Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Disappointing Gymnast Memoirs

I've been reading a lot of gymnastics books lately for a project. Most of these books are memoirs from famous coaches and athletes, and unsurprisingly, the prose is boring. Every time, I pick up one of these books I hope to find it engaging but end up finding it opposite, I'm reminded of the David Foster Wallace masterpiece, "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," which asks why athlete autobiographies are so shoddy and banal?

"One sort of answer, of course, is that commercial autobiographies like these promise something they cannot deliver: personal and verbal access to an intrinsically public and performative kind of genius...Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define, and true techne so rarely visible (much less televisable), that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it's just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses in reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn't really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant's glass jaw or Eliot's inability to hit the curve."

Here's to trying to read these books with a more benevolent eye. The elite gymnasts may not be able to write a gorgeous sentence, but I was never able to do a full twisting double back on floor. Let's call it even.

(I know that I've quoted DFW and this passage before on this blog, but it's so good that I could read it over and over. If you want to read the full text of this essay, check it out here.)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

When You Come Into The Gym, You Have No Religion

In a twist of Brooklyn fate, I have been living within five blocks of my old gymnastics coach for the past four years (and counting). She no longer coaches. She and her husband own a bar in the West Village and have just opened a Mexican restaurant a few blocks away from my apartment.

I went there last night and got to enjoy free food and alcohol--the opposite of what gymnastics coaches traditionally for their students, Marta Karolyi's recent gift of pizza notwithstanding. And the part of me that will always be ten years old rejoiced when she introduced me to her friends and family who came out for the soft opening of the restaurant (Hoja Santa on DeKalb in Fort Greene-delicious upscale Mexican food) as her "best" or "favorite" gymnast.

The front of Hoja Santa, my former coach's new Mexican restaurant in Fort Greene

She also told them the story of teaching my class at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, most of which was comprised of other yeshiva girls. Apparently, a few had attended their first lesson in skirts, explaining to my coach that it was their religion. Though she tried to be understanding, she explained to the students that if she went to spot them in their long skirts and her arm got caught or if she broke it as a result of their attire, she would sue them. "When you come into the gym," she explained, "you have no religion." The next time, the girls showed up in sweatpants.

Of course, my only religion was gymnastics and my rabbi was my coach.

As it turned out, my coach, then a college student living at home, was teaching us on Sunday mornings in order to escape her own Catholicism. Her mother used to make the family attend early morning church services every Sunday in a.m. When she heard that the recreational gymnastics class she would be teaching would be meeting on Sunday mornings, she accepted the job offer immediately. "I didn't even care if they were going to pay me," she said of new job/get out of church free card.

I guess we were both using gymnastics to escape religion.

Alcohol. Better for rehydrating after gymnastics than water. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Competitive Artistry?

I know I should stop talking about artistry, especially after last week's coded language posts. But I just came across this piece in The New Republic about ballet competitions and thought it applied to the gymternet's never-ending discussion of artistry.

Alice Robb's piece is called "Ballet Is In Crisis Because It's Turning Into A Sport." In it, she observes the detrimental impact that dance competitions are having on the art form. She writes:

“The curious thing about dance now, and ballet in particular," Jennifer Homans recently argued in The New Republic, "is that it has taken the form but left the feeling. Artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before—wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance.” This dearth of feeling might have something to do with the growth of competition culture, in which artistry is scored and treated as just another variable.

In essence, this is exactly what gymnastics has done or tried to do. "Artistry" is another component of the score (in this CoP a deduction that is supposed to be applied if it is judged to be absent). But artistry is far too complex to be assigned a simple numerical value, whether as reward or punishment. How do you measure feeling? Or connection?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Beth Kline in 1980

I've been watching a lot of old YouTube videos for a new project and have been coming across some pretty great ones that I had never seen before.

Way back in 97, I remember reading a profile on Vanessa Atler just as her star was starting to rise. The article (which was probably in International Gymnast) mentioned her coach's background in the sport, how talented the young Beth Kline was, how her routines were loaded with difficulty for that era. Unfortunately, Beth earned a spot on that doomed 1980 Olympic team that never got a chance to show their stuff on the Olympic stage due to the U.S. boycott.

I always wished I could see Kline-Rybacki's routines but only thought of searching for them on YouTube today. Here's her beam routine from the 1980 Olympic Trials.

You'll notice at :50 she does a headstand-half turn that is very similar to the one that future pupil Atler would do in her beam routine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Tale of Two "Isms": Sexism and Racism

Today I have two articles up covering two of the "isms" that are important to me: racism and sexism.

On the race side of things, I have expanded my thoughts on "Ferlito-gate" for Deadspin to examine the coded language that is used to minimized the effort and accomplishments of athletes of color, not just in gymnastics but in other sports, especially football and basketball.

You can read it here.

Onto the second of the isms--sexism.

