Wednesday, July 31, 2013

One Year Anniversary of the Fierce Five's Gold Medal

A year ago today, I was curled in the fetal position on the floor of my apartment waiting for women's team finals to start in London. I'm super jingoistic (much to my own chagrin) during the Olympics and even though the U.S. women were heavy favorites, you never know what might happen. 

Perhaps my stress level was elevated because I had been a hermit for the two weeks prior as I wrote articles nonstop for the competition. I hadn't really had much sunlight despite it being summer. I also sort of stopped eating because the workload was so great that I had to choose between sleeping and eating and I kept opting for more shuteye.

Anyway, here's the most gorgeous piece of gymnastics from the Games--McKayla Maroney's team finals vault:

UPDATE: USAG just released this adorable video of the jaw-dropped judge, Cheryl Hamilton, who became famous for her amazed reaction to Maroney's vault. (She was a D-panel judge so don't direct your complaints about the deductions on execution to her.) Maroney also speaks in this video.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Should the next floor champion be the best dancer or tumbler?

After watching this weekend's Secret U.S. Classic, I was struck by this thought--the next world champion on floor might win on the strength of her dance skills and bonus, not on her flipping ability.

Ksenia Afanasyeva currently has the highest start value on floor and that's mostly due to her turns (and leaps). She does a few really hard turns and connects them. While her tumbling is hard and clean, it's nothing to write home about. Two of her lines are so standard they're practically compulsory. Her opening is a double layout, while difficult, is hardly a noteworthy pass anymore. Her two whips into a triple twist is the only tumbling run in the routine that stands out to me. Still, it's impressive that she can maintain her difficulty level as she gets older.

Coming in right behind her in SV is Lexie Priessman who does four hard passes, including the rarely seen double layout full out and a double double. (And she ends with a full in, which isn't often seen in the last few codes where it's become de rigeur to dismount with a double pike.) I hated Priessman's last floor routine--too many music changes and the choreography was just plain awful. This new music and movement style suit her much better and she seems much more comfortable performing it. Her dance elements, however, are weak.

Then we've got Simone Biles, who had a really rough day on Saturday, but demonstrates some astonishing tumbling including the highest and fastest tuck double double that I've ever seen and a wholly original double layout half out. But once again, her SV isn't as high as Afanasyeva's cause she doesn't do as many of those valuable turns.

Aly Raisman, last year's Olympic champion on floor came from the tumbling camp--incredibly difficult and original passes--and did only a single turn to satisfy the requirement. She didn't up the value of floor routine with that. (But I much prefer seeing a single turn performed easily than a Memmel that requires a pause to set up and wrenching of the leg.)

In 2004, the "dancer" won out--Catalina Ponor. That year, she performed the same exact passes that everyone was doing (and with poor form to boot on the full in and triple) but did some complicated turns and jumps well. The best floor routine of that Olympics was Cheng Fei's (even with the step out of bounds in the event finals). Hard tumbling the whole way through, super impressive presentation, and impeccable form. That floor final was a travesty.

And a great Memmel turn isn't the hallmark of a wonderfully performed routine. Check out Laurie Hernandez's floor routine from Saturday. It was one of the best danced routines of the competition and yet she includes just a single turn that blends seamlessly into her dance. And she never stops dancing.

These turns don't necessarily benefit the "artistic" gymnast because they're really just like another trick. Instead of a tumbling skill, we have a turn skill.

Now if Afanasyeva was performing her 2012 (or even her 2011) routine, I would be more or less OK with her winning on the strength of her turns because in that routine, there was original refreshing choreography and dance. Like--actual movement, not just "handography." (I don't know if that term is new but I first heard it from blogger Lindsey Green on Saturday as we skyped through the Classic together.) But in the latest batch of Russian floor routines there is no dance whatsoever. None. But they pose dramatically, pause, do a turn, move to the corner, run for a pass. And then repeat.

