Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shawn Johnson, Unregistered Democrat

The sixteen year old Olympic Champion from Iowa might be too young to vote in the upcoming election, but she is reported to be saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democratic National Convention tonight.

Not that I take my voting cues from gymnasts no matter how cute, perky or high pitched their voices may be, but I'm happy to see that at least one of these petite athletes is a Democrat, even if she still can't vote. Unlike Kerri "You can do it!" Strug and Mary Lou Retton, who also recited the Pledge, but for a very different audience. Here they are at the Republican National Convention in 2004.

(photo taken from

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No pain, no Games?

Today, while I was getting a bikini wax (the last of the season!), the waxer, a friendly Russian woman who knew that I had done gymnastics when I was younger and also knew that I squirmed and flinched and definitely needed something to keep my mind off her task, brought up the Olympics. "What do you think of those Chinese gymnasts?" I rolled my eyes, mostly to not see what she was up to down there but also cause I had kind of stopped caring. "Yes," I said as she ripped what I hoped wasn't too much of my skin away. "They're probably underage. But you can't prove it. And they did beautiful gymnastics." (I also added that I really enjoyed this years crop of Russian gymnasts and thought they had been underscored. After all, she had me in a very vulnerable position).

To me, that seemed to justify the probable cheating. My all time favorites have always been the Soviets- Oksana Omelianchik, Svetlana Bokinskaya, Tatiana Groshkova to name a few- and they were not known for always playing by the rules (the government, not the athletes). Their gymnastics was always aesthetically pleasing gymnastics and I tried not to think about what it took for them to accomplish that. Beauty often entails pain as the tale of my waxing illustrates. (A side note- I've complained to no fewer than four female friends today about the pain of the wax and all confessed that they hadn't ever had one. As one put it- "Even I don't hate myself that much," said the writer/actress friend. This was surprising as I had been very ashamed that I had only started waxing my bikini zone a year ago, at 24.)

But then I read this article about the Chinese athletes' preparations for the Olympics- children not allowed to see their parents, young divers with terrible vision from training at too early an age, an athlete not informed of her mother's death- and I thought back to those underage athletes. True, they had performed technically stunning gymnastics. And true, for the most part they seemed happy while they were competing. I personally think that gymnastics and competing is what they want to do- not forced to do. And I love to watch them do what I think they enjoy doing. But I can't forget that all this beauty was the result of some real pain, some of which they were too young to opt into. At least I was able to wait until I was 24 to exchange pain for beauty.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

While we're on the topic of sex...

A former Olympic athlete writes about the orgy that is the Olympic Games. He doesn't mention gymnastics or any gymnasts by name and I hope that's because they do not participate in the aforementioned sex fest. Not that there's anything wrong with it- I just think that a lot of the athletes would be hard pressed to find appropriately aged partners that wouldn't later be charged with statutory rape. Especially the Chinese Women's Gymnastics Team.

Gymnastics has found some new fans...

Unfortunately they might have to write their newly crowned "idols" from prison.

“The ‘34-55-year-old men who live in their parents’ basements, haven’t had girlfriends in over ten years, and fit the FBI’s profile of child sex offenders’ demographic really boosted ratings for the gymnastics events,” said a high-ranking member of the Nielsen Media Research group. “I suppose it’s not entirely surprising, but for whatever reason these perverts hadn’t been watching gymnastics in nearly as big numbers since the Dominiques [Dawes and Moceanu] retired from Olympic competition.”
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

When 8/9/08 meets the Ninth of Av 5868

This year I did not cry for Jerusalem. On the ninth day of Av, Jews around the world gathered on the floors of synagogues to hear the book of Lamentations chanted mournfully aloud to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. But this year, this date coincided with the ninth day of August. Instead of wailing with my people, I was with my other people- the gymnasts. The ninth day of August marked the first day of gymnastics competition at the Olympic Games and I was at a friend’s apartment, watching it all unfold semi-live from Beijing.

I often joke that gymnastics is my religion and the Olympics are my High Holy Days. Of course this is not really true. Gymnastics is not my religion- it’s my spirituality. It sprung up from within and has always felt, well, right. I accepted the demands of the sport gladly. I didn’t cry when my hands ripped and bled from uneven bars training. I was silent as my coach pressed my chest into the floor while pulling my into a 180 degree horizontal split.

The strictures of Judaism I accepted begrudgingly, especially when they conflicted with gymnastics. I cried when my mother told me I could not turn on the television on Shabbat to watch the World Championships. After turning twelve and becoming a bat mitzvah, I refused to stop doing gymnastics though the sport required me to wear immodest attire in the presence of men. And during college, I walked to the gymnasium to support my friends at club gymnastics competitions that fell on the Sabbath (though I did not compete).

