Monday, November 1, 2010


Gymnastics Coaching has already directed readers to take a look at this article by Ollie Williams;

 'Understanding China's Powerhouse',

but I though I too would mention it in case you haven't yet looked.
Williams attempts an interpretation of China's behaviors and reactions to their mixed success in Rotterdam, largely through a lens of cultural determinism.  In doing so, Williams asks many in the British Gymnastics world of their opinion of the state of coaching and training in China.  It is an interesting read on many levels, particularly in terms of media and cultural representations of gymnastics on a cross-cultural level.

"I remember Sir Matthew Pinsent's report in 2005. He thought it bordered on cruelty but you walk into an alien culture, you look at what people are doing and you make a value judgement based on your own system.
"I believed at the time, and I still think it's true, that people react to flavour-of-the-month opinion. Every Olympic Games we come up with the same gems of gossip - Chinese children, Russian children, Romanian children being abused. We pick up where we left off every four years."

Of course, this kind of cultural reading is unavoidable, and not wrong in any way.  But, as you will see from reader reactions to discussions about gymnastics cultures and of William's discussion of them, individual interpretation differs widely, causing avid and insightful debate.

The article certainly raises more questions than answers about the authors intentions, of what exactly he is trying to convey.  What is more interesting, perhaps, is the violent reactions of many readers, opening up some hefty debate in the comments section on the profitability and potential harm of these kinds of articles.

I was rather surprised by the vehemently indignant response, as I thought the author had tried to cover all bases of opinion, but there were some, especially one, who took quite violent umbrage to the tone of the article.

So, if you read this article, and it is well worth reading, be sure to read the comments too.  Between the two, we get quite a dramatic picture of the kinds of contestation occurring over meanings to do with gymnastics and culture.

On another note, I find it fascinating that one commenter refuted the article, saying;

1. there are significant socio-cultural and socio-economic issues to be addressed which cannot and should not be addressed in a blog...they are far too complex.
Certainly, this is a difficult and complex subject, introducing larger scale global and cultural issues than we are used to seeing in discussions of gymnastics.

But if we want to consider these issues in terms of our sport, gymnastics, then where else would we go?  I haven't seen such informed, interesting and culturally weighted debate occurring about gymnastics anywhere, least of all in mainstream media or the academy, so I say it has every place in a blog if it means it is going to happen at all.


  1. As a historian, I completely agree with the author and it is impossible to talk about the socio cultural and economic (with more emphasis on the cultural) issues of China and Chinese athletic training (and it's not just gymnastics, though their training has been more... publicized so to speak). But at the same time I agree with you in that it is not being discussed in a whole lot of other places besides blogs. Thesis topic anyone?

  2. I am also an historian. Many recent events in Chinese gymnastics have deep roots in Chinese history (past and recent). To understand Team China, we need to go all the way back to the Opium War--or maybe even the Macartney Mission. There's a thesis for someone. Unfortunately, I don't think many people in the gymnastics community would be interested in reading it. It's been my experience that academics and sport don't mix well. Most gymnastics fans eschew cultural relativism and have no interest in history.

    I was more troubled by Wiliams' Orientalist, infantilizing language that reduced the Chinese gymnasts to little more than stereoypes. Instead of looking at them as products of a "system" (athletic, political, and/or cultural), why not regard them as inviduals--athletes who work hard and can't hide their disappointment when events don't go according to plan?

  3. Here is my comment to the well written article.