A Team Sport

Here’s a rule: In gymnastics, you’re allowed to have the attention span of a hummingbird.

So while the Olympics aren’t even cold yet, and we haven’t had time to fully process both the winners and those who will spend the next four years resenting the winners through creative use of dartboards and poppets, it’s okay if you already want to put a lid on elite until next summer. I know I do.

But before I turn back to the main purpose of this blog, NCAA women’s gymnastics, where the schedules are currently coming out but there will be little else to discuss for months, I have a few thoughts on the concept of team in gymnastics.

For as much as we all tend to joke about the attitude in NCAA where it is completely taboo to discuss a desire for individual accolades because the focus has to be “all about the team,” I’m a total follower of that philosophy. In all versions of gymnastics, I am way more interested in the team than I am in the individual, to the point where these current Olympics started to lose me after Team Final. That was the only event I really cared about, and even the All-Around was just bonus. I had about as much interest in the Olympic AA as I do in NCAA vault finals. (OK, maybe that’s going a little too far.)

I think this is partially because, for a certain age group, our first news-worthy, memorable exposure to gymnastics was the 1996 Olympics Team Final as packaged by NBC and every conglomerate that thereafter sponsored the Mag 7. The Team Final was all we heard about because that’s where the Americans won. That year, it was truly all about the team in terms of public perception, and our age, our interest, and internet technology had not developed enough for us to be sufficiently cognizant of other countries or other competitions.

To those for whom that event was an entry into the sport, gymnastics became solely a team event. So we still tend to experience dissonance when we hear people in elite gymnastics, be it Shannon Miller or Tim Daggett to use two recent examples, dismiss the team event as significantly less important than the All-Around (which is even more interesting when you consider that both of their biggest accomplishments were in team scenarios). This is not necessarily to criticize the people who focus solely on the individual. If you train all those years with your own accomplishments in mind, of course those feats would have more value than the accomplishments of people who don’t train with you and just happen to be from your same country.

Still, to the public and the fans, original perceptions of gymnastics as a team sport are hard to shake, and this dismissal of the team as less important is bad for the sport. The team final needs to be played up because people want to get behind a group, not just a individual, and stake their allegiance to Team USA, a concept that will not waver. There will always be a US team even after the individuals retire. 

But it’s about more than that. Gymnastics is infinitely more interesting when a team is competing together because the team dynamics, the strategy of lineups, and the pressure of competing after a fall are all so much more fascinating than some individuals doing some routines for themselves. That’s why I tend to gravitate more toward NCAA gymnastics than elite. It’s just more interesting, more nuanced sport. Next time I make fun of someone for falling back into those familiar tropes of team unity, remind me that I, too, am all about the team.