No one is blaming them for milking the current Code of Points. (I'm sorry that I keep picking on them but they're held up as a paragon of "artistry" even as the rules have been most damaging to them.) It's more the skewed priority of the Code that I have a problem with. This Code has reduced the stylish Russians to handography to rack up tenths (and as Uncle Tim noted in a recent Gymcastic ep, the lack of dance might also be masking a lack physical conditioning). And the Code might give us a floor winner who is the best one in the meet at turns and leaps but nothing special in the tumbling department.

What do you think? Do you want the next floor gold medalist to win on the virtues of her leaps and turns? Or would you like your winner to have hard, well-executed tumbling even if they're less elegant in performance and presentation?

I know that in a perfect world, we'd get both--spectacular tumbling and fantastic dance. But we don't live in a gymnastics utopia. We live in the world Bruno Grandi created. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Are Olympic boycotts justified?

In last weekend's New York Times, Harvey Firestein, a Broadway legend, writes about the new anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin just signed into law in Russia, including a law banning the adoption of Russian children by homosexuals or people who come from countries where marriage equality exists. (The right should use this in their propaganda--if we allow the gays to marry, Russia won't let us adopt their children.) He also signed into law that allows the police to arrest folks that are suspected of being gay. (These are actually just two out of a host of restrictions that have either passed or will soon become law.)

As we know, gay people are everywhere. They're your friends, neighbors, mailmen, and even, gasp, professional athletes. (Check out this AMAZING clip from Totally Biased about NBA star Jason Collins coming out of the closet. It gets really good at 2:10)

The IOC has promised that these wouldn't affect LGBT athletes in Sochi, but Firestein thinks the IOC should go one step further--demand the retraction of these rules under threat of boycott. (Apparently, Dutch tourists were just arrested as a result of these new rules so they're not just being applied to Russian citizens.)

Olympic boycotts don't sit well with gymnastics fans. Many of us have played endless games of "What if?" when thinking about the 80 and 84 Games. What if the Soviet squad had been there in 84? Would Mary Lou Retton have won? (Probably not.) What if the U.S. men, who had been riding high before the 80 Games, had had the opportunity to compete? And so on and so forth.

I'm not an elite athlete. I haven't trained for hours every day in pursuit of just one goal. I can't imagine the devastation of some of the athletes who missed "their" Games as a result of action taken by Jimmy Carter. (We don't really hear from the Soviet gymnasts and those from satellite countries who missed out on 84 but I'm sure they were also disappointed.)

But then again, what should be done in the face of laws like this? I like Firestein's idea of the IOC, rather than an individual nation applying pressure or acting especially since it doesn't have the political baggage of, say, a country who can be accused of hypocrisy and its own human rights violations. (How many states in the U.S. just passed racist voter ID laws? Looking at you, North Carolina.) Then again there's the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The IOC has its own history of ignoring discrimination to live down. But at least it's not ongoing and they're not actively oppressing people.

I'm aware that I live in a glass house called the U.S. of A. We invade nations with sovereign borders or we use CIA ops to overthrow governments we dislike (Iran, Nicaragua, Haiti, and so on and so forth). Same difference. So I'm not here to advocate a U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a result of Russia's incredibly oppressive and homophobic laws. I certainly don't want a boycott to take place--merely the threat of one to force a discussion of these laws. But I do want to acknowledge that this is a fair discussion to be having. It is fair to think about whether or not we should participate in a Games when they just passed laws that discriminate against many of the invited athletes. I mean, the Winter Games include figure skating for god's sake.

And to all those who stupidly claim that the Olympics aren't supposed to be political I issue my strongest possible eye roll.

Let's be real here for a minute--the Olympics are political at their best and worst (and corporate at its most benign--or maybe that isn't actually benign). To pretend otherwise is to be grossly ignorant of history. Iranian athletes refuse to face off against Israeli ones. South African athletes were banned from the Olympics during apartheid. (A fact I know because I watched Muriel's Wedding.) Vera Caslavska stood with her head bowed during the 1968 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of her country. And at the same Games, two American track medalists bowed their heads during "The Star Bangled Banner" and raised their fists in the black nationalist salute--a move that I fully support considering what was going on in the U.S. at the time. There were assassinations and violent backlash against the Civil Rights movement. To be African American at that time meant to be profoundly (and justifiably) angry. Heck, it's still justifiable given our current laws and practices. If we send athletes to an Olympics to represent the country, they are free to represent the whole country--all of its laws and practices, some just and some unjust. It can't all be pride and stars and stripes. Sometimes it's also civil rights abuses, assassinations, income inequality, and the prison industrial complex or whatever ills motivates them to speak out.

