One of the most interesting thing about the Olympics is the juxtaposition of raw races — like track events and swimming — with judged, somewhat artistic sports like figure skating, diving… and of course, women’s gymnastics, a perennial highlight for viewers. In recent years, as Team USA, with its first-name-basis participants — Carly, Gabby, Laurie, Simone, Aly — has become an international juggernaut racking up gold medals, a new, complex scoring system has perplexed viewers, who have long been used to athletes like Nadia and Mary Lou pursuing those glorious, round perfect 10s.
After staying up past our bedtime to watch the final events of a competition whose results we already knew (team USA won gold, in case you were hiding under a rock), Flavorwire spoke with Dvora Meyers, a former gymnast and longtime gymnastics fan, who has been
writing about the sport for years. Meyers published The End of the Perfect 10, a book that looks at the recent history of gymnastics, from the era of Eastern European dominance and focus on mistake-free perfection and holistic scoring, to today’s USA-led sport, where the focus is more on difficult routines that highlight the technical ambition of a routine and athleticism of the participant, with no roof on how high they can go.
We talked gender, artistry and athleticism, along with the apparent need for narratives about women to rely on patriarchal tropes about girl-fights, tears and falls. “I’m here to improve on the NBC viewing experience,” jokes Meyers, who has been in high demand as a commentator over the past few weeks.
Flavorwire: What is it that’s so grating about watching these events on TV?
Meyers: Gymnastics is really interesting. And when I started writing about gymnastics, what became clear is that there’s a segment of lay readership and viewership that wanted more information that they didn’t know from watching these big competitions on TV. It fails to treat it like a sport. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the soap opera aspect [of the coverage], and you can talk about their hair — but only if you check all these other boxes. Leotard fashion can be actually fascinating, but you can’t do that kind of coverage and say, “We’re done.” And also, when I watch the TV coverage, they’re harping so much on sticking the landings. Yes, taking a big step at the end is a big deduction, but they treat a tenth of a point deduction for a tiny hop like someone just died.
For those who haven’t read your book, give us a brief take on why those kinds of deductions don’t matter as much as they used to in the old days and why that’s led to the bigger risks and harder routines we’re seeing.
When you were under the 10, a tenth of a point would make a big difference because you were capped. For instance, in 2004, this wonderful gymnast, Cheng Fei from Team China, had the most difficult floor routine, and did it with lovely execution. But she was capped at 10, took one step out of bounds, and didn’t even walk out with a medal. [The system] resulted in that kind of error not [being] weighted in its proper context. The winner that year had standard passes compared to hers, but didn’t make any big mistakes.
Whenever I watch the Olympics, one viewing companion or another starts commenting on the dancing, and the smiles and twirls, and wonders why that stuff is necessary. Is it going to evolve out of the sport under the new scoring system?
I hope it’s evolved out as far as it’s going to evolve out. Yes, on the one hand some of those elements can seem regressive. But the flip side of the argument is wait, that anything considered to be feminine necessarily not athletic? Instead of either/or, can it be yes/and? I don’t personally feel like their athleticism is undermined by these qualities because we tend to view sports by these macho, masculine terms, and most of the concepts we have of sports goes with that paradigm. But for instance, the Dutch team does the most beautiful dance work, and I appreciate that as much as I appreciate the acrobatics of Simone Biles. Yes, the acrobatics are more of a deciding factor in terms of who wins as they should be but the way it is now. It highlights different athletes’ strengths: there are some who love it and act and emote — and some who say, “I have to get through this dance stuff so I can do my four tumbling passes.”
Seeing such young women who are clearly working so hard, questions about exploitation inevitably arise. Do you get inundated with questions about how these young women are treated?
Beyond the Olympics, when gymnastics gets mainstream attention it’s often for its pathologies, which do exist. But “abuse” as a term gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s accurate, sand something people feel it encompasses having an unpleasant experience. Is working really hard for something and not getting it and not hurt by it, is that abusive? There’s an athlete who hasn’t made the team, she’s young, she’s weeping, the coaches are shielding her from the cameras. That’s a hard thing happening at a young age, but it’s separate from the real instances of exploitation and abuse.
One of the ways that the media pushes a dramatic narrative is the way commentators pit women against each other and seem to want to see cattiness, and yet the athletes seem to be supportive. You wrote about a gym in Texas which was scoped for a reality show that never happened because there wasn’t enough drama.
It parallels the way in which we think about a lot of female relationships in the workplace. I mean, writing is a fairly competitive field as well, and you support each other and then occasionally see someone write something and wish you had had that opportunity. With gymnastics it’s the same. And I imagine that with male athletes there’s the same tension that exists, but the difference is no one is making you seem particularly catty. When you talk to a lot of these gymnasts they’re aware that it’s all judging and selection based and so somewhat out of their control. Everyone wants to win, they want to beat each other but it’s a grueling sport and they can’t do it alone. They want to win but they need each other at the same time.
So, if we are newly hooked on the sport, what should we tune into next both at the Olympics and during the year?
College meets can be really fun and exciting, and from January to April, there are college meets every weekend. They’re different because it’s a team, college-based sport instead of individual and nationalistic, and [the gymnasts] can’t do such difficult routines because they’re competing all the time.
And then I’d add that men’s gymnastics is really excellent. The US women are competing at highest level without much competition, but if you watch the men’s final the other day, it was thrilling — so many countries had a chance to win a medal, there was real tussle for silver and bronze. The level in men’s has never been higher with more challengers from countries you wouldn’t expect like Cuba. It’s a more exciting competition, crazier skills and sadly, crazier injuries.
And of course we’ll be watching someone like Simone Biles stay at the top of her game this week. She’s under enormous amounts of pressure. She’s hitting so well, it’s a testament to her mental strength.