July 29, 2012

"As a cultural ideal, women’s gymnastics is kind of weird."

Writes Robert Stacy McCain.
[I]’s not a sport for grown-ups. Pubescent girls can perform at levels that no mature woman can hope to match, and the petite physique type which is ideal for women’s gymnastics is ideal in no other sport....
Responsible adulthood, however, requires us to resist the mindless consumption of whatever TV is selling, and “Olympic fever” is a made-for-TV commodity whose value should be viewed skeptically.
If there is to be a competition to determine which nation has the most highly-skilled diminutive adolescent girls, it is my patriotic duty to hope that America wins the contest. But I reserve the right to observe that this is a freakishly weird thing to compete over.
I remember when this topic came up at the 1988 Olympics, and I opined about it in a letter to the NYT:
In ''Gymnastic Girls, Not Women'' (Topics, Aug. 1), you suggest there should be a separate competitive category for women in gymnastics, similar to the senior players' tour in golf. The notion that women past the 17-year-old mark resemble seniors should give us pause and make us examine some of the underlying problems in gymnastics, which reflect generally prevailing assumptions about women.

According to your characterization, the maturation process for a woman is from nimble, able girl to woman encumbered by a full-grown body. Yet for a man, to mature is to move from undeveloped boy, who ''would find it impossible to compete,'' to a man fully empowered with ''upper-body strength.''

It seems to me the sport is structured to favor girls and men, perhaps because our society favors ever-young women, particularly very slim ones, and well-muscled men, good-looking at any age. Are we not bombarded with images of these ideal types everywhere? We like to see tiny teen-age girls jumping all over the place like magical fairies. But we don't want to see any little boys doing the same. Please, keep them out of view until their bodies convey a message of masculine power. And we don't even want to think about a woman gymnast with strongly muscled shoulders and arms. Of course, this well-developed, powerful woman would not fit into the sport, not because she is encumbered by her body and needs a second-class category, but because the sport is designed to exclude her. She has no opportunity to perform on the equipment the well-developed men display their strength on, like parallel bars and rings.

And perhaps those men's bodies would ''encumber'' them on the balance beam and the uneven bars that young girls take to so well. If men's gymnastics covered that equipment, maybe we'd get to see the little boys perform.

54 comments:

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I also can't help notice that women's beach volleyball is played with long sleeved shorts and bikini bottoms. Whereas men's beach volleyball is played with the same sort of shorts you might see in basketball or a regular volleyball match.

Sorun said...

I think it's about a strength to weight ratio -- what you need to be good in gymnastics. Men and girls have it, women and boys don't.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of like the bull dancers of Crete that they used to demand in tribute (remember Theseus and the Minotaur?). Around the same age group, with similar skills.

Zach said...

You know, 7 feet tall isn't a tremendously healthy body type. Lots of those guys have circulatory troubles and heart disease later in life. But they do well in basketball, because the objectives in basketball are achieved well by people who can reach high in the air.

Gymnastics is dominated by people who are short, muscular, and well coordinated -- in short, "gymnastic." Men have a higher percentage of muscle after puberty; women have a higher percentage before. If you want a sport dominated by adults, choose a different sport.

ndspinelli said...

Left Bank, There are great volleyball players on Mission Beach in San Diego. It's the same there vis a vis attire. But for a hetero dude..what's the problem???

traditionalguy said...

I disagree that the daring youngsters are not a sport.

Parts is parts. The pre-pubescent gals are percieved as cpmplete petite athletes doing a dangerous ballet against gravity.

It's very entertaining.

But after 14 or so they become percieved as woman parts engaging in a man's sport. That may prove prove woman parts can do what men can do, but it's not that interesting unless the women throw in some hair pulling and screaming.

Rabel said...

Very thought provoking post.

For the ladies, I suggest weight divisions like boxing. But instead of kilograms we should use cup size.

The D division would be a sure fire hit. Bouncy too.

Lem said...

I believe the idea is to watch a peak physical performance...

The idea that peak performance develops at different stages and varies from males to females, is not sociologically quantifiable... but something more to do with the species distribution of responsibilities as assigned by nature over millennial... child bearing as child rearing.

As long as a particular sex is saddled with one of these... we are going to have a version of this conversation.

Or... Maybe I have no idea what the professor is pawing over.

Lem said...

Equality for equality sakes is.. I don't know... hallow?

edutcher said...

Keep in mind The Other McCain is the inventor of Rule 5, inspired by Christina Hendricks. One would suspect little girls are not his thing.

Jose_K said...

that women's beach volleyball . It is not mandatory. Their choice. and a any normal man in the world agree with it

Michael K said...

Women's volleyball, not necessarily the beach variety, selects for tall women and girls. I have a tall daughter and I encouraged her to play as I had a patient who was a very good coach of girls' volleyball but she preferred surfing.

I saw her business card the other day and it says "Archivist and surfer."

Rabel said...

Speaking of Olympics, it appears that NBC has a problem.

Their highly publicized internet live feeds are turning into a major fail.

Choppy, stop-start video that looks like claymation if it works at all.

Mine is unwatchable despite a good ISP signal and a pretty good computer. Geek sites are beginning to blame the NBC feed itself.

campy said...

Gymnasts Compete in Tournament

Women Hardest Hit

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Matthews said...

I'm of the opinion that if it requires judges to give a score, it shouldn't be a sport.
An art? Certainly. Athletic? Definitely. But ballroom dancing fulfills both of these requirements, and it should be in the Olympics either.

campy said...

Speaking of Olympics, it appears that NBC has a problem.

Their highly publicized internet live feeds are turning into a major fail.

Choppy, stop-start video that looks like claymation if it works at all.

I had a few problems yesterday, but it's been working fine all day today. (I'm watching beach volleyball .)

Anonymous said...

If there's no goal and no stopwatch, it's not a sport.

The Drill SGT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Drill SGT said...

As a transpanted californian, I enjoy the V-Ball. both Men's and Women's 6 and Beach.

As for the Beach uniforms, It's the players choice. Today, the Beach 2's were in bikini bottoms and short sleave shirts. It's clearly colder in London than Marina Del Ray.

They are still world class jocks. Who, BTW, look good in Bikini's

Genetic and cultural selection.

You don't play V-ball for Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA, UCI, and UCSD without looking good in a Bikini :)

rcocean said...

NBC has a monopoly on the Olympics in the USA till 2020. So they "Don't have a problem" - the viewers do.

Its the free-market at work. Don't like it, start up your own Billion dollar TV network.

campy said...

It's the players choice. Today, the Beach 2's were in bikini bottoms and short sleave shirts.

No, I think most of the women wore the bikinis today, even in the rain.

Even the Argentine team in the 9 p.m. match went the minimalist route.

rhhardin said...

Dick Cavett was a champion gymnast, probably in the girls' division.

Joe Schmoe said...

Ann, I disagree that these young gymnasts lack the musculature of a mature woman. They are pretty powerful-looking athletes. I don't think musculature is the issue as much as fully-developed boobs and hips are more of an encumbrance. Nadia Comenici was a pencil when she won her gold medal in 76; as a mature woman she had a lovely figure with more curves than the Pacific Coast highway.

Bender said...

Don't like it, start up your own Billion dollar TV network.

Nah. I just won't bother to watch at all, just as I haven't watched a whole lot ever since they took over from ABC. The coverage by NBC has always been lousy.

Then again, ever since they essentially abandoned the amateur model, the Olympics haven't been the same.

Joe Schmoe said...

For what it's worth, and this is not scientifically-based or even well-informed as these are sports I only watch every 4 years, I think women should have exclusive provenance of gymnastics and figure skating. I can't stand watching men do either. For some reason those sports seem uniquely suited to women. They bring a feminine sensibility to it that the men can't touch.

Joe Schmoe said...

To further support my case of gymnasts being muscular but not physiologically mature, especially their er, more sexual regions, it's a fact that girls that exercise as rigorously as these girls do can delay puberty and experience more infrequent menstruation. I'll try to find good links to support my claim.

Joe Schmoe said...

Here's one.

rhhardin said...

Somebody on Imus, probably Sid Rosenberg - their best participant except he keeps getting fired for saying unPC things - pointed out that there's no senior LPGA tour.

And Imus fires you fast for saying anything unPC. wuss

rhhardin said...

I haven't seen an Olympic event since the 60s.

Imus and crew did a radio good play by play on curling though, making up Scandinavian words for everything.

Shanna said...

I can't stand watching men do either.

I think the men are amazing, but not as flowing. But then, I loved Nastia Lukin last time around because she has that long, lithe form (although she's probably not tall in reality, but for a gymnastic she towered over the rest of them ). It makes all the moves more graceful looking, and less about power.

With the men gymnastics, it's all about power, but it's still pretty amazing. Watched with the nephews last night and they just kept saying 'how did he do that'. I just said lots and lots of practice.

rhhardin said...

Satie Gynopedies

rhhardin said...

Nice typo. Call the women's gymnastics gynastics.

Peter said...

With the men gymnastics, it's all about power, but it's still pretty amazing. Watched with the nephews last night and they just kept saying 'how did he do that'. I just said lots and lots of practice.

Performing the Iron Cross, a standard move in men's gymnastics, requires as much upper body strength as a double-bodyweight bench press.

Peter said...

Ann, I disagree that these young gymnasts lack the musculature of a mature woman. They are pretty powerful-looking athletes.

My reasoned guess is that a 90-pound, 14-year-old, barely pubescent Olympic gymnast is much stronger than the average adult woman.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Peter,

Performing the Iron Cross, a standard move in men's gymnastics, requires as much upper body strength as a double-bodyweight bench press.

On the rings, you mean? That makes me cringe every time I see it. And it's there several times in every short routine. Ow.

Peter said...

Performing the Iron Cross, a standard move in men's gymnastics, requires as much upper body strength as a double-bodyweight bench press.

On the rings, you mean? That makes me cringe every time I see it. And it's there several times in every short routine. Ow.

Yes, it's the rings exercise where the gymnast holds his arms out to his side exactly at the horizontal. There's a variation, the Reverse Iron Cross, in which the gymnast is upside down. It's said to be even tougher.

ken in tx said...

Hemingway said that mountain climbing, bull fighting, and auto racing were sports. Everything else was just a game. He meant that if people are not normally killed doing it, it is not a sport. If you are not willing to risk your life, you are just playing games.

ken in tx said...

On that thought, maybe childbirth should be considered a sport.

mtrobertsattorney said...

A major factor is the location of the center of gravity. It is much different for a 14 year old, ninety pound girl than it is for a 20 year old woman.

As for male gymnasts versus female gymnasts, women or girls are capable of moving with a grace and lightness that males simply cannot match. Gravity almost seems to be suspended for them, whereas men must overcome it by sheer power.

You can see the same difference in ballet and figure skating.

Why this is so, who knows? It may simply be one of those natural differences between men and women.

Carnifex said...

I loved watching the swedish womens curling team. I'm waiting for the beach version of that.

ESPN has an eye opening article on the sex that occurs in the Olympic Village when these athletes are decompressing. Apparently, its just a 24 hour 2 week orgy. Direct quyotes from famous athletes bragging about their "conquests", including Hope Solo, the looker goalie for the US Womens Soccer Team. The rumor is that she shagged Vince Vaugn at the last olympics. She wouldn't say who she did out right, just that it was some one famous, and he was seen partying with her after the medal game.

The innocent little gymnastic girls where included in the report.

Unknown said...

If it was male sexism designing the gymnastic scoring rules, we would fix it so that size D boobs were a major advantage, instead of gymnasts failing out as soon as they reach size B.

Dante said...

I don't understand why it's necessary to bring in the per-pubescence or pubescence of the girls doing their thing.

The point is there are some things young people can do that older people cannot. To make it seem like it's some disgusting female fascination with youth, and their jealousy because they have become old and unattractive is just wrong, and beneath the dignity of a seasoned law professor.

