Layden: Tokyo marks societal inflection point for captivating sport of women's gymnastics

Layden: Tokyo marks societal inflection point for captivating sport of women's gymnastics
Posted at 1:55 PM, Jul 26, 2021

The first Olympic medals in women’s gymnastics will be awarded on Tuesday night in Tokyo (Tuesday morning on Peacock; Tuesday night in primetime on NBC), in the team competition. Women’s gymnastics have been very near the center of the Summer Olympics for nearly half a century (keep reading), but the Tokyo competition – not just teams, but the individual events that follow – is one of the most significant in the sport’s history. On the long continuum that connects the sport’s ancient past to its evolving present and its unknown future, 2020 and 2021 mark a point of inflection. Moments that are exciting, intriguing, and – no small part – important. Moments that define.

Not just because the team event brings together the U.S.A. and Russia, an enduring rivalry that outlives the Cold War that spawned it, but partly that. Not just because it commences the last act of the great Simone Biles, the best performer in history and a transcendent athlete by any measure; and not just because she has struggled just a little in qualifying, but partly both of those things. Not just because every Olympics tests the enduring power of the U.S. women’s team, a dynasty of a kind, but partly that. Not just because women’s gymnastics remains a remarkable sight, challenging couch-bound viewers to trust the incomprehensible visions their eyes capture, but partly that, too. Because of all these things, and because of the revelations. And the evolution that is underway.

Women’s individual gymnastics has been a part of the Summer Olympics since 1936 (there was a team competition in 1928) – 36 years after the men. But the sport exploded only in the television era, when pigtailed Russian teenager Olga Korbut was broadcast into American homes doing seemingly impossible things. Four years later in Montreal, Romanian Nadia Comaneci ushered the phrase perfect ten into the cultural lexicon, where it remains to this day. Looking back, with 49 years’ perspective, the emergence of the sport and its stars is fully baked into the collective Olympic memory. Yet it was astounding in its time: In the earliest days of America’s Title IX, where precious few women’s sports gained traction for U.S. audiences, Eastern Bloc gymnasts were arguably the most popular female athletes on the country’s televisions.

Korbut and Comaneci laid the first bricks of the foundation on which American gymnasts have built a palace. It’s perilous to drop pins on historical timelines, but Mary Lou Retton’s vault at the L.A. Olympics in 1984 was a seminal moment, as was Kerri Strug’s 12 years later in Atlanta, with her damaged ankle. U.S. women’s gymnasts have been stars since, central to Olympic coverage and presentation. In London and Rio, U.S. women won the team title and U.S. gymnasts won 12 individual medals. The last four all-around gold medalists have been Americans: Carly Patterson (2004), Nastia Liukin (2008), Gabby Douglas (2012) and Biles (2016).

With this, a television audience thousands of miles away has been enthralled by a sport which the vast majority of viewers has never attempted beyond perhaps a lazy cartwheel on the beach. (Caveat No. 1: It’s true that youth gymnastics is very popular among young women and younger girls, but not in numbers that translate to tens of millions of television viewers on summer nights. Caveat No. 2: It’s common for social media users – just about everybody – to make jokes about falling in love with uncommon Olympic sports, but none of those uncommon sports attract a gymnastics-level audience). Most viewers have run, swum, cycled, played basketball or soccer, or even (unsuccessfully) tried to spike a volleyball. There is a level of accessibility.

Gymnasts might as well be walking in space. Which is roughly what Biles appears to be doing in her floor exercise routines. A balance beam is four inches wide and gymnasts leap off it and then return, upright. The vault is a fixed object which gymnasts attack at full speed and use to propel themselves into the air. Uneven parallel bars? No words. Hence: Enthralled. The sport’s shift in scoring paradigms (after the 2004 Olympics) placed greater emphasis on explosive athleticism and the athletes have delivered. Also: Do not discount the flag. Americans are vigorously inclined to embrace a sport at which fellow Americans excel. But mostly, the operative word is awe.

In all of this, over time, there was a vague awkwardness, at first fully unspoken (perhaps unfelt; the 70s were a long time ago) and then gradually obvious: A sport contested by young women (age limits have been raised gradually over time, sensibly) was consumed by an audience that was at least half male, a demographic that has been historically resistant to accepting women as brilliant athletes, no matter how forcefully women prove that athleticism. Biles and her ilk – well, she has no ilk, but she has peers – are chipping away at that antiquated perception, which is disappointingly durable. But not indestructible.

It is another connected step that in Tokyo, the German women’s gymnastics team is competing in unitards rather than traditional leotards. The German Gymnastics Federation has described the change as a statement against the "sexualization" of traditional competition uniforms. Appearances matter. They just do. Even small steps can erode negative stereotypes.

The USA Gymnastics sexual abuse revelations of 2016, and the heartbreaking court case that followed, are an inescapable backdrop to the competition in Tokyo. It is such an important undercurrent, and such an open wound. Those revelations, and the jail sentences, are vital to the sport’s future, yet gymnasts like Biles (who posted her own victim statement on social media) deserve better than to be defined by another person’s crimes. But the story will far outlive her athletic career.

It is thus both the same sport Olympic fans have come to love, and a very different one, that began over the weekend with qualifying, and will continue to unfold in the coming days. It is a sport that still leaves us speechless and makes us cry, but it is a sport healing and undergoing change. And all change is painful. The beauty, the joy, the capital-A, bold-faced Athleticism remain, at the core of an important evolution. Yet Tokyo medals are hewn from a different ore than any before them.

So ahead we watch not just moments, but a movement. Not just highlights, but history.