And just as our athletes can and should speak out, our officials should too to defend the athletes (and the spectators) and not let two weeks of good behavior (I'm sure Putin won't arrest gays and supporters during the Games because that would be a PR disaster) get Russia off the hook.

Check out these photos on Buzzfeed that collected from various LGBT marches in Russia that ended in violence being rained down on the protestors, with many of the protestors being arrested.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Aly Raisman, Romanian Gymnast?

Aly Raisman has more than one identity. For most fans, she's the powerful American gymnast who won two Olympic gold medals in London. For followers of the nichier Jewish media, she's a Jewish gymnast who performed her winning floor routine to the quintessentially Jewish niggun, Hava Nagalia. (This is why she was given the honor of lighting the flame at the Maccabiah Games in Israel and will be performing an exhibition routine at the competition.) But perhaps we need to add one more identity: Romanian gymnast. Yes, Raisman is essentially a Romanian gymnast from Boston.

Now I know that some Romanian gymnastics fans probably had a heart attack/broke out in apoplectic rage at the thought of Raisman, who for fans of "artistic" gymnastics is Public Enemy #1. (As I type this, I'm all of the sudden struck with the desire to see Raisman perform a PE song cause that's how my mind works.)

What makes Raisman Romanian? Her coaches.

Her coaches hail from Romania and have molded her in their homeland's style: high level of difficulty on beam and floor with choppy choreography, workman-like vaults, and a terrible set of uneven bars. Her form is "loose" like many Romanians such as Larisa Iordache. She is slimmer than Raisman and a bit more flexible and so appears to have better form, but both athletes never really extend fully and lock out their knees or point their toes very hard. It's kind of lazy or rushed or both. If Raisman had a body type more similar to Iordache's, she'd probably appear to maintain better form, too. (I'll concede that Iordache's form is still better than Raisman's.)

Vault stopped being a strong event for Romania a long time ago--right around the time Monica Rosu won the event in Athens. But even back then, the rest of the team showed some pretty careless form on the apparatus, something that continues to this day. While Raisman showed good technique and form on double twisting Yurchenko, it went a bit downhill when she upgraded to an Amanar. It wasn't Paseka 2012 bad (Paseka in 2013 seems to have improved marginally), but it was unsightly at times.

Here is Ponor in 2004 on vault:

And here she is in 2012--improved somewhat:

Now these vault are not bad at all, just a little loose and sloppy in places. The word I keep using (and will use again) is careless. It just all seems kind of careless.

A flexed foot here, a bent knee there. Nothing to get too upset about but nothing to get too excited about either. No frills gymnastics. Ho hum. She simply gets the job done.

And then there's bars. The Romanian inadequacies on the uneven bars are well known. I'm not even going to bother to post Romanian or Raisman routines. Both contain missed handstands galore, flexed feet, leg separations, and labored swing. While some like to attribute the Romanian deficiencies on this event to lack of grips, I disagree. (Many Chinese gymnasts in recent years have competed without grips and they seem to do just fine.) It's bad coaching. If we accept that Raisman is a sleeper Romanian gymnast (WHO WANTS TO HELP PRODUCE THE MOVIE, "SLEEPER ROMANIAN GYMNAST"?) especially on bars, then it's no surprise that this . Bars hasn't been the best apparatus for the American team but many of the U.S. gymnasts can swing decently, keep their toes pointed, and legs together through a routine while performing an adequate level of difficulty.

