Five-ring Circus

Ladies on the Tramp

Aging Eastern Europeans bounce for glory in Athens.

The tramp puts the bounce back in athletes’ careers

Trampoline, like walking and badminton, is one of those Olympic events you hear a lot of jokes about. Guys who have spent the last four years brewing craft beers or carving totemistic bongs out of birch wood are suddenly Olympics purists—only the “faster, farther, heavier” events for them, thank you. The Olympics tend to make people knee-jerk foundationalists—even though, as the historians tell us, foundations usually get constructed long after the fact. People also tend not to like sports that seem obviously hybrid, and by that measure, trampoline—diving sans Speedos, or figure skating without Chris de Burgh’s 1986 hit “Lady in Red” playing in the background—would seem to be a mongrel.

These biases were mine, once. But I have just finished watching NBC’s meager coverage of the men’s and women’s trampoline events, and, ladies and gentleman, I know of no other Olympic sport that combines such beauty with such certainty of eventual spine injury. Trace Worthington’s description of the event as “all about aesthetics” seems misguided at best. I’m not aware of any purely aesthetic endeavor that involves yo-yoing somersaults 30 feet into the air onto a trampoline the size of a bath towel with a sweet spot not much bigger than a postage stamp. This is also the only Olympic event I know of that’s so terrifying that its participants often give up in the middle of their routines. And in no other sport do hair-trigger maladjustments of the body cascade so immediately into such dire consequences. Trampolines already account for some pretty horrific backyard barbeque injuries, and I’ll bet anybody that a prime-time wedge and compression injury is in the very near future of Olympic trampoline.

All of which makes for scintillating, if somewhat nauseating, TV. Then there are the trampolinists themselves, a rag-tag band, many of them in their mid-30s. These people literally stuck it out through their prime waiting for trampoline’s debut in the 2000 Sydney Games—with their wan, vodka-soaked expressions, they are the spiritual opposites of the larval chipmunks who compete in the more established gymnastics events. The women’s winner, Anna Dogonadze, has a gymnast daughter who’s closer in age to Carly Patterson than Dogonadze is herself. How would the Hamm brothers have fared growing up in the Black Sea town of Nikolayev, like the men’s gold medalist Yuri Nikitin, whose bio devotes more time to the fate of the local naval base than to his own life? The one American competitor in trampoline this year, Jennifer Parilla, bounced herself halfway home to Newport Beach in the qualifying round, bowed graciously, and disappeared.

When the games go dark, where do these trampolinists go? Gymnastics creates a minor cultural crisis every four years, canonizing fresh-faced, red-state teenagers for whom the culture, thankfully, has only the scantest appetite. How utterly annoying even the most dazzling Texan balance-beamer seems one week after her big triumph. These people always unwisely try to extend their moment in the sun, acting on Baywatch and Knots Landing, but the truth is, the minute the torch fades, they’re toast. Already the Athens Games have produced several potential Meineke spokeswomen, perhaps even a reality show host. Please, America, take a look at Yuri Nikitin and Anna Dogonadze. Give these middle-aged, Eastern-bloc, spine-injury-defying also-rans a chance at the same obscurity you bestow on your own Olympic champions!