Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shannon Miller's World All-Around Titles

I'm in on a Thursday night, which is sadly becoming a recurring event. This anecdote about my disappointing social life is not just a pity grab. It's about how I came to be watching gymnastics videos from the mid 90s tonight when it dawned on me--both of Shannon Miller's world all-around titles were won at championships that did not feature a team competition.

In recent quads, the year after the Olympics doesn't feature a team competition because many nations experience a loss in depth after a Games with retirements and injuries and with many athletes being age ineligible to compete as senior. (Though in 2001, there was a full worlds. And in 89--one of the best ever.)

So it's not surprising that Miller's first world AA title, which came after her tremendous Olympic success in 1992, happened in the absence of a full team event. But what about 1994? That year something strange happened--there were two separate world championships. The first one was just all-around and apparatus finals in Brisbane, Australia. And the second one was in Dortmund, Germany and it was all about the team. (Can someone please tell me why they split it up that way? I feel like I knew the answer at one point but then I got old and too lazy to google stuff.)

Does it matter that neither of Miller's world titles came while competing at "full" world championships? Do you think the outcomes would've been different if she had to do all-around after two days of team competition?

Okay, back to episodes of Cheers on Netflix. 

"Lean In" and the Olympics of Feminism

I'm not sure if this analogy is going to work but I'm going to give it a try since I try to relate most things to the Olympics.

We who follow Olympics sports--or any professional level sport for that matter--celebrate the pinnacle of athleticism and achievement. We marvel at feat of strength that push bodies to the edge of their abilities, at the ability to perform high level difficulty under pressure in front of millions of people that takes indescribable mental strength and stamina. It's little wonder that we become enamored of watching their performances and daydreaming about what it would be like to be able to do the same things.

Except that most of us aren't exceptional athletically. You need to be born with those gifts. You need to win a very specific kind of genetic lottery to be an elite gymnast and then you've got to work like hell because you're not competing against average or even above average gymnasts--your competing against every other lottery winner out there, not your average athlete. I kind of can't help but laugh when Olympic medal winning gymnasts, in their bildungsroman, describe how they weren't very talented. That, of course, is ridiculous. They might not have been as gifted as another athlete at that tier, but they were immensely talented, much more so than the rest of us mere mortals.

This brings us to feminism, particularly the type being peddled by the likes Sheryl Sandberg. This fantastic op-ed in the Daily Beast notes that while we're mourning the recently deceased Muriel Siebert, who was the first woman to have a seat on the NY Stock Exchange and was worth $1 billion (I just said that in a Dr. Evil tone) many other women are going on strike to protest their fast food wages. These are women who are struggling to raise families on minimum wage in New York City. About 13 percent of fast food workers need to supplement their income with food stamps. (In that sense, we're subsidizing the fast food industry--they continue to pay their workers too little to survive and we make up the difference via food stamps and other forms of public assistance. This would be one example of corporate welfare.)

While we're looking up to women who ascend to the highest heights, we're forgetting about those who toil near the bottom, who are dealing with gender, racial, and economic inequality. This is why our view of feminism needs to be intersectional--many of the most vulnerable women are not beset by just one "ism" but by many. Making feminism about glass ceilings and winning the ultimate race for the boardroom leaves many women out of the discussion.

I don't think that Sandberg is bad for feminism; it's just that her brand of feminism is the Olympics of the movement. Hers is aspirational feminism. It's like looking at gorgeous models or really expensive clothing that you'll never be able to afford. Hers is not attainable by most women and it doesn't actually help most of the women who so desperately need to be helped by feminism. It mainly addresses women like herself--white, born into economic and educational privilege. It shows them how to succeed against men who are similarly well-born. This is an example Olympic athletes competing against Olympic athletes, people who have such a huge head start on the rest of the pack. Sure, every once in awhile some from less auspicious beginnings breaks through and is successful but that is less and less likely with stagnant wages, rising education costs, and general economic inequality.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating women who make it to the top of their fields just as there is nothing wrong with celebrating athletes who reach the pinnacle of their sports. But gymnastics wouldn't be so popular if all we cared about were the elites. And feminism won't be nearly as powerful if we only pay attention to those vying for the peaks. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Epic Beach Chair Fight!

