Five-ring Circus

The Silver Lining

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team overturned cultural cliches in the team event.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games. 

China celebrates its gold medal

Once again, the United States women’s gymnastics team has taken the silver in the team finals at the Olympics. After falling to Romania in Athens, the Americans this time lost out to the Chinese, who performed with surprising joie de vivre. We’ve heard a lot about the collective, hardworking ethos of Chinese culture—which David Brooks contrasted earlier this week with America’s individualistic impulses—but the irony early on was that it was the Chinese who seemed to be joyfully and expressively performing while the American girls looked drawn and anxious. There was even a dour helicopter parent thrown into the mix, adding to the tension: Former Soviet champion Valeri Liukin, father of superstar Nastia Liukin, an elegant performer with all the diva potential of a Svetlana Khorkina. When she briefly wobbled on the beam, he put his head in his hands, as if he couldn’t watch any more. Finally, an NBC commentator said, almost chidingly, “His daughter has done a good job.”

The team final was, everyone understood, a showdown between the Chinese and the Americans, with the Chinese team favored. (Their routines possessed a greater level of difficulty.) For the Americans to have a chance, the Chinese would have to falter; that didn’t quite happen. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that a kind of subconscious anxiety about global politics inflected some of the commentary. When it looked, for a moment, as if the Chinese had made a crucial error, Al Trautwig said, wishfully, “One moment they look like a world power, the next they look so vulnerable.”

The big back story this year has been a controversy over birth certificates. Today, you have to be 16 within the calendar year to compete in Olympic women’s gymnastics, and online records suggested that half the Chinese team was too young, according to the New York Times. The Chinese denied the allegations and provided passports that “proved” all the girls were of age.

Boy, did they not look it. The American girls came out onto the floor in shiny red leotards that made them look like Las Vegas showgirls. On average 30 pounds heavier and 3.5 inches taller than the doll-sized Chinese gymnasts, they had the sheen of aging starlets, imbuing the scene with a peculiar Sunset Boulevard feel. From the start, we knew how this would end, with the young outshining the “old.” Briefly, after the Chinese team completed its third rotation, the balance beam, it looked like the Americans had a real shot at the gold: The Chinese team leader, Cheng Fei, had taken a dramatic spill, earning a huge 0.8 deduction. But Alicia Sacramone, the oldest member of the American team, misjudged her mount and, arms windmilling, fell from the beam before she even got on it. It was as metaphorical a fall as it was literal. In the next event, the floor exercise, all three American competitors—Shawn Johnson, Liukin, and Sacramone—stepped out of bounds, as if the equipment were taunting them: You’re too big and old.

It was hard not to see the American girls’ failure to stay inbounds as a kind of Freudian slip—or Freudian step. It was as if, worried that the Chinese might have an unfair advantage, the Americans suddenly became aware of their growing bodies, of the potential for harm, of how easy it is to make a mistake, of how fast time flies and the body stiffens, even for those who can flip through the air and perform ever more complicated release skills on the uneven bars.

It might not be obvious why being younger would be an advantage in a highly perfectionistic, skill-driven sport like gymnastics. After all, the younger athletes have had less time to refine their skills. But gymnastics in its current athleticized form rewards lightness and a low center of gravity. Smaller girls rotate more easily in the air. Their bodies are also less subject to the hormonal changes that can lead to injury. And the prepubescent tend, quite simply, to be more fearless. Romanian Nadia Comaneci helped usher in this new era of athleticism in 1976, when, at the age of 14, she scored the first perfect 10 with a routine on uneven bars, an apparatus on which she pioneered difficult moves. It’s no accident that Nadia was both young and slight, or that so many of the Chinese girls today share her body type.

Routines today derive their value not so much from artistry as from the execution of feats of sheer difficulty; the more challenging elements you string together, the more points you earn. (Of course, the other big change in this Olympics is the advent of a new scoring system, which did away with the perfect 10, and uses two measures, execution and difficulty, much the way figure skating does.)

And yet the Americans turned in a number of beautiful performances. It’s been a long time since the United States had a truly charismatic gymnast, and boy do we have one now in Nastia Liukin. Where Carly Patterson performed like a Beanie Baby on steroids—cute and springy—Liukin has the flair of a ballerina and the elegant focus of predecessors like Comaneci. Nastia’s dad was a product of the Soviet system, and she has the lean, angular Eastern European body type; in a sense, she’s an Americanized Khorkina.On the uneven bars, Liukin performed a routine with a dauntingly high difficulty level and did it with the type of apparently effortless grace that reminds me of why, as a child, I first wanted to be a gymnast: At its best, the sport is a triumph of the will over gravity, and of art over sheer acrobatics.Shawn Johnson, who is petite without appearing emaciated, danced and leapt and tumbled on the beam with a perky pleasure. On the floor exercise, Alicia Sacramone bounced through the air with a light celerity—until she fell on a double Arabian front, opening up too early because she was worried she would step out of bounds. (Later, she did, making matters worse.) But the undoubted highlight was Liukin’s uneven bars performance, which received the highest score of the evening—a 16.9, nearly the highest you can receive in the post-perfect-10 era.

Meanwhile, in other news: Apparently the Romanians are so “Westernized” that they actually “text message” between rotations now. Tim Daggett, NBC’s color commentator, noted this development breathlessly, fingering it as the cause of the Romanians’ dramatic decline in the past four years, practically bemoaning the passing of athletic slavery in Eastern Europe. (Gymnastics truly can bring out the fascistic perfectionist in anyone.) And isn’t it time for NBC to rotate some fresh blood into its pundit box? All night long, Trautwig, Daggett, and Elfi Schlegel pronounced on the gymnasts—”This is an element she has struggled with”—with an accuracy that was stultifying, like going out for drinks with a friend who’s always right. Without the barroom debate, the occasional surprise, where’s the fun? Their running patter was, of course, characterized by a stalactic accumulation of cliches (“She’s like a rock”; “She delivered”) and the by-now routine appropriation of emotion. (“You gotta wonder if she realizes what a big moment this is,” they said of one Chinese gymnast. The answer: Yes, she probably does.) NBC also kept the finals almost exclusively focused on the Americans and the Chinese; by my vague count, the network showed only one Romanian and one Russian on one event each, which only underscored the predictability of it all. The whole evening felt like a reality show that had hardened into self-consciousness and shtick, lacking whatever vibrancy it once possessed.

At the end, though, the show came back to life. When Sacramone fell on the balance beam, impairing her teammates’ chances at the gold—and then fell again in her floor exercise—the other girls drew around her and tried to comfort her. (Not so the women’s national team coordinator, Marta Karolyi, who barely touched Alicia after her floor routine.) With every reason to be disappointed—or just made nervous by her fall—the girls refused to let Sacramone beat herself up. They acted, in short, like teammates, murmuring to her and offering hugs. And in the last minutes of the competition, when Chinese gymnast Jiang Yuyuan performed her floor routine, harnessing the energy in the arena as she gleefully danced and tumbled, even the Americans seemed drawn in; Shawn Johnson smiled and nodded, visibly reacting with pleasure to the artistry. The Americans all managed smiles at the end. Along the way, they showed, perhaps, less individual joy than one might have wished, but there in the last moments, finally, an indomitable collective spirit was on view. In that regard, at least, they gave the Chinese a real run for their money.