Saturday, June 30, 2012

What's the point of the Olympic Trials?

The Olympic Trials, as any fan of gymnastics is very well aware, are now underway in San Jose. (Us fans have only been waiting for this moment, for say, four years.) After competition on Sunday night, we'll know who is on the women's team. But the scores and placements from the Trials themselves don't determine the team. The three person selection committee comprised of Martha Karolyi, Steve Rybacki, Teri Humphrey does. While the Trials figure into their deliberations, they are not necessarily the determining factor unless in the case of gymnasts like Nastia Liukin and Bridget Sloane who haven't competed in awhile. Because the committee is free to do so, they get to take into account practices and past competitions. Why should the fate of an athlete's Olympic dream boil down to just one competition? And if we are to reduce a gymnast's career to just one meet, it should be the Olympics, not the qualification competition.

Yet the Trials still command significant amounts of press attention and every Olympic cycle resurrects the controversies of past Olympic team selections, including the Kim Kelly affair from 1992. Twenty years ago, Kelly thought she earned the 6th and final spot onto the Olympic team only to be replaced late by an athlete that had been too injured to compete at Trials in a closed door session.

At the time, I naturally felt for Kelly. It seemed so very unfair to nine year old sense of morality. Fastest wins the race. Highest score on the test is the top student in the class. Case closed.

But that really only works for individual pursuits, not for team matters. One would never determine the members of a basketball or soccer team in such a way. And since the 3-up-3-count added a bit of strategy to the team competition--no longer simply making it about adding up gymnasts' all around totals but filling roles on each event--the old way of selecting the team is certainly outmoded.

While selecting teams on the basis of past performance and practices is hardly controversial in the aforementioned team sports, it is often highly fraught within gymnastics. They don't have a dunking contest to determine the best point guard or forward for the basketball team. However, the less objective seeming the sport is (and gymnastics is certainly a judged, subjective sport), the more we try to demand some semblance of fairness and transparency in team selection. And a head-to-head competition seems like the most transparent and just way to choose a team. It's democratic in a way, like the way we choose our elected officials. (Winner takes all on election day as opposed to appointment/confirmation process to earn certain government positions.)

But in gymnastics, it mostly doesn't work. The teams do need to be selected just as an NCAA gymnastics coach decides the lineup for the week's meet. It's not democratic. Of course, college meets happen nearly every week during the competitive season and once a year when it comes to the finals. I'm sure people would be more high-strung emotionally about this fact if NCAA championships came around only once every four years instead of every year.

I know this post sounds oddly like I'm throwing my support behind Martha Karolyi, of whom I have often been openly critical. In a way, I am. Yet my problem has never been that the teams are chosen mostly by her. It's the pretense of guidelines that has always bothered me. If USA Gymnastics would come forward and openly say that there are no true guidelines and that the team will be wholly the choice of the selection committee then I would be somewhat satisfied. It would be honestly admitting what is really happening anyway. Also, even though I have no problem with the team being at the discretion of the committee, I don't think the selection process needs to be nearly as long and protracted as it has been in the past.

Which brings us to the Olympic Trials. Namely, what is the point of this whole show? Why throw the girls into one final domestic pressure cooker when the results only kind of matter (as opposed to perhaps getting some of the girls out there for the final international meets, especially someone like Sarah Finnegan, who is rather inexperienced)? Is it beneficial to to the gymnasts?

Don't get me wrong--the trials make for excellent entertainment. (And there you have part of the answer--television ratings.) And I will be watching, rapt, tomorrow night as the women finish their competition and the team is named. But I just wonder if there is a better way to choose the Olympic team...

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Olympic Trials, Hunger Games-Style

From the ever hilarious Spanny Tampson, here's a good little montage to get you in the Olympic Trials spirit.

At least the "fight till the death" part won't literally be happening in San Jose. It's more along the lines of "fight till the death of your dreams" kind of showdown.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A little more Nastia

Apologies for the Nastia Liukin overload but a piece I wrote about her after Nationals is now up on Jezebel. I realize that there has been a lot of nastiness and snark directed at her since she competed at Visa Championships, her performance put a few questions in my mind--why did she come back and why so late? She certainly is not ignorant of what it takes to succeed at the elite level so why the months of wavering (during which time she made no fans and accrued many haters).

Was this just Nastia trying to remain the spotlight, as many have accused. Perhaps it played a part. But I think the reasons go deeper. Liukin is having the same difficulty that many elites have moving on from gymnastics (and who can blame her? I sucked and it took me ages until I gave up trying). Also, Nastia is experiencing the same problems as the rest of us when it comes to aging--we intellectually get that it's happening but it's hard for us to process it.

I spent years treating my body like, well, shit, working out hard and injured, thinking that the only thing I had to concern myself with is being able to endure the pain. For a long time, I never considered the consequences beyond the pain. It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally realized that I was getting older and far from "sticking it" to the doctors, I was only "sticking it" to myself in the long term.  It was then that I realized that I couldn't just bounce back, that I was getting older. It was an unpleasant and harsh jolt to reality.

Maybe this is what is happening with Ms. Liukin. Perhaps not. I am not a mind reader. This is just a fun bit of speculation.