One of the bigger local New York stories this week centered around a couple of rabbis who were arrested for kidnapping and torturing local men who refused to give their wives divorces in accordance with Jewish law. Jewish divorces must given by the man to the women. If he refuses to do so, the woman is unable to remarry and move on with her life.

While most of the Jewish media have been asking whether these rabbis are heroes, rescuing these women from a life of misery, or villains who charged exorbitant fees to desperate people with no other options.

This is the wrong question. This line of questioning addresses symptoms, not causes. The problem isn't that sometimes people or husbands can be jerks, especially during a divorce. It's that we have a system that enables them to be more than just a jerk--it enables them to actually hold their spouses hostage. Because the parties are unequal in the eyes of the law and the court, the party with more power and standing--the males--to victimize the group with less standing--the women.

But in our conversation and solutions, we only address the symptoms--how to more effectively coerce the husband into granting the divorce--rather than talking about the foundational inequality that creates opportunities for abuse.

I wrote about this situation for Slate. Check it out here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Racism in Gymnastics: Simone Biles Edition

Ever since African American Simone Biles dominated at last week's world championships, winning the all around and floor golds in addition to medals on beam and vault, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, race-wise. I knew that we couldn't go through a whole meet in the internet age without someone nastily bringing it up.

But I refuse to comb through Tumblr and Twitter, searching for racist comments from anonymous trolls. Finding hateful people on the internet is hardly newsworthy. But when one of Biles' competitors and the federations that represents her says something unspeakably racist? Well, sadly that's news.

Carlotta Ferlito competed against Simone Biles in both the all-around and beam event finals and gave some colorful interviews after each competition. At first, I was only aware of what she said after beam when she complained that it was unfair that the Americans had submitted an inquiry, which was granted and resulted in bumping Ferlito's teammate, Vanessa Ferrari into 4th place and out of the medals. (Hey genius--the inquiry wasn't about her execution. You can't protest an E-score. It was about her start value.)

Ferlito felt that this was unfair, that the Americans had undue sway over officials, apparently forgetting that Bruno Grandi, a fellow Italian, was actually the head of the International Gymnastics Federation. She talked about how Simone Biles' routine was the worse she had seen from the newly crowned world champion in Antwerp, which is technically true. It was Biles' shakiest routine on beam at Worlds. But that doesn't mean that it still wasn't better than Ferrari or Ferlito's efforts. After all, execution isn't just about wobbles. As one wise podcaster on Gymcastic said, "Maybe she should go back and look at her own leaps," referring to Ferlito's janky form. (Her dismount was also incredibly sloppy in the legs department.)

The point, however, is not to point to flaws in Ferlito's gymnastics but to point to a lack of self-awareness on the Italian's part.

This didn't trouble me that much. It mostly sounded like the rantings of an athlete fresh off of competitive disappointment. Not the biggest crime in the world.

What I didn't know at the time was what she had said to the Italian media after the all-around finals. After Biles won the title over fellow American Kyla Ross, Ferlito remarked, "I told Vanny (Vanessa Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin black so that we could win, too."

Whoa. That sort of took my breath away. Let's unpack this, shall we?

Ferlito is suggesting is that having black skin makes it easier to win, that somehow you get a pass from the judges? Ferlito, honey, in the history of the world, having black skin has not led to being judged more favorably or being given the benefit of the doubt. Not by the police, not by the criminal justice system, and not by gymnastics judges. There have been two all-around champions that are black. That's it. Sweetie, having black skin makes nothing in life easier.

Implicit in her remarks is the classic affirmative action argument of undeservedness, that Biles doesn't fully merit the accolades that have come her way. (She only got into the college because she's black. Or she only got hired because she's black. And so on and so forth.) Or that she doesn't work as hard because she possesses a black body, which supposedly makes it easier to win. Either way, she is implying that Biles didn't fully earn her win (despite being the most consistent gymnast all week, along with Ross).

I'll grant that Ferlito is probably unaware of the long history of blackface in the United States and how offensive it is to African Americans and how it was used to exploit them while also humiliating and degrading them. (There's a great book that looks into phenomenon of blackface called Blackface, White Noise. My people, the Jews, were big offenders when it came to using blackface in performance.) Still, to suggest that all it would take to beat your competitor was to masquerade as a different race is pretty awful.

Ferlito apologized for her comments in the modern apology forum--Twitter. So end of story? I wish.

The Italian Gymnastics Federation moved to defend its athlete and ended up making the whole thing even worse. On their Facebook page, they attempt to explain Ferlito's comments thusly:

"Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the CoP [Code of Points] is opening chances for coloured people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field.
The same comparison could be made between Biles and Ross, both from the US, a multi-racial country that is able to adapt to the constant changes in CoP.
Why are there no black swimmers? Because their physical features don’t suit the sport.  
Is gymnastics suiting coloured features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?"