What do secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox men have in common? A love of hurling plastic white chairs!

Check out the video from this epic beach chair that happened not too long ago on the shores of the Dead Sea.

And then check out all of my jokes about Israelis, the peace process, and Haredim over at Deadspin. (They're quite clever if I do say so myself.) 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Kyla Ross: Do We Want What We Say We Want?

I've had a week to digest nationals (and wrap up some other major projects) and I can't stop thinking about Kyla Ross. Specifically, how gorgeous her execution is yet how bored gymnastics fans seem to be by her.

Frequently, you'll read bloggers and fans decrying the form of say, Aly Raisman or the like, and then they'll tell you how they just wish to see simpler skills done with perfection. But when a gymnast with somewhat lower difficulty like Kyla Ross comes along and hits set after set with virtually no execution errors and stunning lines that only someone who's 5'6" can have, many have reacted thusly: yawn. At least that's the general sentiment I'm seeing on the Internet.

So which is it gymternet--execution over difficulty? (The CoP has made its preference clear--difficulty.) It doesn't seem like we can get both in one package. Larisa Iordache's beam routine is packed with difficulty and she's the favorite to win the gold at Worlds but she is sloppy in the form department. I adore Aliya Mustafina but those legs when she twists on floor and vault are an eyesore. On neither event is Mustafina attempting anything particularly difficult to justify the messiness. We recognize these flaws and yet still root for these girls despite our stated desire to see clean, gorgeous gymnastics. And when confronted with a gymnast who does exactly what we say we wish every gymnast would do--easier routines with ease and grace and perfection--we complain.

It's more than just the fact that Ross' D-scores, unless upgraded, will keep her from major titles. Fans, in their criticism of her work, go beyond criticizing her ability to win meets. (This feels akin to talking about a political candidate's viability in the general election--talking about whether we think they can win it allows us to not have to talk about whether or not we support their actual positions.) Many seem to really dislike her gymnastics.

That's fine, but I am puzzled since Ross is doing what so many of us say we wish to see. This begs the question--do we gym fans actually want what we say want? 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Bela Karolyi Learned English

In this video, Bela Karolyi explains the difficulty of learning English when he first arrived in the United States. It involves him and Marta looking up "sonofabitch" in the dictionary.

H/t Gymfever

Friday, August 16, 2013

P&G Gymnastics Championships Senior Women Photos, Part 2

Here are some more pictures Erika took at last night's competition.

Does anyone else find it funny that her last name is Dowell? As in almost the same as dowel grip?

Is Kim Z dreaming of a comeback?

P&G Gymnastics Championships Senior Women Photos

I didn't attend yesterday's women's prelim at the P&G Gymnastics Championships but my friend Erika Scott, artist extraordinaire (check out some of her awesome work here) who moonlights as as a photographer at sporting events without a press pass. She has a very special place in her heart for Courtney McCool and even tracked her down at a Georgia meet and got her autograph.

She took over a thousand photos. She has generously agreed to let me post some of them here.

Not quite as great as Steve Penny's photobombing of Dominique Dawes last year, but still pretty great.

I have a feeling that Simone Biles will get a laugh out of the face she's making.

Why is it called a sheep jump? Do sheep do anything that looks like this?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To Boycott Or Not To Boycott--That Is The Question

The debate around the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, set to take place in Sochi, Russia has only heated up as the IOC has basically sided with the Russians and their stance on expressions of homosexuality. Basically, they're citing Article 50 of the Olympic charter that states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Because Russia's draconian anti-gay "propaganda" laws are so broad and so loosely written, virtually anything--a rainbow lapel pin, an expression of love for a partner--maybe interpreted as "political" and punished under the statute.

