Saturday, December 29, 2012

Thank you to the Gymternet

It's nearly the end of 2012, which means it's time to reflect on the year that has passed. At least to reflect on things I hadn't considered when I was busy reflecting over the Jewish New Year. Or the new year for trees.

One of the things that has enriched my life over the past year has been the Gymternet. While I have been blogging here for about five years and have lurked on message boards for longer, I never really spoke or wrote to anyone directly. And while I've had a Twitter account for a couple of years, I barely used it or paid attention to it. (I only got a smartphone--my first ever--a month ago.)

But that was until the months leading up until the 2012 Olympics. As I wrote more articles about the sport in mainstream publications, I was thrilled when other fans and bloggers started reaching out to me on Twitter and in other online settings. For the first time, I had the chance to dissect the sport with folks as crazy as I am. I've even met some of these folks in person--such as the accomplished Blythe Lawrence of the Gymnastics Examiner and Lauren Hopkins of the Couch Gymnast.

I know the gymternet can be a nasty place at times, like any other virtual online space. And I know that the response to my articles and book has not necessarily be uniformly positive. But in 2012, the Gymternet has given me the warm fuzzies.

It's taken 29 years, but I've finally found my "people" and they aren't Jews. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

I am the BallaBuster

Today over at Jewcy is the latest installment of my column, which finally has a name--The BallaBuster-- a play on both "ball buster" (you all know I'm that) and balabusta. I wish had come up with this brilliance but it was the work of my editor, Stephanie Butnick.

I'm especially excited about this installment, the final one of 2012, which is about modesty blogging. Or as I like to call it--modesty apologia. That is, the type of blog post or essay in which an Orthodox woman talks about how good modest dress makes them feel and then impugns the dignity and respect of those women who choose to wear less. It attempts to use the language of feminism and liberation but ends up trotting out the language of the patriarchy, linking "ownership" of one's own body to how much of it is covered. The whole "my body is mine" if I cover it sort of thing.

Newsflash--your body is always yours no matter what you're wearing. These ideas, while not explicitly condoning sexual violence, help reinforce a rape culture in which it's okay to ask about a woman's clothing at the time of attack, strongly insinuating that her short skirt or past sexual behavior says something about her "consent." Because if wearing something short and tight means that your body belongs less to you then it perversely and logically follows that it belongs to someone else, right?

An tidbit from the column:

Anyone who has been educated in the Orthodox community—at practically every level—knows that the rules of tznius, or modesty, are not bound up in liberation, no matter what sort of modern-day apologetics are used to explain the strictures, but in patriarchal control. Women are taught to cover up what rabbis, over generations, have deemed sexually titillating.

You can read the rest here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lucky 13: Interview with Justin Spring

This week's episode of Gymcastic (our totally lucky 13th!) features Justin Spring, 2008 Olympic silver medalist and head coach of NCAA champs, the University of Illinois. So it seems like he's made the transition from athlete to adult professional with seeming ease.

But speaking of the transition from athlete to something else, we also briefly discuss the situation--which thus far been reported in the tabloids--of former Romanian gymnast Florica Leonida, who was a member of the 2003 World Championship team and is now reportedly working as a prostitute in Germany (where sex work legal, by the way). Needless to say, this has caused quite the uproar in Romania and among fans.

When I learned of this story, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Romanian journalist I befriended at a hostel while traveling in Austria. Like any gym nerd, when she told me where she was from, I immediately asked her about gymnastics, which is what I associate with her country. (Well, that and Ceausescu infecting babies with AIDS.) She rolled her eyes yet indulged me in a little gymnastics discussion. She told me that the gymnasts are often drawn from lower socioeconomic classes and aren't educated properly--many of them, she noted, can't speak English or a second language, which (if I'm to judge from her statements) is perhaps important for advancement or at least somewhat "normal" amongst the more educated classes. If this is true, then it would seem that after a gymnast's career is over--or if it ends without really getting off the ground--there is limited opportunity for some of these ex-athletes.

Which brings us to Leonida. There are many reasons to get involved in sex work but lack of options is certainly one of them. If this is true, perhaps a youth spent in high level athletics has harmed their future opportunities, especially if they don't end up winning gold medals and earning a lifelong pension/stipend. It's definitely something that we, as fans of the sport, should think about when we're watching the gymnasts compete. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Should We Get Rid Of Music On Floor Ex?

After spending the better part of this quadrennium talking about "artistry"--about who has it, who doesn't, how do we even measure it--a part of me could go a long time without hearing it debated again. And yet we will--as fans, it seems to be one of our favorite topics of discussion, especially when it comes to floor exercise.

Well, allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment and suggest a radical solution to our artistry problem--getting rid of music on floor exercise. No music would mean no jerky movements out of sync with the rhythm, no ugly leaps, no falling out of turns (or if the turns would remain in the Code of Points, at least the long pause wouldn't be as distracting since there would no music being ignored in the background). There would just be tumbling, which is mostly what we see anyway. It would be like men's floor exercise.

Yes, men's gymnastics is not as popular as the women's side of the sport is in this country, but I don't think a non-musical floor exercise is the reason. Without music and "dance" to discuss, the talk on the men's side centers around difficulty and execution. Some male gymnasts do things with style, a little bit of extra panache and that's always appreciated. But without making them dance (or pretend to), you don't have nearly as many pointless debates about who is artistic.

Gymnasts, are not by definition, dancers. Though both gymnasts and dancers share similar abilities and raw talents, a dancer cannot be swapped for a gymnast and vice versa--they are not interchangeable. We don't go to the ballet and act disappointed when the ballerinas don't do flips, yet when it comes to gymnastics, we hope to find some amalgam of acrobat and dancer. Commentators and fans erroneously ascribe "balletic" to just about any routine done with a modicum of elegance and style, regardless of how many critical dance errors the gymnasts make.

I don't blame the athletes for any of this. The fault lies in training, which is in turn a reflection of competitive and scoring priorities. FIG gives lip service to their desire to increase the artistry by making ridiculously hard jumps and leaps value in the Code, but really, those are nothing more than tricks, just like a double back is a trick. But that's sort of getting off topic. (Also, I think I've become something akin to a broken record with regards to artistry.)

But the causes notwithstanding, the troubling fact remains--we continue to see floor exercises awfully choreographed and performed with little feeling or expression. And we continue to have the same pointless debates about artistry and how to measure it. (Newsflash--you can't.) So what if we just acknowledged the truth and got rid of the music?

Would getting rid of music decrease the popularity of the sport? Perhaps. Audiences certainly wouldn't have anything to clap along to as they watch female gymnasts tumble. But think about it--Olga Korbut, who popularized the sport, didn't win the crowd over with her dancing on floor. She's remembered for her diminutive stature and her daring back flip on the uneven bars. Same goes for Nadia. While many enjoyed her spunky floor routine, the iconic image of her is getting that ten for a compulsory routine on the uneven bars. (Could anything be less exciting than that? And yet it's shown over and over.) I am not convinced that this change would fundamentally alter the appeal of women's gymnastics--the same way I have yet to be convinced that the elimination of the "Perfect 10" has had any sort of negative impact on the popularity of the sport.

The real question is--would it decrease the enjoyment of the spectators? The answer to that is probably--yes, it will. Men's floor exercise, with it's passes and static poses, is not the most popular event in their repertoire. That distinction probably belongs to high bar. Also, it would probably decrease the enjoyment of the athletes. Even the least capable dancers and least expressive performers talk about how much they enjoy getting out and showing off their personalities in front of a crowd. Whether or not they're successful at this is not necessarily correlated to their enjoyment.

Despite all of the arguments I've made, I don't actually want to do away with music on women's floor exercise. A routine done with a backing track playing (as opposed to performed to music) is still more entertaining to watch than those without any music. And eliminating music on floor removes the possibility for rare moments when a gymnast really does manage to do justice to both dance and gymnastics, to perform something that lives up to the sport's name--artistic gymnastics.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Is Gymnastics the Justin Bieber of Sports?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a review a friend of mine had written about the Kellogg's Tour of Champions and how much she disliked it--from the low level of difficulty to quality of the dancing to the poor production values.