But I never really had a problem with Jewish fast days. I don't enjoy them but after years of carefully controlling my diet to look good in a leotard, fasting has always been pretty easy for me. But feeling the sadness that is supposed to accompany a fast day has been a bit trickier. During the summer of 1996, I learned about the Magnificent Seven's gold medal in the team competition during the last hour of the Tisha B'Av fast. I clapped like a seal and skipped down the dirt camp path. My counselor glared at me as if to remind me that the Temple ruins were still smoking.

Twelve years later as I watched the men compete in the preliminary round of gymnastics competition in Beijing, I couldn’t feel the particular emotion my religion mandated for this particular time. I wasn’t sad. My spirit had other ideas. It wanted to rejoice. I did my best to remember Jerusalem when I refrained from the bowls of food being passed around. I sat on the ground throughout as is done during shiva. I hope that’s enough for God cause I really don’t want my right arm to fall off.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

For the Frum Cat

Thanks Marni for passing this link along!

My personal favorite is the Silver Fox

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ugly Americans?

Does one have to be native born to exemplify the Ugly American stereotype? Unfortunately, no. And at these Olympic Games in Beijing, it was the Romanian born coaching duo of Marta and Bela Karolyi who embodied this particular pejorative. The term, which first originated as the title of a 1958 book by William and Eugene Burdick, tends to refer to loud, obnoxious nationalistic American behavior, especially when traveling abroad.

The Karolyis defected to the United States from Communist Romania in 1981 and have lived their out very own American Dream. They own a successful gymnastics business, a house (and a ranch) and multiple large vehicles. They have coached several champion gymnasts. But those are the good parts. In recent years, Mrs. Karolyi administered the women’s team with the same sort of insularity and xenophobia that would make our president, who once confessed to not reading newspapers and the opinions of dissenters, proud. American gymnasts have not competed abroad as much as their foreign counterparts and have largely been vetted by domestic competitions (And I include the American Cup on the list of domestic competitions). She then fed the press false expectations largely based on the results of these meets.

But all of that, while detrimental to the U.S. team efforts in Beijing, was not ugly. It was the Karolyis’ words that made them deserving of the “Ugly American” epithet.

“They are using half-people. One of the biggest frustrations is, what arrogance. These people think we are stupid,” Karolyi said to the Associated Press. He is referring to suspicions that some members of the Chinese gymnastics squad are underage (a view that I also hold), but long after the FIG and IOC settled the matter in favor of the Chinese, and after the U.S. women were unable to defeat them in competition. His comments came across as petulant and perhaps even a little bit racist.

His wife, national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, also mentioned the underage gymnasts after the U.S.’s second place finish, by pointing out that “one little girl has a missing tooth.” She actually didn’t have a missing tooth- it was there, just crooked. All Karolyi did was call attention to the gap (pun intended) between the quality of dental care that perhaps exists in the United States and China. And of course, her own poor sportsmanship.

Marta also accused the judges of “psychological warfare,” for making team captain, Alicia Sacramone wait to mount the balance beam. She ended up falling off on that very first element. And then later, still distraught by her mistake on the balance beam, she sat down on the landing of her second floor exercise pass and seemingly cost the team the gold medal (though in reality that was lost by the Americans’ lower start values). But from these comments, it seems that Marta is unaware that being host to the Games does not grant a country extra members on the judging panel, which would have made the delay, if intentional, the result of an international conspiracy.

Now, I don’t believe that exhibitions of patriotism, such as celebrating with the flag are objectionable, though the members of the men’s track relay team in 2004 were characterized as “Ugly Americans” for their raucous in stadium celebrations. Though the flexing of their muscles to the crowd might have been a bit much, in that instance, I think those kinds of criticisms indicate a double standard- it seems to be objectionable to the international community when American athletes celebrate with their flag (though in Chinese and Romanian gymnastics victories, the flag is often central and its presence is not remarked upon).

But repeatedly dismissing your opponents’ success as the result of cheating( which is rich and especially hypocritical when you pioneered some of these dishonest techniques during your tenure in Romania) and refusing to acknowledge the strength of the Chinese program in full view of the international community was embarrassing to the U.S. athletes, to say the very least.

But can we dismiss their actions as a holdover from the Eastern bloc system where they first became famous? No, we cannot disown them. Fans of American gymnastics have accepted their help and the success they brought to this country's gymnastics program. We can’t take just the good. We have to absorb this as well. They may be Romanian by birth, but they are American now. And in Beijing, they were simply ugly.