(Check out a screen cap of this statement in the original Italian here. It is also where I took the translation from.) 

Whoa. This is even crazier than Ferlito's blackface remarks. (I'm not going to touch the swimming remarks but I know there are black swimmers who win medals at the world and Olympic level.)

Last year, I wrote a story for Deadspin which parsed how "artistic" or "artistry" is often a coded way of talking about body type. Thin, lithe gymnasts are often called artistic. Now, "artistry" is being employed to describe race as well. Spokesperson David Ciaralli, who penned the statement, seems to equate elegance with whiteness and power/brute force with blackness. Why does this sound familiar? Because it's the language of racism. White were cultured, elegant if you will. Black people were "savages" or had some sort of animalistic raw power. 

Let's analyze this a bit more. He suggests that the Russians and Romanians were able to dominate due to their elegance, not their acrobatics. Say what? 

Since when were the Russians and Romanians not acrobatic? The double double on floor exercise that both Biles and Ferrari perform is called the Silivas in the Code of Points, named for that famed African American gymnast Daniela Silivas? NO. It's named for the Romanian legend. Or what about the crazy skills of Tatiana Gutsu? Or the whole 1989 Soviet squad? I could go on and on and on giving examples of the Soviets and Romanians' extreme feats of athleticism but you get the idea. Russia and Romania dominated because they had the hardest skills and did them exceptionally well. What Ciaralli is really talking about is their appearance--they had the "artistic" physique and they were white. Black people, on the other hand, are not elegant. Fact: No black person has ever been a ballerina. Oh wait, this.

Obviously the "colored people" the Italian is referring to are current Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and Biles. In lumping them together, he makes the classic racist mistake, which is assuming that people of a minority are exactly the same. Biles and Douglas may both be African-American with bubbly personalities but that's where the similarities mostly end. Gymnastically knowledgeable people will tell you that Biles and Douglas do not do the same "type" of gymnastics. Biles has the powerhouse physique like a Shawn Johnson. She does very hard tumbling and a powerful vault. On beam, she uses skills like a standing full (though not at this world championships) and a full-in dismount to rack up her bonus points.

Douglas has a more lithe body, a more "European" body style to use the language of the IGF. She could do an Amanar but it wouldn't be described as powerful any more than Viktoria's Komova's Amanar could be. Her tumbling on floor was hard but she didn't make floor finals with it. Her best events were beam and bars, especially the latter. These are not the power events.

But as far Ciaralli is concerned, they're both the same. They're both black and therefore blessed with black power (not nationalist movement kind). This is also classically racist.

Let's look at the facts for a minute: while Ferrari and Ferlito had great meets, the reason they didn't get on the AA podium is because they lack the difficulty to compete and not just on the power events. (Ferrari, in fact, won the silver on floor.)

And it's not like Biles was the only one doing some of the big skills. They couldn't have surpassed Romania's Larisa Iordache or Aliya Mustafina either. Those two are the European types in the meet. Fact of the matter is, while they have a standout in Ferrari, who has been the team leader for years, they don't have the talent or abilities of the other teams--American, Russian, Chinese, or Romanian. They don't have the up-and-coming talent of Canada or Great Britain. (Hey Ciaralli--Canadian and seeming white person Victoria Moors debuted a double twisting double layout on floor in Antwerp, which is by far the hardest tumbling move in women's floor exercise. What does that do to your "colored people are powerful" theory? How about McKayla Maroney on vault? Or Giulia Steingruber on vault and floor where she does a full twisting double layout and another double layout? Again, I could go on and on and on but you get the idea.)

I don't think Ferlito should be punished forever for her remarks, but what she said was racist as much as she asserts otherwise. She thinks that not hating black people makes you not racist, but racism isn't necessarily based in animus. It's institutionalized in our systems. It frame our thoughts and how we regard the accomplishments of people of color. It allows one to look at a stupendous athlete (and all around adorable person) like Biles and reduce her accomplishment to the fact of her skin color, to imply that she doesn't fully deserve them, or because she's "powerful" she hasn't worked as hard as others. And that's a pretty awful thing to say about a fellow gymnast.

UPDATE: I think we all need to watch Jay Smooth's video about how to talk about racist comments. It's not a "who they are" conversation but a "what they did" conversation.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

McKayla Maroney Vaults Again

Today, McKayla Maroney started her redemption parade, defending the world vault title she won in 2011. In between, however, she famously fell on her butt and made a face that was seen 'round the world. She gamely played along with the joke, but it must've rankled Maroney, one of the all-time greats on vault, to be known for falling and smirking.

But what makes Maroney so great on vault? Well, I'm glad I read your mind and saw that you had asked that question. That's why I wrote this analysis of Maroney and women's vaulting for Deadspin. Go for Maroney, stay for Elena Produnova's badass vault, embedded at the end of the piece.