Raisman's former training partner, while having much cleaner execution, was similarly bars challenged. Alicia Sacramone gave up on the event in 2006, an apparatus she admits she was actually afraid of. But Sacramone doesn't fit the Romanian mold as well as Raisman--her vaulting was a key strength whereas the Romanians and Aly get by on serviceable vaulting while really loading up on difficulty on beam and floor. But Sacramone and Ponor share one big thing in common on floor--janky form/execution on their full-twisting double back. Is it a pike? Is it a tuck? It's both! A miracle!

My point isn't to denigrate either Raisman (you know I'm a fan) or Romanian gymnastics (god, I miss Ana Porgras). It's just to demonstrate that perhaps more than anything, the instruction a gymnast receives is the most important thing and that similar coaching, regardless of athlete, yields similar results. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Obsessed with Tutya Yilmaz

I watched the women's all-around European Youth Olympic Festival via the web livestreaming this week and the gymnast I was most excited about after the competition was Tutya Yilmaz of Turkey. (I was also super stoked about Kim Janas, but she's certainly not the first promising gymnast to emerge from Germany.)

After an inauspicious debut on bars (at least for me cause this was the first routine I had ever seen her do) where she released for her jaeger as though she was a dismount--that's how far she was from the bar--and got some of the worst spotting seen this side of Valeri Liukin, she redeemed herself with a rather lovely beam routine. (She is able to catch the release move. Here's a better bar routine though the bail to handstand on the low bar is still pretty scary.)

Here frightening bar routine from AA:

Here's her AA beam routine from Utrecht:

I like her low to the beam sequence and she has nice form and some style. A very nice redemptive effort after the uneven bar disaster.

She was also very nice on the floor, showing some good difficulty (even if her final double pike came up short) and a backspin in her dance.

Part of the reason I like her so much is probably because I was so surprised by her. I haven't followed the progress of Turkish gymnastics and wasn't aware of her until she appeared on my computer screen. And I must say that it's nice to see a gymnast emerge from a non-power country who doesn't seem to be trying to make her mark on the scene by trying to kill herself on vault. (I'm looking at you Yamilet Pena of the Dominican Republic and Fadwa Mohamed of Egypt.)

And finally, a short note on livestreaming and camera angles. While hearing a gymnast's floor exercise music playing while watching shots of the audience watching the gymnast (how meta!) makes looking at the audience more dramatic than it otherwise would be, I'd still rather see a routine. Also, these camera angles--pointed directly up at the crotch or butt of these girls. If a guy in the subway station did that with his iPhone as women walked up and down the stairs, he'd be arrested. No more pervy camera angles please!

Is Chow's the New Karolyi's?

I am eagerly awaiting the premiere of Gymnastike's (even if I can't ever say the name of the site correctly) documentary on Chow's. I've been impressed with his new crop of elites--Norah Flatley, Alexis Vasquez, Rachel Gowey--and like everyone else, can't wait to see mere glimpses of Gabby Douglas back in training.

This "Beyond the Routine" trailer features Douglas, Gowey, and Vasquez talking about moving from other parts of the country to train with Liang Chow.

Douglas' story is well-known and oft told, but moving across the country to train with a coach isn't as common as it was in the 90s. The other four Olympic team members were able to find top notch coaching locally. Jordyn Wieber spent her entire career at Geddert's. Raisman changed gyms at around 10 but didn't have to leave home. Same with McKayla Maroney as Southern California has no shortage of excellent gyms. Ross spent her entire career at Gym Max. Only Douglas moved for coaching instruction.

Same applies to the 2008 squad. All stayed home to train--no need to uproot the family to find better instruction. (Though alternate Ivana Hong did do that, not once but twice.)

My point is--with few notable exceptions, the days of gymnastics uprooting their families to train with the best are over. Back in the 80s and 90s, every elite flocked to the Karolyis in Texas to train. It wasn't just that there were fewer gyms that handled elite instruction. It was also due to the cult of personality that sprang up around Bela Karolyi. And I wonder--is something similar starting to happen with Liang Chow?