For others on this thread who say that those things which are "judged" are not sports, I disagree. What these young women are doing is quite dangerous. If there were an objective measure, such as "Did you do the triple flip on the balance beam," there would be more injury to the contestants than there already is. Perhaps this would be more true to the Hemingway definition, but no thanks.

OK, sorry, but really. You can make the same argument about almost any "sport." We don't need "age" to be added to the list, unless you can define a new category that does not include "age" as a prerequisite.

Lem said...

We don't need "age" to be added to the list, unless you can define a new category that does not include "age" as a prerequisite.

Supreme Court Justice.

jimbino said...

I remember when, after the Sputnik went up, Eisenhower decided we kids had to get fit and a list of required calisthenics appeared detailing how many sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups we had to do to pass.

I was a tiny runt of 16 in a class of muscular 18-year-olds and it turned out that I had to do MORE of everything, the reasoning being that a man's strength-to-weight ratio peaks around age 16.

William said...

Women are attracted to sports that make them look graceful and pretty. The money sports for women are gymnastics, figure skating, diving, tennis, and--every four years--soccer. Women shot putters seldom land an endorsement deal....I watch women's gymnastics. I suppose there's a dirty old man component to it, but those girls are so graceful and brave, they seem otherworldly. Their routines are genuinely awesome.....In women's sports, I tend to root for the prettiest girl and not the country. Sexism subverts nationalism.

Astro said...

It seems to me that one of the worst parts of all this is the borderline fraud perpetrated on the parents of young kids who are told that with more training, more equipment, more money spent on private lessons and renting hours in special training facilities, that their young son or daughter can be an Olympian, too. Families of only semi-talented kids are talked into depleting their savings accounts and taking out 2nd mortgages just because little Andrew or Emily won a medal at a local 'competition'.

Ralph L said...

A few slips on the balance beam, and a boy gymnast might never have the hormones to be a man gymnast.

Craig said...

Gymnastics as an athletic discipline was essentially created by a Prussian named Jahn during the era when Napoleon occupied Brandenburg. The Turners and their Turnvereins were grassroots organizations devoted to the practice of gymnastics as defined by Jahn. He developed most of the equipment used for modern gymnastic competition.

The sport had a somewhat subversive paramilitary component to it, as the purpose was to promote physical conditioning for men over thirty who were no longer subject to compulsory military training. The Turners were integral to the 1848 Revolution in Europe and were a key to organizing German-American units for participation in the American Civil War. Lincoln's bodyguards in the 1860 election were Turners.

Jane the Actuary said...

Hmmm . . . now I'm imagining gymnastics competitions where the men and the women competed in the same events.

Is there any other sport where the men's and women's versions are so different?

Joe said...

I dislike the type of gymnastics Olympic "women" do. I find it tends to be overly cutesy, though the more mature girls belie that. Watch the top NCAA women gymnastics teams, especially with "ex" Olympians, and it's a whole different sport.

Then again, all of competitive gymnastics have been dumbed down by regulation. In the late 80s, early 90s, men were doing the most astonishing things on the high bar, which were promptly banned. Around that same time, women were doing very creative performances on the beam; those things (like going under the bar) were immediately banned.

Unknown said...

I completely disagree with you. Most of these girls in gymnastics are very toned and muscular also the age ranges from 15-24. Gymnastics is a sport that is very hard on the body which is why most girls can only compete until about 18 because they've already injured myself too much. Also the younger the kid the more flexible and with men these men have to be extremely built in order to compete and it takes years to build that amount of muscle.

Unknown said...

It's not that weird, I actually enjoy watching women doing gymnastics, their flexibility and other talents are something that I admire.
_____________________
Ashley | Soccer News

Macheath said...

Reported in UK paper The Mirror, 1996:

Parents of a teenage gymnast who weighs three stone less than her twin sister declared last night: "She's perfectly healthy."

Janine Mortimer, 16, weighs just over five stone and is eight inches shorter than 5ft 3ins sister Jessica.


(A stone is 14 pounds)

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/GYM+TWIN+WHO+ISN'T+ALLOWED+TO+GROW+UP%3B+Sis+towers+over+Janine.-a061320156

You might also find this first-hand account interesting:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2005/dec/04/features.sport19