You can read the whole thing here.

Spotting Nastia

If you've been following the internet chatter surrounding the women's podium training for the Olympic Trials, you might've heard several variations on this dialogue in connection to Nastia Liukin's uneven bar routine. (In case you didn't know, Nastia Liukin had a fairly disastrous performance on the uneven bars at the National Championships, one of the two events she returned on in her comeback journey.)

"It was only a light tap."

"No, he totally lifted her up into the dismount."

I'm not particularly interested in the strength of the tap--light as a feather or baseball bat strength whack to the backside. My question is far more general--how have we come to this?

It's the Olympic Trials. Each and every one of these girls is an elite athlete. How has the conversation around the defending Olympic champion come down to spotting. We're no longer worried about whether she will hit her routines in competition or has the requisite difficulty to make a meaningful contribution to the team on the apparatus, but whether she is even capable of doing the individual elements in the practice sessions without some major help. Never before in my years of obsessive fandom and closely monitoring competitions have I come across this phenomenon. I've never seen such focused discussion on whether an athlete at this level can do her routines without help. Frankly, I feel bad for her. This would be embarrassing for any high level athlete.

I'm sure she is also quite unhappy about the nature of the conversation that has sprung up around her. Liukin is a fierce competitor and before Nationals, she asserted that she hoped to contend for the team and a gold medal. Now it seems like a "win" for her will be doing full sets without running out of steam. (An "A" for effort?)

Nastia always talks about how she puts her faith in Valeri's plan, which begs the question--what is plan? What we're seeing cannot be it. His plan cannot have her come to pre-Olympic competitions woefully underprepared, unable to finish her routines, and possibly damage her hard earned reputation in the process. Yes, she will always be the 2008 Olympic Champion, a title she won in beautiful fashion four years ago, but these past few weeks will be an unfortunate postscript to her illustrious career. (As a huge Shannon Miller fan, I always cringe at the memory of her very late comeback in 2000 and the results.)

Unless of course she surprises basically everyone and hits her bar routines spectacularly during the meet. Can this happen? Sure. Why not? Stranger, more wonderful things have already happened, such as the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare bill with Chief Justice Roberts of all people being the swing vote and writing the (winning!) majority's opinion. It is surely a time of miracles. Maybe Liukin can ride the SCOTUS wave and nail her bar set twice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A short defense of Aly Raisman

Aly Raisman to claims she lacks artistry: "You know what's really unartistic? Falling." [Gym Examiner]

Above is the fake headline I came up with that Blythe over at Gym Examiner put in her funny recurring feature about made-up gymnastics headlines. This line really sums up why I love this gymnast so much--she seems to be one of the few that remember that gymnastics, first and foremost, is a sport and being the belle of the ball doesn't matter all that much if you keep falling on your ass or if your teammates can't rely on you to hit when it counts. Aly just knows how to hit and it's been a long while since we've seen a gymnast like her. You know, the type that doesn't make your heart leap into your chest every time she mounts the apparatus, that doesn't aggravate your acid reflux.

As to the claims of her lack of artistry--well, I'm not going to argue that she is particularly artistic, whatever that means. I will say that athleticism is beautiful and she has that in spades. The beauty that Raisman brings to the sport, to the height of her somersaults is as gorgeous as watching Michael Jordan pushing past his opponents to make a layup.  (I'll let David Foster Wallace describe this sort of aesthetic: "Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid.") These examples aren't pretty in the classical sense of the word but pretty and artistry are not necessarily synonymous. 

And let's not forget the falling--nothing is more disruptive to the flow of a performance than an actual stop. A fall mars a routine much more than an unpointed toe. It's not just about loss of points when this happens. It's about how the performer loses the audience, too, who up until that moment had following raptly. That's very unartistic if you ask me. 

Am I going to argue that Aly has the best form and execution? Hell no and she should be deducted for those errors. But artistry is more than form and flexibility. 

And this current crop of Russians, though possessed of lovely flexibility and toe point, are by no means the artistes that their fans hold them out to be. (I don't think even the most ardent fan after hearing Komova's hellacious new music and accompanying "choreography" could call her routine artistic. But I'm sure some will try.) Though we wish them to be, they are sadly not the inheritors of the stunning Soviet legacy. (Long live the 1989 World Championship Team Gold Medalists!) 

And none of today's Russians are the Second Coming of Anna Pavlova--the ballerina or the gymnast. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rip Van Winkle Journalists

Bekah, the blog master of the Get a Grip Gym Blog tweeted the following:  "Half of the major newspapers think that Nastia is a lock and that everyone competes AA. Don't trust everything you read, kids."

I'm going to ignore the Nastia portion of the comment alone for now and address only the hilarious misconception that most mainstream journalists have that gymnasts must perform on all four events.

Where have these journalists been for the last decade and more when 3-up-3-count has more or less diluted the field of all-arounders with specialists? Have they been asleep?

Why, yes. Yes they have. They are the Rip Van Winkle of journalists.

Now humor me for a minute. Suppose these gaffes are not simply indicative of failing at even a cursory attempt at research (I'm a journalist and I have to Google shit all of the time when an editor assigns me a topic I know nothing about but I do it), but part of a bigger problem--they've all been asleep for the past twelve years.

Perhaps like many others after watching the botched all-around competition of Sydney (you know, the one where the vault was set at the incorrect height for nearly half of the competitors and they STILL awarded medals), decided to rest their eyes from grief and weariness and fell asleep. And they drift off...


Rip Van Winkle Journo wakes slowly, surrounded by empty liquor bottles, his faced pressed into old newspapers. The dates read "2000" on all of the papers. He stretches groggily. "Well, I guess it's time to write about the travesty of the all-around before the papers get pressed. People are going to want read this in the morning paper with their coffee. Above the fold headline, baby! God, it's good to be a journalist."

RVW starts typing at a mammoth computer. "Hmm," he says to himself. "Maybe I'll start with, 'The all-around gold medal is the title that every gymnast works for, dreams of nightly, practices day in, day out, training on all four events to win."

"How do I spell Khorkina?" he wonders aloud. "I know. I'll check the world wide web!"He fires up his internet, complete with dial up modem sounds and goes to Yahoo! to search for the gymnast's name and pulls up this instead:

"What? Her hair got so long!" he exclaims. "And what's this YouTube thing?"

Though he is new to YouTube, he quickly falls down the rabbit hole, watching video after video until He Kexin's 2008 Olympic bar routine:

"Wow! That was incredible. I wonder what she can do on balance beam."

He types in "He Kexin Olympics BB" but comes up with no results. He tries again. Still nothing from that competition. He tries a different tactic--"He Kexin all-around" and his computer laughs at him.

"What's going on?" And then he glimpses the year, "2008."

"Have I been asleep for 8 years?"

He rushes out of the apartment, searching for his newspaper to ascertain the date, but there isn't one at his door. Nor is there one in front of the doors of his neighbors. "What has the world come to--no one gets the paper AND gymnasts don't compete on all of the events?"

RVW returns to his computer and checks his AOL email. Most of the messages are from his editor. He opens one. It reads: "Due to falling ad revenues on the internet, we're going to have to cut your rate from $2 a word to .50."

Welcome to the future RVW. At least we've got videos of dogs nursing rare white tiger cubs. It's not all bad. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Gymnastics Performance Art

I was just at my local coffee + pastry joint, speaking to the barista about--what else--gymnastics. Since I'm frequently in and out, he asked me what I was working on and I told him about my recently published piece in Deadspin about artistry and the misguided notions that gymnastics fans, coaches, and judges have about it. (Who doesn't talk about this sort of thing with the person who prepares your cafe au lait?)

This barista added that he had recently watched a very good experimental dance performance. Don't get me wrong--I appreciate all kinds of art and movement, but my personal preference is highly traditional, boring, vanilla, reactionary even. I like movement to be inspired my music. Experimental dance can toe the line between dance and performance art in ways that I don't always enjoy.

And that's when it hit me--maybe that's what the gymnasts are doing. They are doing experimental dance. They purposely aren't performing with the music--they're challenging our notions of dance. Dance is about more than matching expression to music, to paying heed to the audience and completely turns and leaps with seeming ease. And most of today's gymnasts have chosen to toss out the rules of the dance bourgeoisie, of the establishment, of the fuddy duddies like me and perform in a way that challenge the audience.

They are geniuses! Visionaries! I am simply a Philistine!

Much in the same way that A.J. in Empire Records is. (Go to 1:15)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Of Gymnastics, Artistry and Second Chances

Today's been a double header, gymnastics article-wise.

Over at JTA, I've written a profile of David Sender, whose first bid to make the Olympic team was derailed by a fluke ankle injury four years ago. Now he's back in training with his sights set on London 2012. I wish I could've included more of his quotes cause he was quite funny and down-to-earth during our chat. You can read the article here.

Over at Deadspin, I have a piece about the difficult discussion that surrounds artistry in the sport of gymnastics, pegged to the retirement of Shawn Johnson, who was never considered the most artistic of gymnasts. This always bugged me, not because I think Johnson was the most artistic of athletes but because the criteria that a lot of gym fans invoked in judging her and others does not seem rooted in what I understand to be true artistry--the quality of movements, connection to the music, to the audience, to their own bodies. To be called artistic in gymnastics nowadays mostly means that you fit some sort of aesthetic ideal--long, lean and flexible. You can read the rest of my spiel here.

The best/hardest part of writing this article? Selecting some of my favorite floor routines from the past 20 years. If I would've let myself, I would've included 10 Soviet gymnasts on the list. Oh god, I love Irina Baraksanova. Tell me which videos you would've added to my list. Also, feel free to tell me how wrong I am in my evaluation of artistry.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Who Wears Short Shorts: The Gym Acro Worlds

As gym fans know, the gymnastics teams for the Olympics have been reduced from six to five to include other gymnastics-style sports at the Games.

Will the teams be reduced further for Rio in 2016 for sport aerobics?

Who wears short shorts? The Chinese men!

Remember step aerobics? Will we be seeing this someday at the Olympics?

And check out the Chinese as they go nuts moving the steps around. Hello bare midriffs!