Five-ring Circus

Is It OK To Love Gymnastics?

Pondering the sport’s allure and darkness on the night of Gabby Douglas’ fantastic win in the women’s all-around.

Aliya Mustafina, Gabby Douglas, and Viktoria Komova
Bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina of Russia, gold medalist Gabby Douglas of the United States, and silver medalist Viktoria Komova of Russia after the women’s individual all-around final.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s been a good week for the American women in gymnastics: First they took team gold, and now Gabby Douglas has won gold in the all-around, following in the footsteps of Carly Patterson in 2004 and Nastia Liukin in 2008. She delivered a solid performance from open to close, starting with the vault. She took a little hop to the side trying to stick her Amanar, but she scored better than she had in the qualifying round. The game was on!

It was clear from the start that the only real contenders were Douglas, Aly Raisman, and the Russians Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova, though the Chinese gymnast Deng Linlin had a momentary glimpse of the bronze. Taking silver was Komova, a gymnast I love, who delivered a beautiful routine on beam, full of balletic flow (and a standing Arabian!). Her floor routine might be the best she’s ever done. Her landings were solid, and she danced with delight and quirky, funny personality, flipping her ponytail now and then by accident, lifting her chin over and over in what looked like genuine pleasure. It was strong enough that she might have had a shot at gold had she not stepped off the mat on her earlier vault, failing to stick her Amanar. It was a dramatic finish, though—with Komova giving it her all to try to come from behind. When her score came up—not high enough for gold—Douglas’ mother began to cry with joy and relief, and Komova let loose deep, heaving sobs of disappointment. (Meanwhile, Mustafina took the bronze, after she and Raisman dramatically finished in a tie; heartbreaking to lose the medal due to a technical tiebreaker.)

Komova and Douglas are both strong and elegant gymnasts. Douglas used to be relatively inconsistent, but this year she began delivering, and her joy in doing so lends her star power. Back in April, at the AT&T American Cup, I was sure she’d be the all-around winner if she kept it up. Watching her and Komova, you were tempted to think gymnastics can have it both ways—powerhouse tumbling need not come completely at the expense of grace and dance.

It’s true that, as Dvora Myers writes, floor routines (and even beam) can feel like red meat on steroids, with no flourish, nothing to cut the protein. For me, there is a real loss in that. Nostalgic, I find myself pulling up Olga Korbut’s astonishing uneven bars routine in 1972, or Nadia Comaneci’s 1976 beam routine. I miss their extraordinary sense of rhythm, their feline elegance. But, as my brother pointed out—having been forced to watch my meets growing up, he’s become a fan—maybe it’s not such a bad thing that strength is being celebrated in female gymnastics. Imagine if it were the other way around, and the pressure was on the women to tumble less and do more of those little hip shimmies. I’d be bummed.

Speaking of dance and hip shimmies—before we go back to the winners—if you streamed the competition live, you got to watch the British women, Rebecca Tunney and Hannah Whelan, do a bunch of these on the floor exercise. (Or at least one of them did. I can’t remember which; it went by so fast.) Their floor routine music was designed to get the audience riled up, clapping along as the girls paused and posed in moves that seemed more at home on an MTV video close-up than on the floor at the North Greenwich Arena. The overt sexuality reminded me that when I was teenager, our coach made us do all these hip shimmies in our floor routines that I found … embarrassing. (I used to pretend I’d forgotten that part of the routine.) One day a judge approached her after our meet and told her we shouldn’t be doing those moves: They were too sexual.

There is always tension in women’s gymnastics between athleticism, grace, performance, and eros. Even now, with all the sport’s changes and modernizations, there’s something resolutely old fashioned about it: You salute the judge at start and close. You’re not supposed to curse or rail. (Though the men have begun doing it—I find it shocking.) When I was competing, you could get a deduction if your underwear showed. Yet amid all this performativity, a delicate pretense of noneroticism is preserved. These girls are supposed to be exactly that: girls. I wonder how much the need to preserve a presexual-virgin vibe contributes to the extraordinary youthfulness of women’s gymnastics. Surely the sport could have evolved in such a way as to preserve the careers of young women like Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, exemplars of the sport as teenagers four years ago, now washed-up former champs at an early age.