In many ways, the IOC's behavior is more galling than the Russians. I don't really expect much from the Russians. They've got a ways to go on LGBT rights. And this isn't just a function of the legislative body gone rogue--a majority of Russians support these laws. But the fact that the IOC won't even demand that the Russians permit modest expressions of gay pride such as wearing rainbow color lapel pins. That is hardly a barnstorming protest and not at all disruptive to the proceedings.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I know that America is not perfect--heck, I just spent last night re-watching Eugene Jarecki's documentary The House I Live In, which is about the prison industrial complex that targets and victimizes poor people and addicts, especially those of color.

If the U.S. were to host another Olympic Games and a foreign athlete (or one of our own) wished to comment on the still-sorry state of race relations in this country, I'd welcome that. (Or our lack of universal healthcare. Or our polluting ways.) As I wrote previously, I think the black track and field athletes who raised their fists on the podium in 1968 were heroic. I don't think human suffering and the abridgment of rights should be pushed aside for the pomp of the Olympics. I don't think these things should be pushed aside under any circumstances.

One of the Jewish traditions I find particularly meaningful takes place during the wedding ceremony. After all of the blessings are done, the man/spouse breaks a glass. While the sound brings on a chorus of "mazal tovs," the breaking of the glass is meant to signify the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It's a reminder to temper our joy, to remember that even when we're happy (and what could be more joyous than a wedding?) that there is suffering in the world. Heck, there is probably suffering right there in that wedding hall--a guest who is ill, a mourner in the midst. There's no such thing as a perfect happiness.

I know gymnastics is not being contested at the Winter Games but boycotts are painful to fans of the sport because we keenly recall the 80 and 84 Games that were diminished by the absence of top athletes due to boycotts. In 80, President Carter boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet bloc countries retaliated in 1984 with a boycott of their own. Obviously, neither of these boycotts were effective--what "worked" was the CIA funding of the mujahideen and that gave us Osama Bin Laden. Oy.

But this is different from 1980. That boycott was a political maneuver that failed--the U.S.S.R. didn't pull out of Afghanistan. The boycott wasn't an action to defend athletes unless there were a lot Afghani athletes competing back in those days. A boycott--which I'm not yet advocating since it only hurts the athletes--of Sochi would not be about protesting an action unrelated to the competition. It would be about defending LGBT athletes and their allies. The point of such an action wouldn't be to change Russia's laws; it would be about standing up for the dignity of the competitors and the spectators.

The present situation is more akin to the Olympics in 1936 where the Nazis' policies and laws not only had the potential of discriminating against their own Jewish population but against the visiting athletes and spectators. The IOC didn't stand up for the athletes aside from getting the Nazis to take down the anti-Jewish signs. (Check out this headline from The New York Times back in 36.) Not exactly a defense of Jewish athletes.

And the head of the Amateur American Olympic Committee went one step further in appeasing the host country. As my former JTA colleague Adam Soclof pointed out, Avery Brundage pulled two Jewish track and field athletes from the finals of the 4x100 relay and replaced them with two athletes who had never participated in that race:

"He wanted to save Hitler the humiliation of seeing Jews standing on the winning podium," Marty Glickman said in an interview 60 years after the incident. 
Glickman and Sam Stoller were replaced in the competition by two teammates who had not never trained in a relay; one of them was Jesse Owens. 
The U.S. team set a world record in the event, winning the gold medal for their 39.8 second performance. 
Avery Brundage maintained correspondence with Nazi party members during WWII and was a member of two American political groups that tended to attract Nazi sympathizers. According to a 1948 Life Magazine article, Brundage quit both groups the day after Pearl Harbor. 
In 1952, Brundage became the fifth president of the IOC, the first American to hold that position. The last Olympic Games that he presided over were the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

And the Munich Games went really well for the Jews, didn't they? (For those of you that don't recall, it was in 1972 that PLO gunmen held the Israeli athletes and coaches hostage and ended up murdering eleven of them. And yet Brundage didn't let that "political" act interfere with the competitions.)

I still don't favor the idea of a boycott because at this late stage, I don't think it would be possible to stage the Games in a different city. (Though if that were still possible, I'd love to see that.) Boycotts mostly hurt athletes, especially those for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle of their sports. A hockey player still has the NHL but what of the luger? The Olympics are IT for him.

