Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Silver Ain't So Bad

I have to confess that I hate the Olympics. I could give you a really long essay explaining why, but I'd rather get to the thing that bothers me today.

On my google feed of CNN, I saw the headline, "Heartbreaking loss for U. S. women gymnasts." I was thinking that they must have done pretty horribly. But no. They got the silver medal. That's not actually a loss, in my opinion. Another headline reads, "Golden girls no more." It just makes me wonder, what's with all the gloom and doom?

This is one of the things that really bothers me and women's gymnastics is one of the places where it's the worst. Americans feel like if you don't win a gold medal, you lost. Nevermind the fact that the Olympics is supposedly all about bringing countries together and enjoying the purity of sport. What really worries me about this is that womens gymnastics is the kind of sport that leads young girls to watch obsessively, to put up posters on their wall. I remember watching it, entranced, back in the days of Kim Zmeskal. Is this the kind of thing our country's girls should be seeing? National mourning because we didn't win?

It bothers me that when these girls make a mistake it leads to tears and embarrassment instead of good sportsmanship and a handshake like they teach you in tee-ball. It bothers me that the main story here seems to be us pointing fingers at China and claiming they've broken the rules. (These stories inevitably point out that the Chinese girls look like "prepubescent children," which I thought was how all gymnasts look. They also remind us that one was missing a tooth. Imagine that, a gymnast missing a tooth, it's not like they're constantly hurling their bodies through the air or anything.) Finally, it bothers me that we're not talking more about the problems with the sport, the injuries and the eating disorders and on and on.

To me, it doesn't matter if China cheated. If they did, it's a symptom of a gold-medal-obsession that I think we're better off without. If we can't show the world good sportsmanship, maybe we'd be better off ditching the Olympics and contenting ourselves with Saturday morning soccer games and Little League.


habladora said...

Maggie - this post is dead-on, particularly when it comes to the problems with how we showcase gymnastics in particular.

With few popular national and international competitions that could attract a wide group of viewers, the Olympics is one of the only places most US citizens come into contact with gymnastics. So how it is presented there matters - particularly for the tons of little girls watching. Where as most sports are about accomplishing a goal (get there first, put the ball in the hoop), gymnastics is all about 'perfection' - perfect form, perfect grace, perfect timing. Lots of times, it is impossible to even tell why a particular competitor lost points.

So, we are judging these young girls on criteria that are difficult to decipher and everything they do must be 'perfect.' Diet and weight matter, and even when you do your best there might be *something* the judges see that will make you loose points. I think gymnastics is one of the more dangerous sports - and not just because of the potential for broken bones.

NewsCat said...

There was a funny line on The Simpsons once, the episode where Springfield hosted the Olympics (God I bet it was 1996 episode :0)

"Where atheletes compete for beautiful gold medals, so-so silver and shameful bronze."

It perfectly encapulates the idea that anything less than gold is "horrible."

Jessica said...

And it continues...

The headline for this story? US team blame stadium official for gymnastics loss. The story has the US womens coach getting upset about a delay between when a gymnast was called to the balance beam and when she was allowed to go on. After that she blames the girl for her emotional vulnerability.

This particular girl is one whose mistakes did hurt the team. And this is the kind of thing I hate to see. The last thing we should be doing is pointing out everything that went wrong.

habladora said...

Yeah, NPR even had a piece this morning on the US team's 'failure.' Too crazy.

Mächtige Maus said...

Not surprisingly, Agincourt and I have been discussing this topic since reading the post. To us, this post seems to throw out the baby with the bath water. The Olympics are not a perfect sporting event, but they do try. They do bring the world together more than anything politicians manage. They do honor the athletic talent of both elite athletes and singular athletes from a small country with no hope of ever winning beyond the glory of representing their country.

I’m not a huge fan of gymnastics these days so no argument from me about its merits. Gone are the days when I watched Olga Korbut and then ran into the living room to hurl myself onto the vault (aka sofa). Certainly there are aspects of the sport that are worrisome, such as the injuries and eating disorders. However, those issues are not sport or gender specific. Horrific injuries occur with any number of sports. Wrestling and boxing require massively unhealthy methods of instantaneous weight loss. In fact, one could argue that they are worse. There was the boxer who collapsed right before this Olympics while trying to make weight. And there are other sports out there, such as (diving, synchronized swimming, ice-skating) that require perfection because they are, by their very nature, subjective.

To say that women’s gymnastics is the kind of sport that young women watch obsessively is actually more of a negative disclaimer on sports in general. As a young athlete I put swimming posters on my wall. And I have to say that I would much rather have had a gold medal than anything else at the end of a race. I did enjoy the thrill of victory both in high school and in college. When that did not come to be, it was heart breaking. It’s a simple fact of life for an athlete. Not winning isn’t horrible for an athlete (allow me to add here that I also equate winning with having a personal best performance which is not at all related to medaling). However, not winning will always be a disappointment for an athlete who gives their life to a sport.

Maybe the media shouldn’t focus on this perceived failure so much. To be fair though, this media coverage is no different from the utter shock that came in the last Olympics when the men’s basketball team failed to win. Therefore, I find it unrealistic to expect more from the media than an athlete expects from themselves. Athletes don’t dedicate their lives to their chosen sport for a pat on the back. Anything less than the ultimate goal for any athlete (be it a gold medal or best time or best score) is a perceived failure.

Mächtige Maus said...


Subjectively speaking, the U.S. men's springboard synchronized diving team was just robbed of a bronze.

Casmall said...

Speaking of media coverage. The NYT had a headline up today.."Georgia beats beach volleyball"

Someone at the NYT is a big turd.

Mächtige Maus said...

That is quite the tacky media coverage. New York is missing it these days between that piece and the New Yorker's Obama family terrorist front cover.

Jessica said...

Maus--I definitely get where you're coming from. I agree that there are so many sports to complain about. Like I said, I could seriously go on for days about the problems with different sports. But I do think the way womens gymnastics involves young female viewers is a unique issue, comparable only perhaps to ice skating in the winter Olympics.

The big difference to me is the age of the girls involved. It makes them more accessible to young girls and means there will inevitably be more attraction. (Plus, they wear ribbons in their hair. I always loved that as a kid.) Compare the average age of the womens gymnastics team to the mens. The women average age 17 while the men average 25. In swimming the women are younger than the men, but you're still looking at a mens team that averages age 24 and a womens team at 22.

While I understand that one can always compare one sport to the other, I think womens gymnastics has enough things that make it different that it can't quite be discussed on the same level. Unlike mens basketball, for example, it's not necessarily a situation where the US dominates. And it has the kind of media coverage and target demographic that sets it apart. It's those distinguishing characteristics that I think should require better treatment.

It's that treatment, to me, that I wanted to bring up as an issue. Why do we have to portray this as a huge failure and point fingers? I think the gist of the post was pointed more at the media's presentation than at gymastics itself.

Mächtige Maus said...

Whether realistic or not, women's gymnastics is generally perceived as an event that the U.S. always has the potential to dominate. They could have won the gold. That they didn't was heart-breaking for those girls. The media was not saying anything that they weren't saying themselves.

This Olympics, I think the main difference is that there has actually NOT been a huge focus on either men's or women's gymnastics team. There has not been a 'media darling'. I can't name one gymnast on that team, other than the Hamm brothers who are not even in it. There is no Mary Lou, Nadia, Shannon Miller etc. So in some ways, I think there has been less pressure on them. I'd be curious as to what the athletes think of that? Are they jealous of the media attention focused so much on swimming due to Michael Phelps' attempted run on the Mark Spitz record?

I don't see how the age with gymnastics is making it inherently more accessible and therefore damaging to young girls than anything else out there. There is a male 14-year old diver right now and there have been men and women 15-year old swimmers for years now. Gymnastics at least tries (for whatever reason) to have the 16-year old age limit. These elite athletes have been training for ten plus years already by that time so waiting on age doesn't make much sense. It isn't so much a function of target demographics. It is a function of the lifespan of any athlete. It simply isn't that long. When you are ready to compete you are ready to compete.

sally said...

Interesting discussion!

I agree that there are problems with most sports, and those problems certainly need more attention than they ever really get. But I don't think that the Olympics or Olympic coverage makes it much worse.

