Dvora Meyers, a journalist based in New York, is author of “The End of the Perfect 10,” about women’s gymnastics.
Every four years, millions of people around the country tune in to watch gymnastics at the Olympics, and everyone thinks he or she is an expert. “That was NOT a handstand, more like a handSplit! UK gets JACKED by judges!” Samuel L. Jackson wrote on Twitter. But this is a difficult, technical sport that even participants struggle to master. The competition is often poorly understood, and myths such as these abound.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nadia Comaneci’s historic first perfect 10 in Olympic competition. It also marks 10 years since the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) abolished the 10 in response to a gaggle of scoring scandals at the 2004 Games in Athens. “Why Gymnastics Abandoned The Perfect 10,” a Huffington Post headline intoned.
Nowadays, a gymnast gets two scores: one for the difficulty of the exercise and the other for how well she performed the elements. The former starts at zero and increases depending on the content of the routine. The latter starts at 10 and decreases depending on the number of mistakes. The two scores are added together, and what the audience sees is an inelegant string of numbers, such as 13.667.
But if the judges find no fault with a gymnast’s execution, then he or she can still end up with a perfect 10 on that score. The closest any Olympian has come to the mark was McKayla Maroney on vault during the 2012 team finals. For her seemingly flawless vault, she was awarded a 9.733 in execution, with NBC commentator Tim Daggett crying out for a 10. If the judges ease up and decide to throw out one of those execution 10s at this Olympics, it’ll probably happen on the vault, since it’s essentially a single element, which means there are fewer opportunities to take deductions. And it’ll probably be earned by Simone Biles, who has gotten closest to that magical number during world championship competition, with a 9.7.
Comaneci was just 14 years old when she made her big splash in 1976, and for the next three decades, gymnastics was known as a sport with uniquely young athletes, a notion that was reinforced when countries were caught falsifying the ages of their gymnasts upward in order to sneak them into competitions. (See: Romania in the ’80s and ’90s, China in 2000 and possibly 2008, North Korea in the ’90s and aughts.) In 1992, half the U.S. Olympic team was 15 years old or younger.
But in the past 10 years, the sport has undergone significant shifts that have allowed female gymnasts to compete and thrive well past their teens. One change involves age minimums: In Comaneci’s day, you had to be 14 to compete. Then the line moved to 15, and then to 16, where it currently sits. The rules have also changed to allow gymnasts to specialize in certain events, instead of forcing every athlete to compete in the all-around. For an aging gymnast, this can mean abandoning her weak apparatuses and zeroing in on the areas where she excels.
The sport in the ’70s and ’80s also bore witness to a huge increase in difficulty every few years, making it much harder for older gymnasts to keep pace. Nowadays, since the escalation is less pronounced, older athletes don’t have to keep upgrading — they just have to maintain their skill set and stay healthy. Finally, the depth of the international field has weakened considerably, as many countries have seen their gymnastics programs shrink. If there are fewer young competitors waiting in the wings, odds are an older gymnast will be able to hold onto her team spot longer.
For those reasons, the average age of a female gymnast in Rio will be 20.
When Lloimincia Hall’s floor routine went viral in 2014, a “Good Morning America” host profiling the then-Louisiana State gymnast asked, “Will Hall ever go for the gold at the Olympics?” Hall had never competed at an elite level, yet it was impossible for the host to grasp her significance without invoking the Olympics.
The truth is that, for most high-level gymnasts in the United States, college gymnastics, not the Olympics, is the dream — and certainly the more attainable dream. There are 12 scholarships per university team, as opposed to five spots on the Olympic team every four years. At the NCAA level, the rules (for the women at least) are more relaxed, as is the atmosphere. You can dab and nae nae in your floor routine, as UCLA’s Sophina de Jesus did to viral acclaim this year. When you stick a vault, your teammates mob you on the mat to celebrate. College gymnastics is so much fun that even athletes who’ve been to the Olympics and won medals want to participate. Samantha Peszek and Bridget Sloan, 2008 silver medalists, had standout NCAA careers for UCLA and Florida, respectively, after their Olympic careers were done.
Some Olympic medalists want so badly to take part in the college gymnastics experience, they’ll move mats and fill water bottles to do it. That’s what Jordyn Wieber, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic team gold medalist, did. Wieber had accepted money in the run-up to the London Games and thus forfeited her NCAA eligibility and UCLA athletic scholarship, so she signed on to become the team manager. She also considered petitioning the NCAA to be allowed to compete.
If you watched women’s gymnastics in the ’80s and ’90s, you were fed a steady diet of “the Eastern bloc countries and China are better than the U.S.” And even though the Iron Curtain fell more than 25 years ago, people have been slow to come around to the fact that the United States is now the undisputed power in women’s gymnastics. Just a few years ago, Bleacher Report praised “centralized training,” most common in the onetime Eastern bloc nations, as a key to gymnastics success.
Romania is out of the picture — its women’s and men’s teams didn’t even qualify to compete in Rio. Russia’s ranks are rife with injuries; the team is a shell of its former self. And China, though still formidable, is a few points behind the Americans in the international rankings. Meanwhile, the United States and other Western countries are on the rise. The reason is money. After the former communist countries disbanded their sports programs, their coaches migrated, landing in the United States and countries like Britain — another emerging power in the sport — and bringing their expertise with them. (To win the gold in 2008, China temporarily lured some of its coaching talent back from the United States, including Li Yuejiu, father of 2012 U.S. Olympic alternate Anna Li. The coach helped oversee the preparation of both the men’s and women’s teams.) With foreign coaching expertise and Western financial investment, it’s not surprising that we’re on top.
Since Olga Korbut debuted an androgynous look at the 1972 Olympics, women’s gymnastics had become known for unusually small, seemingly prepubescent athletes. This gave the sport a reputation as a hotbed of eating disorders, as Joan Ryan noted in her 1995 bestseller, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.” A typical headline, from the Mirror: “Hunger games: Teen gymnasts reveal dark side of sport that left them with eating disorders.”
But as the sport has changed over the past decade, so has the body associated with it. “There were the overly skinny kids for a while,” says William Sands, a sport scientist for several national athletic organizations. “There was a brief spurt of strong, muscular girls — Mary Lou Retton was an example. And then it went back [to skinny]. And now it’s kind of gone back [to muscular]. I hope it never goes back. Strong, explosive athletes are indeed healthier, better able to withstand the rigors.”
Modern gymnastics relies more on strength and dynamism than it did just a couple of decades ago, so gymnasts with more athletic physiques are better able to perform today’s repertoire. Also, conditioning techniques have improved across all sports, including gymnastics. Gymnasts are better conditioned than ever before and have more muscular bodies to show for it.