But we shouldn't let the IOC to kowtow to the Russians and whitewash these Olympic Games and hide behind Article 50 and pretend it's possible to be completely apolitical. I'd love to see the entire U.S. delegation wear rainbow lapel pins or kiss one another, same-sex style. It has to be the U.S. that sets the example here because it will have one of the largest contingents there and if they all acted together and publicly, it would hard for the Russians to punish them. And perhaps others would follow suit.

Just as in the Jewish wedding, we can't forget the indignity and persecution of others even when we're celebrating sport and the height of human athletic achievement.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Footloose, The Greatest Gymnastics Movie Of All Time

Last night, I re-watched Footloose for the umpteenth time and it struck me that this is perhaps the best gymnastics movie of all time.

For those of you who have never watched the original Footloose--not that terrible 2011 remake--Ren (a super young Kevin Bacon) is new to a town where dancing and rock music are against the rules. Ren is a gymnast and dancer who doesn't play by the rules.

Here's the famous warehouse "angry" dance scene, complete with giant swings and a full twisting double back dismount.

Happy Weekend!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Old Gymnastics Magazines and Videotapes

I've been helping my mother pack up her house in anticipation of selling. Thus far, I've mostly gone through thousands of her papers and bills, sorting through years and years of test papers and taxes and insurance statements. And so far, I haven't gotten a single paper cut. (Of course, now I've just jinxed myself. I'm sure that tomorrow I will bleed everywhere.)

Last week, however, I came across some of my old International Gymnast magazines. Now these were from 2001-2002 when I was already in college so I was only slightly misty-eyed and nostalgic as I flipped through the pages looking at Tasha Schwikert's leotard with the lime green accents and Tabitha Yim's wrists. After a few minutes, I consigned these to the garbage heap along with my mother's phone bills from 2008.

But soon I will get to the attic and I know what awaits me there--a box of old IGs from when I was a kid--I got my first subscription at 12 for my bat mitzvah--and my collection of gymnastics meets from 1992-2000 that I recorded on VHS tapes. And those will be infinitely harder to toss.

I haven't looked through my magazines in years. And I don't have the means to watch a VHS tape anymore. (Heck, I don't even have the means to watch a DVD on my computer.) All the meets I have on tape have already been digitized by the gymternet and put on YouTube so there is no need for me to upload them.

Trouble is--I live in a 350 square foot New York City studio apartment with very little storage space. My mother is moving into much smaller quarters and will probably face storage issues for her own belongings. She certainly won't be able to take on any of mine. And so that begs the question--what do I do with my old tapes and magazines?

I'll probably save a few of each--tapes to show my children ("Hey kids, this is a VHS tape and mommy used to spend all Sunday afternoon watching gymnastics meets on them?" but they'll probably ignore me and stare blankly through their Google glasses) and a few issues of IG. The rest, I'll have to throw out.

Anyone else out there feel similarly sad at the thought of getting rid of their childhood gymnastics magazine and tape collections? 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Baby Chellsie Memmel

By three and a half, you probably mastered running. But at that age future world champion Chellsie Memmel could do a roundoff-back handspring, thereby proving that elite athletes are just better than the rest of us.

Memmel has just announced that she's becoming a power tumbler. She's the Jay-Z of gymnastics. She just keeps coming back.

(H/t Gymnastics Coaching)

Wil Wheaton Talks About The Beauty Of Being A Nerd

At the behest of a fan, Wil Wheaton (Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation for all of you other nerds) gave a pep talk to her newly born baby girl about the virtues of being a nerd at the Calgary Comic Expo in April.

He explains in this video that being a nerd meant that he liked things that took a lot of effort to understand, things that not everyone else loved. Though he says these things in reference to his love of science and books, what he says can be easily applied to gymnastics, too. "The way you love it, the way you find other people who love it the way you do is what makes being a nerd awesome," he tells baby Violet, whose mother is recording the speech.

It's not about what you love; it's about how you love it. 

Fans of gymnastics are a different subset of nerd. We love it passionately despite the fact that the rest of the world only pays attention once every four years. And we've all found one another online so we can appreciate the sport together. Awwww.

Check the entire video here: