Lately, I feel like popping an antacid before I sit down to watch a gymnastics competition and it has nothing to do with anything I ate. These days, watching the sport is sort of like riding a rollercoaster, except that on an amusement park ride, you can be pretty sure that no one is going to fall off.
The 2007 Visa Gymnastics Championships featured more spills than I cared to count. And it wasn’t just the attempts at big acrobatics that made my heart leap up into my throat. The little ones- turns and jumps on the beam, kips and transitions on the uneven bars, even dancing into a corner on floor exercise- imperiled my poor stomach. Nearly everyone was struggling with the most basic movements.
Perhaps this is why I (and many others) have grown fond of Shawn Johnson, the fifteen year old gymnast who just a week ago routed the entire women’s field by more than three points to become the new national champion. Not only is she adorable (God forgive me for liking the Middle America little girl with the big smile and even bigger dream- it’s so unoriginal) but she’s consistent on even the most difficult skills. She feels like a throwback to a time when gymnasts could be counted on to hit more often than not.
No, I’m not in my sixties or seventies waxing nostalgic for a time when female gymnasts were little more than glorified ballerinas. The athletes I grew up watching were Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, Gina Gogean and Lilia Podkapayeva. These were gymnasts you could you set your watch by. I used to be able to sit back on the couch and let my eyes settle lazily on the screen and just not worry. They weren’t going to fall. And they usually didn’t.
In fact, their misses were so rare that I can recall the vivid horror that accompanied each one. I remember when Kimbo fell off compulsory balance beam during the 1992 Olympics. I was nine and ran into the kitchen. My mother had to retrieve me fifteen minutes later when NBC finally stopped showing the tragedy in slow motion. Similarly, Shannon Miller’s three fall beam set at the following year’s world championships was excruciating to sit through (I hid behind the couch pillows as it played) and though that competition was part of my tape collection and had been watched so often that it began to warp, I’ve still haven’t seen the routine not obscured by upholstery. (Thank God for the fast-forward button).
So, what has happened to today’s gymnasts? Why can’t most of them finish a routine without a fall or a significant wobble? Explanations abound, especially on the internet message boards where diehard gymnastics fans gather to discuss their rarely broadcast sport. The abolition of compulsory exercises, which until 1996 forced the gymnasts to perfect relatively simple (for them) basics, is frequently blamed for the problems the athletes have been having with easier elements. Also, the new scoring system, which has rid gymnastics of that pesky “10” that made the sport so famous, is unpopular with fans and coaches alike since it requires the gymnast to throw in the proverbial kitchen sink when it comes to difficulty. Routines have become a series of tricks and most of them sloppily chucked.
Amidst all of the outrage, a few devil’s advocate sort of questions have gone unasked. Namely, should I feel comfortable while watching gymnastics or any sporting event? After all, we’re talking about competitions, not theater or Broadway shows, where mistakes should be an anomaly and viewers generally get what they pay for. Gymnastics should thrilling, edge of your seat stuff and part of that excitement comes from wondering and worrying whether an athlete will hit. So what if they seem to be missing more than sticking? Should it matter that the margins of victory have grown wider and that falls, not wobbles separate gold from silver? And is this even bad for the future of the sport?
Obviously, the answers, like the judging, are subjective, and at least one person (Bruno Grandi, president of the International Gymnastics Federation) likes the new system. And maybe I am getting old (I’ve already crossed over the demographic line separating MTV and VH1), but I know what I want to watch- artistically composed, flawlessly executed routines, which are quickly becoming artifacts. I can see myself, twenty years from now, watching gymnastics with my own children and talking about the how things were back in my day in very much the same way that my own grandfather spoke about walking to school in inclement weather. I’ll ignore their eye rolling and grind a couple of Tums to chalk, hoping to calm the nerves that show no signs of abating.