse has done some good hard thinking about this, in the wake of her disappointment, and come to see that hers was an incredibly successful career, despite her less-than-expected performance in Beijing .  But it sounds like it took a bit of work and self-examination to get herself into this psychological and emotional space where she can look back and feel proud, but the dissapointment is still evident in her face as she talks about it all.

Watch the video right here, or go to Gymnastike to watch it and the rest of the great UCLA coverage, including Aisha Gerber talking about her move to college.

I guess this Olympic-oriented sport is even harder for gymnasts from countries like Canada, who didn't qualify a team.  Elyse not only had the expectations of herself and her coaches, she had the expectations of her country pinned on her as she performed in Beijing.  
Then of course, there are the girls who 'missed out' altogether...
Think of Elsa Garcia, who didn't get to come to the party at all even though she has been a shining light for both Mexican and international gymnastics over the last quad.  Who knows if she will last another four years? 
Think of Hollie Vise's face when those (evil) television people filmed her not being selected to the Athens team.  It was clearly such a terrible (and probably humiliating) moment for her, despite the fact she has world medals, which, as far as I am concerned, should be considered such an amazing achievement.

I also think of the utter horror of girls like Shayla Worley and Betty Okino not mentioning FRACTURES IN THEIR BONES FOR GOD"S SAKES!!! in order to increase their chances of getting onto the U.S Olympic team.  I think of the Russians and Romanians and the North Koreans sending tiny little girls to do their work of winning medals for them because they weren't sure these girls would still be able to do the tricks they needed them to do in order to bag medals when they were actually became of legal age to compete?.
These things wouldn't seem so big and so tragic and there wouldn't be as much pressure on these girls if competition peaked every year, like it does for tennis and soccer and football players each, rather than in this lengthy quad system where anything and everything can change dramatically for an athlete (and often does) in a space of four years.
I know that there is little that can be done about it, and that competitions like the Worlds and Euros are considered very important to some degree.  I know the Olympic gymnastics competition is super-exciting because it is such a build up.  But what really makes me sad is thinking about gymnasts, who already probably have the shortest sporting careers out there, going to other competitions, training and travelling, but all the time not experiencing each of these adventures in their careers as an important experience and achievement in itself, because it is "not the Olympics".  That is how we end up with breakdowns such as the one experienced by Alicia Sacramone who basically sat in her house and cried for weeks on end because basically her development as an athlete did not coordinate its peak with this arbitrary and interminable four-year competitive climax before Athens. I hate having to consider experiences like the traumatic time Dasha Joura had at Beijing as 'tragic' because how do we know if this infectious and talented girl has another four years 'in her'?

I think of a gymnast as ridiculously successful as Svetlana Khorkina who might see her career as somehow less than it was because an incorrectly measured vaulting horse may have affected one of her failed attempts at getting that coveted Olympic AA crown.  I hate that a gymnast like Elyse who came
16th in the world, a fantastic result for both her and her country, sees her Olympic competition in a negative light because of the unbelievable and quite ridiculous need for an athlete to have to spend years simply working to ensure she has the competition of her life one week in...every...four....years.
Frankly, it just seems kinda sad that these girls are living for a moment that is may only happen to them once. Gymnastics is such a fantastic sport, every moment should count.
Rant Over.

Also, i want to say, as a gym fan, thanks to Anne and crew at Gymnastike, there are no wrds to describe what a welcome and wonderful addition the site had been in covering gymnastics in the U.S. I am sure it is hard, but fun work, and I know i am grateful for all this awesome coverage and others must be too.


  1. This was a great "rant"; you have completely echoed my feelings and then some.

    Now, if only we could get the channels that broadcast gymnastics and casual once-every-four-years viewers on board...

  2. The extreme focus on the Olympics is what I think causes world cup events to be so poorly attended. Gymnasts care so much about their Olympic dream that they aren't interested in other competitions.

    I also do hate the media focus exclusively on Olympic gymnastics. It takes away attention from gymnasts who may not have gone to the Olympics, or may have had bad results there, but did well in the World Championships or other competitions.

    Back in the US, ABC gave worlds some coverage on The Wide World of Sports. But now that program has ended, so Universal Sports/WCSN, is the only network that covers it, with NBC giving a hevily edited highlights show.

  3. Very very well said. While I'm glad that Khorkina stuck around to give a third shot at Olympic AA gold, it does seem so arbitrary that this particular medal would mean more than her World AA medals (where, correct me if I'm wrong, she was competing against a larger pool of successful athletes!). It seems unfair that her accomplishments would be underscored, and she's not the only one--just take Alicia Sacramone, who so many people tout as a failure, despite her record as one of the most successful US gymnasts in history.

    I completely agree, too, that placing more emphasis on other competitions would help with age cheating and competing with injuries. it seems most gymnasts get one Olympic opportunity.

    And really, with only one high-profile event, it's hard to get a fan base for the sport.

  4. That was a wonderful and eloquent post. Thank you.

  5. See, your point is valid in the high levels of equesterian sports such as 3-day Eventing. While the Olympics are important, there are other events like Badminton in England and the World Equesterian Games.

    World championships and The grand prix series are also more reviered in figure skating too. Jeffery Buttle is seen as a great skater even though he never medaled at the Olympics.

    I think this is a great rant :)

  6. i totally hear you. i am a "classic" couch gymnast - i never did the sport - i only watch it on TV and youtube. I've watched the Olympic gymnastics on TV since 2000 - every single time I watch it I see these girls living through what should be the pinnacle of their careers (think Trudy McIntosh 2000 - thought the Aussies were genuine medal chances - and came away very disappointed) - and wonder whether they feel underwhelmed at all. Certainly watching it on TV sometimes I have looked forward to it so much and just seem underwhelmed by it all.
    In Athens prelims particularly with minimal crowds sitting in - you do have to wonder - is the Olympics such a big deal after all???? Can't forget Courtney McCool's face right before her triple twist on floor (when she wnet OOB) and you could just see the panic of crap I'm actually at the Olympics I can't mess up now written all over her face.

  7. big fat WORD to everything you said. Not sure how to fix it, but huge agreement on this end!

  8. fantastic post. You hit the nail on the head.