It Used to Be Gymnastics: The Swedish Team Final

The Olympic team final. Each nation puts up a series of gymnasts on each apparatus, and their combined scores determine which country is the best country of all the countries. The end.

But ’twas not always this way.

In the early years of Olympic gymnastics, the team competition did not feature individual athletes performing individual routines but rather a lengthy choreographed group presentation designed to showcase the particular physical education regime of each participating country.

Determining the rules and format to govern this group presentation, however, would become the Gutsu/Miller of its time. Two prevailing styles emerged: the German system, which included fixed apparatuses like high bar and parallel bars and rings with a more regimented style originating from a military background (so, not breaking any stereotypes here…), and the Swedish system, which favored a more calisthenic approach to physical fitness with an emphasis on stretching, flexibility, and balance.

The (now considered unofficial) 1906 Olympics in Athens and the 1908 Olympics in London hosted team competitions exclusively in the Swedish system—along with all-around competitions in the German system. In 1908’s Swedish team competition, each country was given a 30-minute performance window during which anywhere from 16 to 40 men could demonstrate “free exercises,” those with “hand apparatuses,” or any combination of the two. For the men, options for hand apparatuses included swinging clubs and wands. You know, because of the spells. Women did also perform their own Swedish gymnastics demonstrations in 1908, but only for exhibition purposes, not for medals.

Continue reading It Used to Be Gymnastics: The Swedish Team Final

Things Are Happening – July 6, 2020

A. Abuse News

You know, a stellar note to get started on.

British gymnasts—including Catherine Lyons and Lisa Mason in this report, and anonymous athletes in this report—are speaking out about specific abuses they experienced from their coaches and the culture of fear throughout British gymnastics.

Now…where have I heard that before? Oh right, it’s everywhere, all the time because the coaching culture in all of gymnastics, regardless of country, is rotten from the inside. Whenever we talk about abusive coaching there seems to be this need to clarify, “Now, of course, most coaches are wonderful and this doesn’t reflect blah blah blah blah,” but…clearly that’s not true. How many times do we have to hear these stories? Catherine’s horrific experience should be some shocking tale, but it’s not because it’s all part of a pattern.

Imagine how good Catherine Lyons could have been if she hadn’t been treated like garbage. I think about that eight times a week.

Meanwhile, in further gross news, Thierry Pellerin—Canadian pommel horse specialist who is a mainstay of the world cup circuit—has been arrested for sexual offenses against minors.

Continue reading Things Are Happening – July 6, 2020

It Used to be Gymnastics: Women’s Rings

Chicago, 1941

Vault, bars, beam, and floor.

Not until Helsinki 1952 did the four women’s events we know today became codified as THE EVENTS in Olympic competition. Before that, it was basically a free-for-all, the apparatuses in Olympic competition varying wildly from quadrennium to quadrennium with formats and rules that could at best be described as ambiguous. And at worst as a lawless mayonnaise fire.

In 1928, the women’s gymnastics rules were simply, “each country is entirely free in its choice of exercises, apparatus, and jumps.” (Thank you?)

In 1932, the rules were simply…um nothing because women couldn’t compete in gymnastics in 1932. Great work again, Los Angeles.

At the London Olympics of 1948, the women’s gymnastics program changed drastically again and featured an apparatus that had not been used before and would never be used again: rings.

Continue reading It Used to be Gymnastics: Women’s Rings

Things Are Happening – June 25, 2020

Eh, there’s not that much this week, but here goes…

Athlete A. Out Now

The Netflix documentary on That Guy, and USAG, and the IndyStar investigation, and Maggie, and Rachael, and Jamie is out now.

For those who have followed what’s been happening in detail over the last four years, there’s not going to be a lot of new information there for you, but the documentary does do an impressive job of synthesizing that information and establishing a clear and understandable timeline of events and culpability. That can be really difficult to do with all the moving parts and little wisps of information that have come out here and there—and will be particularly valuable for the general public watching it.

For some reason, USAG decided it needed to make a statement…about the film…today? It didn’t go over awesome. (Guys, you didn’t even have to say anything.)

OK. First of all, you’re not supposed to take this opportunity to pat yourself on the back for some great job you’ve done since they came forward, because…highly debatable and no you haven’t. I do think some things are improving and that the leadership staff is better, but it’s like you want a standing ovation for getting off the couch. Make it to the toilet and then we’ll talk.

