Why I Watch

So! The Olympics are over, which is terrible, what on earth am I supposed to do with myself now? I ASK YOU.

I watched a lot of the Games this year with my sisters, who are four year fans. You know the type. No knowledge of the sport whatsoever. Its actually quite amusing. But it did make me think, too. I am obviously super, super invested–some would say overly invested–in the sport, and I felt exhausted at the end of each day of competition just from the massive flood of emotions. The thing about following a sport so closely all the time is that, at least for me, I feel so connected to the athletes. I follow the US constantly and to a somewhat lesser extent Mother Russia, Romania, GBR, etc. So I feel almost as though I know the girls. The experience of watching gymnastics is nothing at all like what it is when I (admittedly very very rarely) catch a glimpse of another sport. I can occasionally admire other sports–soccer, diving, swimming–for how cool some of the the things they do are, but I have no emotional involvement. My gymnastics fandom is about half appreciation for the sheer badassery and half emotional involvement in the athletes and their stories.

So why do I love gymnastics above all other sports? For one thing, it is the epitome of athleticism. Gymnasts do things with their bodies that should not be possible. They can bend and twist and flip in ways that quite literally defy gravity. They are also the toughest athletes you will ever meet. I’m a fairly lazy individual, if we are being honest, and so I cannot really imagine the kind of dedication and ambition it takes to get to the top of this sport. But I can sure as hell admire it in others. And gymnasts really are the toughest.

Of course, this level of toughness brings up some ethical questions. Should Jordyn Weiber have been allowed to compete on a leg with a stress fracture? Team doctor Larry Nassar noted that he was a bit worried that the pain might cause her to land on her head and break her neck, which is certainly a worry;  on the other hand, its the Olympic Games. Jo has been training for this her entire life.

I think it comes down to a cost benefit analysis. If competing on a stress fracture is going to cause inevitable lasting damage to your body that may never recover, maybe don’t do it. If it is “just” dealing with tremendous pain, well…

One of the things that I find horrifying about gymnastics is the stories of abuse that leak out. Recently Dominique Moceanu penned a book about her experiences, which are mostly pretty terrible. She details a lot of abuse. And there are horror stories from the Soviet days especially.

But several things make me feel better about this. One is that the age of gymnasts is slowly increasing. More and more athletes are in the 18-20 range and therefore less likely to put up with crap. The other is the rise of accessible social media. Even the girls at Round Lake are on facebook. Quite honestly, its going to be a lot harder as the world gets smaller to perpetuate abuses of any kind. More access to social media and to the rest of the world means that your voice can be heard.

Obviously I’m sure there are still many many issues. McKayla Maroney–one of my favorites–has a coach who I think is a total creep. obviously Al Fong is just Mr. Creepster. Etc etc.

But here’s what I meant to write about today: why gymnastics is a feminist sport. For me, there is really something in the idea that if these were guys competing –or rather, when the guys compete–no one puts on their concerned faces and asks if they are OK, if they are strong enough, etc. We need to do the same with the female athletes. We need to trust women–and girls–to know their own bodies, and their own limits. These athletes are not stupid. Are some of them probably in bad coaching situations? Well, yes. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Most gymnasts are strong minded, mentally tough athletes who can do things that you can’t even imagine. And let’s trust them to know for themselves what does and does not make sense. We can do this in part by encouraging ALL girls to know their bodies and their limits.

So. Congratulations, ladies. Aliya Mustafina gets a special award for coming back from an ACL tear just over a year ago to win bars, plus bronzes in the AA and floor finals and of course silver in the team. Gabby Douglas, what a victory for her, and how great to have the first woman of color win the AA (now shut the fuck up about her hair).  McKayla Maroney did the best vault anyone has ever done. Sui Lu and Deng Linlin showed us how beam should be done. Sandra Izbasa had an utterly hypnotizing floor routine. Her teammate Catalina Ponor did her fantastic beam routine. Jordyn Weiber–competing on a broken leg–came back after disappointment and helped her team to win. Oksana Chusovitna, one of the all time greats, finally said goodbye to the sport at the age of 37 in her 6th Olympics. Beth Tweddle finally got her Olympic medal in front of a home crowd. And the vault finals reminded us just how unpredictable the sport is. Come to think of it, almost every stage of the meet was full of surprises, which is nice in some ways–its good to have things shaken up a bit! Although of course I wish McKayla had won vault.

The other thing that is awesome about the Games–and I think this is true of all sports, but lets be honest, there’s only one I really care about–is how epic it feels. A lot of it is that its only every four years, so its not like we as a country–or a world–watch frequently enough to get tired of it, or weary of the emotional flood. Part of it is all of the fluff and the manufactured drama, which btw is just silliness–there is plenty of drama without manufacturing any. How could it be otherwise, when you have people who have trained their entire lives for this one moment? And part of it is just the scope. This is the big show. This is where it all comes to fruition. This is what you work for, what you push your body for, quite beyond its usual limits. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

At any rate. Congratulations to all of the marvelous athletes who competed on the biggest stage there is. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

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