I wanted to put the review on the site because many of us gymnastics fans wonder why our sport isn't more popular during "off" years, why we can't seem to create a lot of viable professional and performing opportunities for high level gymnasts. I think Tanya's post, in part, answers that question. If you're not a hardcore fan of the sport, you're not willing to settle for just any sort of gymnastics performance. (And perhaps that's part of the problem. In gymnastics as in democracy? "In a democracy you get the government you deserve and you deserve the government you get." If we take whatever they toss our way, we'll keep getting the same exact things.)

Well, it seems that even some hardcore fans are dissatisfied. "Carrie" left this comment on the post:

So I'm catching up on your blog, and I thought I'd mention, as a gymnastics-crazed person, I watched 10 minutes of this Kellogg's Tour nonsense and then deleted it from the DVR. I get that they have to play it safe, but why would I want to see the Olympic champions perform level 6 routines? I realize they have to capitalize on their fame while they can, but in the big picture, these exhibition tours are not good for the sport. People of all ages and backgrounds watch the Olympics, they know these athletes by name, yet when it's time for the big push for the sport, the target demographic is 12-year-old girls, period. Why do we have to be the Justin Bieber of sports? There's got to be a way to make these shows cooler and appeal to the masses, like Cirque du Soleil. Or, how about a COMPETITION tour? Because really, that's what people want to see.

So much to unpack here. I agree with most of what Carrie wrote. It seems that the purpose of these tours is not to win over new fans or capitalize on the interest generated by a successful Olympic Games. The purpose seems to be appeal to the very young fans who will go to anything involving gymnastics and buy virtually (or beg their parents to) anything to do with gymnastics just as I did at that age. And indeed, when Gymcastic interviewed Miss Val, I mentioned my friend's appraisal of the show and she blamed Tanya's disappointment on the marketing of the event. She felt that it should've been marketed as an a show that allows fans to get close to their idols and Olympians and as an opportunity for spectators to see these intense athletes let their hair down, both literally and figuratively. No one should've come expecting to see high level gymnastics.

And then Carrie,"Why do we have to be the Justin Bieber of sports?" God, I adore that phrasing even if I'm not totally certain what it means to be the "Justin Bieber of Sports?"

Is it about the demographic? If so, then we surely are the Justin Bieber of sports. After all, how many news stories have we endured with the Fierce Five expressing their adoration of the teen pop star? And a large chunk of their fan base is similarly enamored.

But is the Justin Bieber reference says something about the nature of the show--perhaps that it's cheesy? I've never seen a Justin Bieber concert (and I've never been one for the types of shows with pyrotechnics and backup dancers--I also don't like amusement parks) but I'm assuming that something along those lines is happening. It's supposed to be silly fun--provided you're the right audience for it. (But if we could make it a lot campier then perhaps I'd be game.)

Bieber, however, has enough tween fans that he never needs to worry about branching out beyond that demographic. (At least until he and they get older.) But gymnastics doesn't enjoy the same popularity of Justin Bieber. Furthermore, when Bieber's fans grow up, they have other artists to turn to that are perhaps better suited to their more mature tastes. Grown up gymnastics fans have to consume the same exact fare as they did when they were younger simply because there aren't enough of us a adult diehards as there are kiddies. (A lot of people tend to outgrow gymnastics as they do many things they did as kids.)

While I like the idea of a competitive tour, this might be pretty tricky to pull off as well as a tough sell to the athletes and spectators. If the gymnasts are going to go on tour and compete, even at a somewhat lower level--well then why wouldn't they just go home and train for "real" meets? And while older fans, no doubt, will be excited to see more competition, I'm not convinced that anything short of the Olympics can get the wider public excited for gymnastics. (And to be fair to gymnastics--I don't think other popular Olympic events such as swimming are getting tons of attention during the "off" years unless Michael Phelps is involved.)

Maybe I'm being a bit of a fatalist and not at all imaginative enough. Perhaps there is a way to satisfy the core of the fan base while making the sport more palatable to adults without having a grown man run around in a diaper? I surely hope so. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Philo Semitism of Gabby Douglas

I have my doubts about the existence of God but this is one of the things that can briefly turn me into a full-fledged believer. I'm reading a gymnast's memoir--in this case that of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas--and I come across the following statement: "I used to be Jewish." And then I know that God exists cause She has chosen to mix gymnastics and Judaism (which can be interwoven unlike wool and linen) just for me.

Over at Jewcy, I wrote about the curious Philo-Semitism of Douglas, who, along with the rest of her family, has dabbled in some Jewish traditions and rituals over the years. While remaining steadfastly Christian, she seems fond of Judaism and respectful of it. This young lady continues to be a class act.

After an earnest discussion of learning how to press from the floor up into a handstand, a move that becomes significantly more difficult once you develop hips, and with no attempt at transition, Douglas writes, “I used to be Jewish.” The connection between Judaism and handstands eludes even me.

You can read the entire story here

Miss Val Interview, Part 2

This week on Gymcastic, we have part two of our phenomenal interview with UCLA head coach, Valorie Kondos-Field. I've gotta say--this was one of the best interview experiences I've had thus far. Truly a lot of fun. I hope that comes through in the podcast.

And quite fittingly, we bloggers highlighted some of our favorite unusual or even ugly (but in a good way) routines, just days before Miss Val unveiled the latest Bruin floor routines, including the wonderful and strange one belonging to Mattie Larson. Kondos-Field has an appreciation of what is interesting and captivating, not just what is "beautiful" or "lovely," which can be boring at times.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Where Does the Double Pike Belong?

Like many gymnastics fans who came of age during 92-96 quad (i.e. old people), I had grown accustomed to seeing hard tumbling passes at the end of the routine. Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Simona Amanar, Lavinia Milosivic, Dina Kochetkova, etc. mostly dismounted with full twisting double backs at the end of their programs. And this fact was frequently highlighted by the commentators, who praised seeing gymnasts execute hard skills at the end of an otherwise exhausting program.

This is no longer the case. Double pikes and double tucks abound at the end of routines and even though I recognize that today's gymnasts are doing an additional pass (though some did have four), I find this to be disappointing.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Wakana Inoue's recent floor routine. She does her double pike as her second pass after an incredibly difficult 3.5 twister mount. She performed a triple twist as a dismount, the fourth pass in her routine.

I don't know enough about performing high level gymnastics to truly understand the difficulty of performing one skill vs. another. And I'm sure it varies according to gymnast. For some a flipping move might be harder, for others a twisting skill might prove trickier.

But from the perspective of the spectator, it can be something of a let down when the final skill pales in difficulty and excitement to the opening element.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Strange and Beautiful

Yesterday I attended "Meet the Bruins," UCLA women's gymnastics, pre-season dress rehearsal, which is where Mattie Larson debuted her new floor exercise. This routine defies any attempts at simple categorization. Check it out:

This is what I mean when I go on and on about choreography that isn't interchangeable. Every movement in this routine was designed specifically for the mood, music, and performer. None of it (or at least very little of it) could be used in a different exercise for a different person.

Anyway, Larson's routine and execution was strange and beautiful, like this Aqualung song:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Eight Nights of Cartwheels

It's the second night of Hanukkah and if you're a procrastinator like me, you still need to purchase presents. So why not a book about Jews and gymnastics? Would it kill you to buy it?

Don't just take my biased word about it. Men's gymnastics blogging wunderkind (and altogether hilarious human being) Uncle Tim has reviewed my modest essay collection and liked it. He really liked it. (He also thought to include a picture of She-Ra Princess of Power--the doll who played Kim Zmeskal in all of my reenactments--which was pretty genius on his part.)

As I've noted early and often, I was never good at gymnastics, but this doesn't really matter when it comes to knowing, writing, and joking about it. And a lack of athletic talent doesn't mean that gymnastics can't mean something to you, that you can't imbue it with all kinds of meaning.

Uncle Tim really seemed to get that point in his review of Heresy on the High Beam:

She has charted new territory for the world of books about gymnastics. No longer do memoirs about the sport have to be written from the perspective of an elite. She proves that they can and should be written from the perspective of an ordinary gymnast and super fan.

Thanks Uncle Tim--I'm an explorer, just like Columbus. I'm just waiting for the Gymternet to rename a landmass/apparatus after me.

And you should all check out his blog. His photoshop work with mullets and Bart Conner's face is  truly remarkable. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

More Baby Aly

Here's Aly Raisman as a Level 6 gymnast competing the compulsory floor exercise. Everything about this is freaking adorable down to the pigtail bun things. Why doesn't she still wear her hair that way?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Miss Val Interview, Part 1

I'm a pretty big fan of Valorie Kondos-Field, the head coach of the UCLA women's gymnastics team. My fandom began simply enough--I loved the floor routines she choreographed, which in turn, made me a fan of her program. And when I lived in LA, I went to several UCLA home meets by myself (cause I couldn't convince any friends to accompany me) and sat in the stands feeling left out as everyone around me began singing the UCLA fight song. (My alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, has a school song that is accompanied by a hand gesture eerily similar to the Nazi salute.) And yet I still kept going until I moved back to the East Coast.

Over the course of this summer, I had occasion to interview her twice--first for this story in The Atlantic and then for a piece about the declining quality of floor exercise dance in Slate. I found Kondos-Field to be intelligent and insightful and not at all prone to platitudes that we often come to associate with interviews about athletics.

So I was extra pleased (fangirling a bit here so please forgive me) to get the opportunity to speak with Miss Val yet again, this time for a much more extended period of time. Prior to the interview, she had expressed a desire to go deep and get philosophical and introspective. And boy did she ever.

Check out Part 1 of Gymcastic's interview with this coaching legend. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Two Per Country Rule: A Brief Response

The Couch Gymnast published a thoughtful piece about the two-per country rule, which came under scrutiny this summer when defending world champion, Jordyn Wieber, failed to make the AA final despite posting the 4th best qualification score, which was above 60 points.

This analysis seems to sympathize with Wieber--who wouldn't?--and other athletes like her who have the "misfortune" of being on dominant teams where their strongest competition comes from their own teammates. The writer cites other athletes from the past who benefited or were burned by this rule, but doesn't really come to any sort of conclusion or take a stance on the rule, one way or another.

But what this analysis seems to have overlooked is how the rule has remained (the number revised down one) despite some very real changes in how team competitions are conducted. Gone are the days when everyone did every apparatus, which meant that all competitors could, in theory, qualify to the all-around finals. This meant that every member of the Soviet and Romanian squads could've made the all-around final.

Nowadays, because of three up, three count and 5-4-3 rules,there are fewer all-around gymnasts vying for a spot in the final. Teams carry two event specialists that won't be able to contend for that portion of the competition. (And in the case of teams like the U.S. and China this year, there are also single event competitors such He Kexin and McKayla Maroney.) Under these circumstances, even dominant teams like the U.S. wouldn't be able to dominate the podium in the AA final the same way the Soviet Union could've.

This means that the all-around field is far more diluted than it used to be when specialists couldn't be on teams. It saddens me that we dilute this field even further by disqualifying true medal contenders for the sake of this rule.

I'm super happy that gymnasts from Poland get to compete at the Worlds or Olympics and it doesn't matter much to me what sort of allowances enabled them to qualify. I'm glad that they're gaining experience both for themselves and their countries' gymnastics programs. But does that mean that they, in addition to prelims, must also be allowed to compete in the AA medal round too? It might be harsh to say this, but I don't think they should. But it's not about what's fair or unfair to the gymnasts. My view, in part, comes from a selfish place. I just want to watch a better, more competitive all-around final.