Now don't get me wrong--Chow and Karolyi couldn't be more different. (While I have never met either one, I'd say Chow is the one I'd want to have a beer with while Karolyi is probably the one who'd drink more beers.) But Chow has now coached back-to-back Olympic champions. In his "rookie" quad, he coached a world and Olympic champion in Shawn Johnson. And then coached Gabby Douglas to a gold medal in the all around. It's not exactly surprising that more gymnasts are showing up on his doorstep even though virtually every city offers elite level instruction. The way Vasquez spoke about him in the clip--that she wasn't thinking about how she was moving but just about Chow (the man!)--sort of reminded me of the reverence that people used to show to Bela back in the day.

It's been awhile since we've had a famous gymnastics coach. (I can't think of gymnasts talking about Valeri that way aside from his daughter). I wonder that if Chow is successful yet again during this quad and Rio will we end up seeing an even bigger migration to his gym?

I sure hope not. As much as I love Chow and his gymnasts, there's something that really bugs me at times about athletes making those kinds of demands on their families. I especially feel for the siblings in these situations who already don't get as much attention as their mega-talented sisters and then are forced to accommodate them further and uproot their lives. (I remember the story on Nicole Harris and how upset her younger sister was about moving to Pennsylvania so Nicole could train at Parkettes.) In a way, I was pleased that Gabby's family didn't move to Iowa with her. She learned an important adult lesson in sacrifice but not making everyone around you sacrifice, too. A gymnast's parents' and siblings' lives are just as important even if they don't possess Olympic caliber talent.

UPDATE: I just watched the first ep of the documentary and I totally stand by my assessment of Chow and the cult of personality that has developed around him. He comes off AWESOME in the piece but the way the girls talk about him and moving to train with him is reminiscent of the Karolyi era. It'll be interesting to see how this progresses especially if he has more success in Rio.

On an unrelated note, Travis and Missy Parton are the cutest people ever.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Orange is the New Black" doesn't have a Jewish problem

I've been binging on Netflix's Orange is the New Black all week and have been searching out articles on the interwebs about the show. I found some reasonable critiques of the portrayal of race and class. And then I found this piece in The Daily Beast citing the show for having "a Jewish problem."

For those of you who haven't been watching, there is one Jewish character on the show--portrayed by Jewish character actor Jason Biggs (who ironically isn't actually Jewish.) He's a writer who is a little bit of a neb (but not extreme by any measure). His parents are nasal and pushy but also caring and minor in terms of the show's universe.

So this otherwise excellent show--though there have been valid concerns raised about the portrayals of race and class--does a lazy job of portraying its one Jewish character. To that I issue a Nancy Pelosi-esque, "Who cares?"

Jason Biggs' character is not the focus of the show. It's Piper and the women of the correctional facility. That he would be portrayed as something of a stereotype is disappointing but hardly worth getting up in arms about. Hollywood TV shows and movies are sprinkled with many, many, many examples of complicated Jewish characters often written by Jewish writers and producers. (Orange's creator is in fact Jewish.) As are many of the less complex iterations because we are not afraid of stereotyping ourselves, especially for laughs. I mean, Jon Stewart plays up his nebbishy, athletic Jew self yet actually played varsity soccer. He may not have been an elite athlete but he also wasn't the wheezing Jewish stereotype he sometimes makes himself out to be.

The paucity of minorities in producing and writing positions is the reason other groups, such as African Americans, are rarely given this sort of complex treatment. I mean, there's a trans woman played by an actual trans woman and she's actually fleshed out into a multidimensional character with a redemptive arc. How often do you see that on TV?

The author of the Beast piece is really reaching here, finding fault with a character that echoes every Woody Allen character ever written, and then making a tenuous connection--at best--to America-Israel relations. Yes, that's where her critique of Orange ended up. Seriously.

Part of me recognizes that this analysis is, at least in part, cynical: You take a show that everyone is talking about and connect it to your particular zone of interest--the peace process and the Middle East--and maybe you'll drum up hits. (That's how Tablet ended up writing a piece that connected Breaking Bad to the Holocaust and accusing survivors of monstrous behavior. Yes, really.)

