I am having a thought. It hurts...
And we know what thinking means in these parts, don't we? Here, on TCG, where we have been doing a little math lately, we often find that Big Thoughts + Couch Gymnast = what? That's right, kiddies, a giant rave!
So todays rave is about the age thing. I was thinking about Grundi's oft-criticised idea of raising the age limit of gymnasts to participate in the majors to 18 years old.
Even though it will never happen, and what I think about the idea doesn't really matter, there is, to me, that one thing it would actually achieve. This would be to raise the public profile of the sport.
I think gymnastics would be a lot more popular to a general audience if gymnasts were older. Sure, the tricks wouldn't be as hard, and we close fans who know just how spectacular it could be with the young 'uns competing get would be bored, but I have seen some of my non-fan friends go crazy over seeing a basic beam routine or a double back somi on floor. This is because to them, it all looks pretty freaking spectacular. We tend to forget, at least I do, just how hard it is just doing a really dynamic leap on the beam, let alone a standing arabian. People are impressed by the simple stuff, because it's not simple.
I think most people who don't know the sport think gymnasts are going to be older than they are. A case in point. Just before I was heading off to the Pac Rims to watch podium training on day one, I ran into my friend Colin at our local cafe. Colin, who knows I love gymnastics, says to me excitedly, "Guess where I am going?" It turns out he has been hired (he is a director) to work for ther NBC to help in making their Pac Rim footage. After we talked a little bit about how he'd been briefed (including the execs telling them who was going to win) he asked me, being a typically dirty-minded thirty-something guy, "So, will there be any hotties?"
I of course, somewhat witheringly said, "Colin, they are children." He just kind of laughed like he didn't believe me.
Later that day, I happened to be standing near him when they called the gymnasts to march out for training. And what do you know, I saw him witness these gymnasts, most of whom truly are children- some of the juniors almost fetal- march out into the arena and his face kind of dropped. Later, when I ran into him, he told me how embarassed he had been when he actually saw them. He had no idea that they's be that young. I think he was expecting the early twenties cheerleader type, more your NCAA kinds of girls.
But anyway, I don't plan on arguing that we should have older gymnasts because sex sells sport. That'd make me a bad, bad feminist. It really does sell it, though. Look at Maria Sharapova. She doesn't even have to play great tennis any more to remain a global celebrity, she just has to prove she can still put those legs with a skirt, preferably one made by a major designer, to stay famous.
(Mohini- a fascinating journey)
What I really think is that older gymnasts are more interesting. They have real life experience that inspire and affect their gymnastics. They have opinions and thoughts about the sport. Of all the gymnasts, who did the Australian media pick out to focus on during their coverage of Beijing, other than the Aussie girls? Oksana Chusovitina. Of course they did. Here is a woman with a story.
Look at some of the most intriguing personalities of the sport in the last few decades, Khorkina of course, Sacramone got better with age, Bhardwaj, Produnova, Chusovitina. All the mature gymnasts (okay, Tweddle doesn't give us much, but she still gives a decent quote). These girls were old enough to have actual stories to tell about their lives. Bhardwaj can tell you about pulling a Capriati, then finding her way from delinquent back to the gym again through college gymnastics. Chusovitina can tell you about returning to the sport essentially to save her son. Khorky will tell you her opinion on just about anything and prance down a runway too if you ask her. Khorky was the consummate gymnast celebrity. Sure, Nastia and Shawn are getting a workout in the States, the hotbed of celebrity culture, but that is because they won gold. Khorky endured long after the medals ran out.
Marta Pihan-Kulesza can tell you what it is like to have a spouse in the same sport, travelling the world together. The older Svetlana Boginskaya can tell you what it is like to see an entire country change in front of your eyes and not know how to leave her beloved sport. Annia Hatch can tell you what it is like to uproot yourself fro your tiny nation, marry and fight your way to compete for a leading nation.
(Khorky- the only true gymnast celebrity outside America)
What can little sprites, as adorable and as talented as they are, like Raluca Haidu, Anastasia Grishina and Kyla Ross tell you about their world? That after training they have to go to bed because they have homeschool tomorrow? Or that they like Friends reruns on cable? That last September they got to have ice cream?
The crossover of sports people into the world of celebrity, where we have come to know far more about sports people than just their athletic achievements means that the public has come to desire knowledge about athletes. They want background stories, to feel a close, imagined relationship with their heroes. The celebritsation of sport makes sport into not just a competition, but a form of entertainment, a cultural entitiy with a significance way beyond the Rudis and double layouts. Knowing the pesonality and the personal aims and desires that motivate the athlete has become an imperative means for the media, who, lets face it, make or break the popularity of a sport, give sport meaning to spectators.
(Chuso- a reason to contine)
Some might argue, as I argued with myself, that it was the kiddy sprite that sold gymnastics to the world. This of course, is partly true. But also, it was the fact that live television showed Olga Korbut which sold that kiddie sprite in Munich, and again, in a battle of the cuties against Nadia Comaneci in Montreal. The television made gymnastics what it is every four years, at least.
Besides, remember how frustrated journalists were interviewing Nadia, a little girl who had nothing to say but mention her doll collection? She had nothing else. The gym, her team, her coach and her dolls.
The media played as much a part of getting those elfs out into the world as they did. And how the media, and the role of the sportsperson has changed since then! The sportsperson is now an entertainment commodity, something to be bought and sold to its audience. To do so, these athletes have to participate in selling themselves by offering more than just their sport to the world. It is unfortunate most of the time, but it is how it is. Young gymnasts just don't have that much to give beyond fans of their own age. I do think this plays a part in gymnastics not having a wider general appeal.
(Nadia-one of the first media celebrities)
Also, of course, because it is one of the few sports where participation, spectatorship and coverage is dominated by the women's side of the sport.
As I said, I don't think the age limit raise will ever happen and I am not sure I want it to. But if it did, I have a feeling gymnastics would be a lot more accessible and appealing to viewers. It wouldn't matter so much if they couldn't understand the confusing rules or the spurious scoring system if they were able to sympathise with the people competing. Just a thought.