Also they didn’t do it for you. USAG taking this documentary and focusing on what it has learned or improved because of Maggie still assumes that she exists to serve USAG or to make the organization better. “Debt of gratitude.” Like she gave you something. You took from her, so much. And now you need to give her something. Such as…everything she and the other survivors are asking for.

Continue reading Things Are Happening – June 25, 2020

Things Are Happening – June 18, 2020

A. Simone’s triple double: beam edition

With the opening salvo of “gymnastics is back” season (?)—at least for a couple months before “oh wait never mind no it’s not” season—Simone posted a video of herself doing a triple double beam dismount into a pit.

On the scale of realism, this is certainly in the “just crashing into the pit because gymnastics is supposed to be fun” category (Morgan Hurd countered with a similar double double of her own), but it’s also Simone, so who knows.

Because the double double was given just an H, Simone ditched it immediately after getting it named for herself at worlds because the potential for deductions essentially makes it not worth the single tenth gained over the full-in, a very comfortable skill for her. But if she flexed and went up to a triple double (which at this point would presumably be I-value—what we thought the double double would be), I’m saying I wouldn’t be mad about it.

“I will use this extra year to invent ONE HUNDRED new Bileseses.”

Meanwhile, we need a better system for awarding values of provisional skills. You shouldn’t have to wait until worlds to discover the official value of the thing you’re planning to do. You know we have the internet now, right?

Continue reading Things Are Happening – June 18, 2020

Things Are Happening – June 11, 2020

A. Kurt Thomas died

Last weekend, we received the news that Kurt Thomas died following a stroke. Really the first US men’s gymnastics star, Thomas won the world floor title in 1978 in Strasbourg and joined Marcia Frederick—who won the bars title at that same meet—in becoming the first Americans to win a gymnastics world title.**

Thomas emerged at the 1976 Olympics (ultimately his only Olympic Games) but had not quite come into his own yet, placing 21st AA and 7th with the US team. His transition into a world force came with that victory in 1978 and continued at 1979 worlds in Fort Worth, where he cleaned up with five medals—including wins on HB and FX and a silver in the all-around—proving himself to be the equal of Dityatin and Tkatchev, as well as an essential innovator with his flares on pommel horse and roll-out on floor.

He would have been on the 1980 Olympic team had the United States sent a delegation, but alas. Of course, he then went on to far more culturally critical work, starring in the greatest action film of all time, Gymkata. Let us never forget. His pro status left him ineligible for competition for much of the 80s, but he did make a comeback attempt in the early 90s, placing 16th AA at nationals in 1992.

**The US had won Olympic gymnastics titles before at the sparsely attended home Olympics in 1904 and 1932, and Frank Kriz won the Olympic vault title in 1924 in Paris, but since vaulting that year involved jumping over a horizontal bar before contacting the horse, I think we can chalk that up to being basically a different sport.

B. Black Lives Matter

In last week’s edition, I ran through a number of the statements from black athletes about their experiences in NCAA gym, and we’ve seen a few more come out since then, most prominently from former Auburn gymnasts like Kennedy Finister and Telah Black.

We’ve also seen more articles about Tia Kiaku’s situation at Alabama, including a particularly disturbing story that her mom relates about Dana Duckworth being like, “I think your daughter might be a slut because you’re a single mom.” I mean, that’s not what she said, but that’s also absolutely what she was saying.

These stories continuing to come out—along with their associated “I AM TEH LEARNING” responses—has stoked calls for these coaches to be fired, which…..it may happen, I have no idea. (I was kind of waffling about whether to put this up today in thinking, “You know someone is going to resign the millisecond after I hit publish. You know it.”)

These stories reveal unacceptable behavior so I’m not going to be weeping if someone does get “asked to resign,” though these stories also reveal failures throughout the athletic departments, which means that accountability is always going to have to be on more than just the gymnastics coach who said the bad thing. Because if the athletic departments had acted appropriately after the complaint was made about the coach doing the racist thing, we probably would never have heard the story.

And this is just gymnastics. Imagine the filing cabinets these schools have for coaches’ behavior in those other sports. I guarantee you these aren’t the worst examples. If you start enacting real, warranted accountability, then doesn’t the whole ziggurat have to go? Are they really going to be willing to do that? I kind of think…they’re not.

Continue reading Things Are Happening – June 11, 2020