Though we're in a "golden age of television," it is still unreasonable to expect that one show can hit every mark. Orange is doing a great job (as far as I'm concerned) with portrayal of relationships between women. (It most definitely passes the Bechdel test.) It depicts the complicated intersection of sex and love in that cohort too. It shows actually friendships between ladies. It doesn't perform as well on the race/class report card--as one writer noted, blonde Piper is the only one elected to the jail council who voices concern for things like the prison's defunct GED program whereas the rest ask for much more trivial things when in reality, minority women have agitated for prison reforms as high minded as Piper's. These are issues I hope the writers work on in the second season.

I want to see race and class better explored. I want to see what's possible in terms of changing and deepening the bonds between these women. I'd like to see a stronger critique of the prison industrial complex. (Unlike Piper, most of these women are not in jail because of they made a bad choice off of a menu of good ones but because society mostly offered them "bad choices" and no way to escape the consequences as many Piper-like people are able to).

But I honestly don't care if Biggs' character Larry strays from the Jewey stereotype because even if he does, he'd still be the least interesting aspect of the show. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

You ladies are like the women's Olympic gymnastics team...

Here's Amy Schumer at last year's Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne Barr making a joke about the famed comedienne--and the women's Olympic gymnastics team. (If you're particularly sensitive or prudish, perhaps you shouldn't watch. It is an Amy Schumer joke, after all.)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rock the Street: B-Girl Minzy

Just came across this great video from b-girl Minzy (Cindy Martinez). She's got great moves and flow and showcases her flexibility in a way that's innovative without going overboard.

Also, the music, composition, and construction of this video are great.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

But it's called artistic gymnastics!

I know I promised that I would stay away from discussions of "artistry," that oft-abused word in gymnastics but I just gave up taking easy potshots (see this post) at misogyny in Orthodox Judaism so forgive me this return to earlier form.

In the last couple of weeks, I've been fortunate enough to meet a couple of gymternet denizens (who I connected with on Twitter). It's really so fantastic to have in person conversations with people who love and understand the sport and can speak about it with great insight. Inevitably, our conversations turned towards artistry and what we thought of it and how we thought it should be taken into account or whether it should be taken into account at all. Should it be factored into the score or is it simply something nice to see when a gymnast can produce it but should not be mandatory? Do you even try to measure it?

As anyone who has read my posts, you probably know my answer--no. Artistry is undefinable just like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity. It can't be measured or quantified. And the more we've tried to bring it into scoring, the more we've quashed the creativity in floor routines. Now the "choreography" is all leap passes and complicated turns.

Take Afanasyeva, whose 2012 Olympic floor routine was my absolute favorite of the quad--funky, offbeat, filled with moves that were chosen especially for her and that piece of music. The 2013 version of that routine, while still good, had been changed to accomodate new turn bonus opportunities. Gone were many more of the unique touches that made it such a standout in 2012. The very mode that we've chosen to reward artistry has actually destroyed it.

And her new floor routine contains virtually no choreography whatsoever. The only moves in it that can't be counted towards the start value are arm flourishes in the corners. While her previous two routines had been memorable and performed with such verve, I wouldn't be able to tell you about one specific dance move from that routine if a gun was held to my head. She's gone from being original on that event to forgettable.

Afanasyeva is hardly alone. Mustafina was my favorite gymnast of the last quad and remains one of my favorites. I love her competitive attitude, the composition of her routine on bars, and her flourishes and posture on beam. But on floor, she performs her tumbling, her leap passes, turns, and a few arm waves. Her choreography is almost exactly the same as at the Olympics but set to different music.

I do not mean to beat up on the Russians, who are still elegant. My point is that the Russians are held put up on an artistic pedestal and yet this is what they're doing because of the direction of the sport. We've been bemoaning this slide to athleticism for a long time now yet our handwringing has done little. This is the way gymnastics is going and has been going and it's time to accept it.

But it's called artistic gymnastics!

That's the sort of response you hear when you suggest that we stop trying to reward "artistry" and let nature run its course. Nevermind the fact that our attempts to reward it (as we have the last few Codes) have seemed to backfire. Nevermind that even the stylish Russians rarely rise to the occasion. Nevermind that most gymnasts fall ridiculously short. The sport remains artistic in people's memories or imaginations, but very rarely in reality.

So maybe it's time we stop calling this sport "artistic" gymnastics. Let's just call it gymnastics. After all, the mainstream public has no idea that their is a prefix of sorts attached to the sport. To them it's just gymnastics.

Gymnastics should still be clean and well executed and done with proper technique. I want to see good form. I find beauty in textbook form and perfect execution. But no more feeble attempts to quantify "artistry," to reward it (especially if "artistry" means really hard leaps and turns)

If we dropped "artistic" from the name, we still would see some great floor routines. A gymnast like Sydney Johnson-Scharpf will still give a great performance because that seems to be her preference. What makes her performance "artistic" (if you agree that it is artistic) isn't being incentivized under the rules. She clearly loves to perform and has a knack for it. Ditto for Afanasyeva in 2012 (and 2011). She did a funky floor routine cause she wanted to. I don't think that those gymnasts who really love performing and dancing are going to want to do it less. Heck, they're not being rewarded for it now regardless of what the sport is called.

But a new name would be a whole lot more honest about what we can reasonably expect, incentivize, and measure. It would acknowledge the direction of the sport, which will not be changed by artistry moralizing (the same way that "family values" moralizing hasn't decreased the divorce rate). We can continue to applaud gymnasts who demonstrate artistry (according to our own personal definitions of the term), but we can also enjoy those gymnasts who bring athleticism (albeit with clean form and execution) without demeaning their accomplishments for failing to live up to a term we can't even define.

Or we could just get rid of music on floor exercise. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rhythmic Gymnast Shoots Free Throw

This is how we do it at Jewish summer camps--one arm front walkover to free throws at night on the basketball court.

This is making me miss my days at Jew camp. Not that I could've pulled off the same feat--I had to wear skirts at my camp. And there's also the fact that I lack hand-eye coordination. (We artistic gymnasts used to fool around with the rhythmic apparatuses and inevitably, one of us got konked on the head by a loose club.)

I think Camp Ramah should use this in their promotional materials. What do you think?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Using Sex to Sell the Maccabiah Games

As the famous saying goes, "Sex sells." And sex, especially female sexuality, is used to sell virtually every product under the sun, including products that pertain to the sun itself. (Like sunscreen.)

So it was hardly shocking to discover that sex was being used to advertise the broadcast of the upcoming Maccabiah Games (think Jewish Olympics) in Israel. My friend Laura sent me a screen grab of this ad that appeared in her feed right next to an article I posted about misogyny in media. Facebook's ad algorithm apparently has a sense of humor.

Here it is:

Who doesn't play tennis in her bikini?

I don't necessarily object to all sexy depictions of women in ads and media at large. Women enjoy looking sexy for themselves (and for men and for other women). Being and looking sexy isn't inherently bad.

Yet this ad irks me. Athleticism can be very sexy and showing a female tennis player, toned and the already short tennis outfits, would've been attractive. It certainly would've fallen under the "sex sells" heading. But if they had chosen such an image, I wouldn't have been bothered and I doubt my friend would've thought to save the image and send it to me.

What troubles me about this picture is that sports, while celebrating the human form, are also supposed to celebrate skill and athleticism. When I look at the above photo, I see an underwear model pretending to play a game of tennis. (Perhaps that is a picture of an actual tennis player. If so, I stand corrected though my objections remain unchanged.) I highly doubt that an ad featuring a man would've gone this route--using a scantily clad male model to "swing" a racket.

Aside from validating the aforementioned "truism" this ad reminds people that the most important aspect of a female tennis player's game (or any female athlete for that matter) is her physical appearance, not the skill that she wields with the racket. A gorgeous female tennis player in a normal tennis outfit depicts a "whole" person--a body, ambition, skill, guts, and determination. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Funding and Olympic Athletes

USA Today published an article about an Olympic speed skater, Emily Scott, who is training for the upcoming Games in Sochi and had to apply for food stamps to supplement her meager income and stipend from the USOC.

The piece delves into both the pecuniary situation of the USOC (not taxpayer funded, but sustained through its own fundraising) and the weird that's going on in speed skating. It also looks at the particular harsh circumstances of Scott, who comes across very sympathetically in the story. But whenever I read stories about support or the lack thereof for top tier athletes, be they speed skaters, bobsledders, or gymnastics, I find myself asking the following--what do we owe to the very gifted and passionate to helping their Olympic dreams come true?

Some might say that we don't owe athletes like Scott anything. Though Olympic athletes represent their countries (and though I get embarrassingly jingoistic during the Olympics), I don't really think it matters whether or not their athletes are successful unless we're in the midst of some propaganda war some other country. And even then, it doesn't matter. I'd prefer to measure the success of nations in how well they provide for citizens, educate children, and curb injustice. (This view makes it hard to be an American at times.) If only they awarded gold medals for those sort of accomplishments. (The Scandinavian countries would kill in that type of Olympics). And if Olympic athletes competed under their own names instead of their nation's banner, I don't think they'd train less hard to get there. Athletes compete for themselves, their families, their coaches, their fans, and for the love of their sport. And to win. These guys really love winning.

And they are all self-recruited (unless they're from China). As a writer, I'm very aware that my career (like acting, singing, filmmaking, etc.) is also self-recruited. No one has ever wondered about the dearth of pop culture writers the way they have about engineers or the people who are going to come up with adaptive solutions to climate change. No one asked me to become a writer. My mother, just the other day, asked if I had considered teaching seriously. So when I complain about being underpaid, I always feel a bit guilty. If I stopped writing tomorrow, it wouldn't really matter to anyone except to me and I could find another job, given my educational background. (On that subject--hire me maybe?)

As a fan of U.S. gymnastics, the problem of funding isn't as dire as the one presented in the article about speed skating. The sport I love is fortunate--it's one of the highest profile ones at the bigger of the two Olympics. And in this country, the top athletes seem to be well-supported. In the case of women's gymnastics, the elites are minors and don't have to worry about paying for their basic expenses since they are still being cared for by their parents (and receive a training stipend when they make the national team). Many of the top male gymnasts are reaching their athletic peaks while competing (funded for the most part) by NCAA programs.

Yet many may recall Mohini Bhardwaj's predicament back in 2004. She was training for the Olympics as an adult and was not on the national team (so she didn't get a stipend). She had to deliver pizzas to help defray costs until Pamela Anderson stepped in and gave her a generous gift.

But I don't claim to have any special insider info so perhaps I'm way off base. I'm sure that some gymnasts and their families struggle with training costs and that we've perhaps lost some promising talent over the years due to financial hardship. And that's why it's not as simple as saying that participation in a sport at the highest levels is voluntary and we don't have to help bolster some athletes who need the financial help.

If we take the stance that since this is voluntary and we don't have an obligation to make your dream come true then what do we end up with? The only people who can afford to do less popular Olympic sports are those who come from privileged backgrounds with means of outside support. This is yet another reason on the very long list of reasons that it sucks to be poor (or poor-ish) in America. You don't get the best education, healthcare, and you may not get to fulfill your athletic potential.

(The same sort of logic applies to the current state of journalism in the country. With so many writers forced to take unpaid internships well after they leave college, the only folks who can afford to enter the Fourth Estate and find jobs are the ones who can toil for free for a year, sometimes longer. This strategy obviously leads to a diversity of voices--all across the upper middle class to upper class socioeconomic spectrum. That's why the first two seasons of Girls launched a thousand blog posts.)

I don't like reading books or articles written by just upper middle class white guys. I don't want to go to the comedy club and only see nerdy Jewish men. And I don't want to tune into the Olympics and only get to see those who had both the talent and the trust fund to make it to the top. I'd like to see diversity--athletic, economical, and otherwise--at the Games.