Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Possible the best gymnastics article I have ever read...

I found this fabulous old article the other day.  It was an opinion piece about why the U.S women's gymnastics team didn't deserve the gold at the 2004 Olympics.  The writer, Meghan O'rourke produced many and varied reasons why the girls shouldn't have won, mostly due to uninspiring performances and a general lack of style and the "joyless efficiency" she saw in their performances.  

The thing that got me about this article was the absolutely fantastic writing.  This woman had a way with words and some wonderful descriptions.
She also really sunk her teeth into that oft-debated competition between power and grace.  And she does it so, so eloquently. 

Even if you don't agree with what she says, I'd be very surprised if you didn't enjoy the way she writes about the sport, from the vantage point of someone who has clearly done it and clearly loves it.

Here are some of the descriptive highlights from the article;

She described Oana Ban as;

 "at eighteen she resembles a hybrid of a D-cell battery and a slinky, bounding from tumbling pass to tumbling pass with alienating ease"

(photo from Gymbox)

Catalina Ponor, who possessed;

 "a graceful, earthbound style" that "combined old-school elegance with unerring athleticism"

She had interesting things to say about the presence of grace both in gymnastics and in life;

"Bhardwaj was compelling because she brought grace to the beam with her.  Grace is a funny quality, one that, in our high-speed world seems old-fashioned and strangely valueless.  Those gymnast who are primarily tumblers at heart Ban, Kupets, Patterson, may fly higher than their peers.  And yet the grace of Ponor, Bhardwaj and Khorkina packs twice as much spirit into every moment.  It makes the gymnasium seem bigger around them."

(Photo from Gymbox)

The U.S performance (she excludes Humphrey and Bhardwaj);

 "the beam and bar exercises were gracelessly efficient.  The performances on floor appeared strangely schizophrenic, alternating between stunning stumbling passes and stumbling dance moves."

In praise of Lin Li's bar routine;

 "innovative set of intricate turns and beautiful static poses that dissolved into the athletic velocity of her giants before a perfect dismount. It was what gymnastics was meant to be: a combination of strength and power, flexibility and precision, like a beautiful fight scene in a samurai movie, at once stylized and fluid."

About why people like to watch gymnastics;

"it combines raw athleticism with the transcendence of pure style"

AND is this not the best description of Svetlana Khorkina you have ever heard?

"But gymnastics only moves for me when it swings- when awesome tumbling meets an expressive turn of the wrist, and suddenly you've got a flare-ignition.
Russia's Svetlana Khorkina has it.  
Style radiated throughout that beam routine, which she executed with finicky precision, her twiggy legs bending and flexing, her toes pointed hard, her fingers splayed elegantly, each kick so precise it seemed to delineate tendon never seen before.  Khorkina is the sexy Ice Queen of gymnastics- and its bitchy Queen Bee.  
It's no surprise the male commentators keep calling her 'temperamental' despite her good behaviour. 
Every move she makes is infused with atitude, of the kind you often find in the pages of fashion magazines."

To read the entire article CLICK HERE


  1. LOL! Kupets? Joyless?

    and this line

    Yeah, this woman annoys me the way she states her opinions. Ponor's tumbling looked like crap, but she seemed to not notice. The writing's good, but she seems SO uninformed. Like the fact that she thought Khorkina's beam routine was good, or that Bhardwaj was graceful on BB...

  2. I think it would be intereting to ask the author what she thinks of Kupets now, 5 years later? Although I still would not clasify her as a premire graceful gymnast, I think she was able to find a certain charsima in later years that paired nicely with her powerful gymnastics.

    What do you think Couch Gymnast?

    And you were right about the article..lovely piece

  3. Like I said, it was the writing I loved in this article.
    But I have to say I didn't find Kupets to be that joyful in Athens. I found the smile to be a bit pasted on compared to the obvious, infectious joy she showed in college. But then I didn't find anyone to be that joyful in Athens! (I was surprised se thought Mohini was graceful on beam too. She has an elegance to her, but it wasn't that graceful. Her floor, though. That waslovely.)
    I think she was referring to Ponor's tumbling when she called it earthbound, which isn't exactly a compliment!
    Nor did she say Khorkina's beam was good. She was praising Khorkina's style, something different altogether. And I agree, no matter how technically good her gymnastics was, she always had style. I think this woman was getting at what makes gymnastics great to watch.
    I baulked a little at the Oana Ban comments. Oana was never that graceful, but gosh she was fn!

  4. Thanks for posting this article! It prompted me to re-watch the 2004 team final.

    The writer is a culture critic and poet, so she's really a casual fan of gymnastics, not an expert. But I think that gives the piece more perspective, because she's sharing the views of someone who is not a gymnastics insider, but still enjoys watching the sport.

    I think the "joy" and "grace" or lack thereof she refers to is the joy of performing, or grace under pressure. I think that on beam, Mohini most certainly did show both. And Ponor is certainly one of the most graceful gymnasts ever, even if her tumbling was not technically the best or most difficult.

    I think that overall she wanted to point to the differences in performance and style between the Americans, and the Romanians and Russians. And that her assessment supported the judges medal decisions.

    On a related but different note, since poor Kupets did have that leg injury, why did Marta put her on floor? Why didn't she sub in Terin? Come on!!!