Also, I think the competitive side of the Olympics is what drives a lot of people, while the global unity side drives another group of people.

I love the Olympics because I get to see some of the best athletes from all over the world that I normally wouldn't see otherwise. In fact, I even watch sports I generally have no interest in (soccer, basketball) just because it's the best of the best and the energy behind it all.

But I also understand the competitive nature of "our country has to win." Isn't that bound to happen? It's disappointing when the people you are rooting for, and who have a great chance at winning, to suddenly lose.

I agree that some of the coverage really makes it more dramatic than it probably needs to be, but that's also just the media spin trying to grab at people's emotions. Nothing new there.

Anonymous said...

It isn't about sportsmanship, just take a look at the endorsements the athletes had lined up before the games even began. This is about performing for money. Canada has started a project wherein we will pay for medals. I agree with supporting athletes as promoting strong "healthy" bodies is a good thing but we should be realist about what the Olympics really stand for today...advertising and big business.

Mächtige Maus said...

I'm not at all convinced the athletes competing in Beijing would agree with your assessment that the Olympics is only about money for them.

Has the Olympics become a sponsors dream? Sure. Do athletes have endorsements? Some do. Given the opportunity I'd have done the same considering swimming is not a paid career sport while the training regime is indeed a full-time job. However, that does not negate the inherent sportsmanship that does indeed still exist at the Olympics.

Maybe I am being naive about it all, but I still believe in the Olympics and what it means for each individual who gets the chance to compete for their country and be, for a moment in time, the best in the world.

Jessica said...

I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree. I understand where you're coming from, but it's definitely not where I am. I'm a big Olympic cynic. Haven't watched a minute of the games. And I've already tried before to talk about the games with athletes. In college, I lived with several national-caliber athletes and none of them would dare say a word against the Olympics.

I don't think we're hitting the same points, though. So I'm not even sure that we disagree. But I do think we have different attitudes about the games, which is fine.

However, just to be clear, I was not making any big point about the Olympics. I complained about three headlines which I think were poorly phrased. If y'all want to have a full on Olympic discussion, feel free. But I mostly wanted to look at a few poorly written headlines, a certain kind of attitude, and how it made me wonder about young girls who worship the team, like I used to.

daedalus2u said...

I have very mixed feelings about this type of competition. This is what I call “zero-sum” competition. For every winner there are losers. The prizes that are being competed for are fixed in quantity and once those prizes have been won, everyone else gets nothing for their efforts. It is like the zero-sum of gambling. It doesn’t create anything it just redistributes what is already there.

I am a guy, and competed in athletics in high school, football and track (field events). This was some years ago, and perhaps coaching styles have changed (but I doubt it). Football was coached using metaphors of war. It was “kill or be killed”. If you were hurt, it was “suck it up and go”. It was “give 150%”. Useful metaphors and ways of behaving in a war zone where there were actual life and death situations. There were some people who did play while injured and had injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

My sophomore year the football team was 9-0, we won the State Championship and I still have the football jacket to show for it. That year all but 2 of the starters graduated. The next year one was hurt pre-season and never played, the other was hurt and missed 7 or 8 games. Many people didn’t go out for football because they knew the team wouldn’t do so well. We were 0-9.

The fundamental premise of this type of competition is that unless you can be #1, it is better to not compete at all. I think that is a very unhealthy type of competition, one that we should not foster in our children, or even in adults.

Extreme physical exertion can/will cause long term damage. Everything in the body runs on ATP. That includes your muscles, that includes the systems that repair injuries. To maximize ATP availability for muscles, ATP is diverted away from other things. ATP is diverted away from healing and maintenance into immediate consumption. In children it is diverted away from growth.

In females, when they go through menarche, the ratio of muscle to body weight goes down. A prepubescent female has the highest muscle to body weight ratio she will ever have in her life. Delaying menarche by forcing her to work harder will make her into a better athlete. That may be a “legal” intervention in that it doesn’t involve steroids or other drugs. Is it in the child’s best interest?

Anonymous said...

What is equally disturbing is the manner in which these athletes have been sexualized. It is almost like the men are competing and the women are there to be oogled. YUCK