The other day, Alyssa Rosenberg noted that today’s gymnasts are among the first coming of age post Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. I read that book in a hungry, horrified gulp after I stopped competing, and I was struck anew by the culture of bullying, disordered eating, and borderline abuse that is the dark side to the engaging brilliance of women’s gymnastics. As it happens, I’d just been thinking about Little Girls in Pretty Boxes because Dominique Moceanu, the youngest member of 1996’s gold-winning Magnificent Seven—she was 14—has written a memoir chronicling the “dark underbelly” of Olympic gymnastics. She found the Karolyis—Marta and Bela, whom she trained with leading up to the Olympics—to be overbearing, insensitive, and inflexible, hardly the right kind of trainers for a sensitive and self-driven 14-year-old. Their methods led her to doubt herself and to second-guess her ability.

What’s endlessly complicated in thinking about women’s gymnastics is the way that vulnerability and power are threaded through the sport. It’s all too easy when talking about female gymnasts to fall into the trap of infantilizing them, spending more time worrying more about female vulnerability than we do celebrating female strength. After all, it’s too easy to imagine the power others have over them. But watch Jordyn Wieber do her warm-ups for an event: You can see (if you have eyes) an extraordinarily focused athlete. Just the way she does her little arm twists shows it: She is in this. Her focus is utter, complete, unusual. Douglas, too: She wants to succeed for herself, and her huge smiles and joie de vivre tell you as much. It’s that internal energy that’s driven her to become consistent after years of being a less reliable gymnast.

And one thing I love about gymnastics is that it is a place where women get to dominate without being explicitly eroticized, or at least while not having to do really outrageous hip shimmies over and over. All too often our culture turns its back on female autonomy in its most extreme guises, perhaps because there is always a duality in it that is different from male autonomy: It’s more vulnerable, mainly because it’s more susceptible to control—or attempted control—by men. As everyone knows, certain men are irresistibly drawn to dominate precisely these kinds of women, wanting to mold and manipulate, and this is a lot of what Moceanu’s book details. On the other hand, the extremity of gymnastics is also the extremity of any sport, the insanely driven dedication that is part of why we all watch the Olympics.

In a funny way, Komova and Douglas complicate all the narratives we can tell about this sport. Douglas made gymnastics seem wonderfully joyous, with her sunny demeanor, her high-flying performances on bars and vault, like a little girl running for the joy of it. She never came close to falling off the beam or the bars; from the start, the only question was gold or silver. On the other hand, Komova, who is unmistakably Russian, still looked like a character in a Chekhov play, acting out a grand drama on the balance beam. You could see the nerves in her small face, the anxiety pooling in those huge blue Slavic eyes. And like all the Russian gymnasts, she is a classically trained ballerina, and she moves with a kind of layered intricacy, beautiful and strangely melancholy at once.

One could imagine Douglas as the symbol of a little kid’s fantasy of gymnastics, all joyful flipping and happy outcomes. And one could imagine Komova as gymnastics’ tragic heroine, fragile and beautiful, nervily expressive of the sport’s flaws even as she accomplished something extraordinary. But to imagine these narratives is to realize how complicated the stories really are. To be a young woman dedicated to a sport that spits you out so quickly is to be at once incredibly lucky and incredibly challenged. Where, again, will each of these young women find so receptive and expansive an outlet for her ambition, her self-determination, her strength? Can they find a new, meaningful purpose, or does being thrust out of the sport in their early 20s leave them almost permanently at loose ends? How each of these women answers this question ends up shaping the meaning of gymnastics in our culture as much, or more, as anything they do on the floor mat.

In the end, though, it was just great to see Douglas grin at the end of her floor routine, saluting the crowd just a little like a diva she has the right, for a moment, to be.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.