The Olympics, Men's Versus Women's Gymnastics, Sexism, Age, Athleticism, Country Bias, Etc. Etc.

There’s a really good discussion going on over at Claudia La Rocco’s The Culturist about the Olympic coverage — people are even likening it to porn!

I couldn’t help get off on a tangent about male versus female gymnastics. During the last Olympics I remember going out to dinner with a group of my feminist friends and they were bemoaning how women’s sports are taken so unseriously by the public, giving as an example the prominence of the ‘silly’ ‘girl-child’ sport of female gymnastics over the more ‘real’ sports of women’s softball, etc. — the team sports. I thought the criticism was so unfair given how incredibly hard those gymnasts work, and I couldn’t understand how anyone couldn’t be in absolute awe of them as they did those impossible-looking tumbling passes and balance beam maneouvers and flying-through-the-air vaults. On the other hand, I’d played girls softball when I was young and felt there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do that the women players were doing without practice. So, why were they privileging team sports — so popular in men’s athletics — over individual sports, which women tend toward?

These friends were all lawyers and feminist legal scholars and I thought it was in large part my love of ballet and dance that made me at odds with them over this, so when I read Claudia (NYTimes dance critic, if you don’t know her) liken the female gymnasts to Jean Benet Ramsey, I thought, oh no!

After watching the women’s gymnastics last night in comparison to the men’s the night before, I did see a difference. The men do tend to be older (20-25), the women younger (16-20). And of course for anyone who watched last night, there seems to be a controversy over the actual ages of the Chinese female gymnasts. The cut-off age is 16 in the Olympic year (so you can be 15 now as long as you turn 16 by December 31, 2008), but no younger, and Bela Karolyi, among others, is questioning that some of those Chinese girls are that old. They did look quite young, but Asians are generally smaller-boned than Caucasians, and, as commenter Meg on Claudia’s blog pointed out, intense athletic training can delay the onset of puberty.

Of course the issue with the delayed onset of puberty caused by intense athletic training (which I hadn’t thought of) is an issue in itself. I’d think that’d be the case with any sport though, including Ballet. Maybe that’s one reason why ballerinas tend to be so thin, and not anorexia… And of course you don’t want to discourage female athleticism; wouldn’t that be sexist if you didn’t say the same for males? Does intense athleticism delay puberty for males though?…

And why favor female athletes so young anyway? Because they’re smaller and won’t go out of bounds on the tumbling passes? Because smaller bodies can tumble higher and get around those uneven bars at more astounding speeds, without fear of hitting the floor? Because as Karolyi said last night, youth doesn’t have as much fear of failure? Why isn’t all this the same for the men then?

The Chinese girls did seem to have more makeup on than the Americans, and they did seem to be jutting their hips and pelvises out and making poses on the floor that we might deem too sexy for their young-looking ages. But Jolene pointed out that that may be a cultural bias, and I agree. I went to an African dance performance with a Ballet friend the other night and she couldn’t stop laughing embarrasingly at the hip and pelvic movement; she’d never seen African before and didn’t know what to make of it, other than laugh at it and feel embarrassment for the dancers. Maybe their style just isn’t something we’re used to. Jolene also pointed out that the makeup seems to be an American thing, and I agree. I rarely see Asian women wearing that harsh bright aqua eyeshadow, yet that was a real fashion statement here in prior decades. They know they’re on TV, the Olympics are heavily dominated by the American press, and they’re trying to be like us. Ironically, it’s backfiring.

Finally, we’re also hearing all these stories about how awful the Chinese are to their children — forcing them into the sport, making them stay away from their families when the little girls really just want to come home, in comparison to the American stories, where the families always insist they’ve let their children decide how much dedication they wanted to give to their sport. Let’s just keep in mind that we’re hearing this all from the perspective of the American press. They assume we’ll feel better about ourselves, about our losing gold medals to the Chinese if we believe our society is so much more just. Not that I don’t believe in being critical at all of other governments; I didn’t have time to write about it, but I attended a reading organized by the PEN American Center of works by imprisoned Chinese dissident writers on the night before the Olympics began. But let’s just remember that our press exercises its own form of propaganda.

Okay, I’m done blabbering! Have a look at Claudia’s post and the responses.


  1. I really haven’t heard of non-gymnastic sports delaying the onset of puberty although I suppose it’s possible. Certainly though it’s not true of all or even most sports. It’s probably partially because gymnastics is so rough on the body. My guess is that it also has an awful lot to do with diet. It’s worth remembering that eating disorders, particularly anorexia, have been extremely prevalent in gymnastics and elite female gymnasts are generally on very strict diets. If you think about the age at which these gymnasts start training seriously in a sport that just pounds the body–an age at which bones are not as hard as they’ll eventually become, etc.–I think it’s pretty easy to see where people take issue. It’s a particularly dangerous sport and one that has serious physical consequences and yet decisions are made for these girls–and not only in China–when they’re very young.

    It’s true that Asians are generally smaller-boned, but the speculation about their ages originally stemmed not from Western sources but from within China–I believe the information was on websites that have since been supressed. One of the gymnasts from the Athens games later said that she was only 14 when competing and her age had been lied about–something the IOC has declined to investigate–so there’s also precedent behind these accusations. I would be very surprised if some of these girls aren’t below the age limit given those considerations.

    As for the men not being younger, there are a couple of factors. One major one though, would be that men’s gymnastics is much more strength based than women’s gymnastics. A 16-year-old boy just doesn’t have the same kind of strength as an adult man when it comes to doing those events and elements.

    As a sidenote, what makes you feel that women tend more toward individual sports while men tend more toward team sports? I do think that women’s sports in general are still catching up with men’s team sports in terms of funding but off the top of my head I can’t think of an individual Olympic event that men can’t take part in.

  2. Hi Meg — thanks, I didn’t know about the harshness of gymnastics training, especially in comparison to other sports.

    By women tending to go more for the individual sports, I didn’t mean there were any sports men were excluded from, but just that it seems that from a young age, both in school and in extracurricular activities, girls tend to go more for activities like gymnastics, acrobatics and dance (to the extent that dance can be considered a sport), instead of the team sports like softball and basketball, etc., which seem to be more popular among boys. That’s when I was growing up though; perhaps things have changed now. There do seem to be a lot of girls’ soccer clubs these days. I’m sure it also has to do with societal pressure: I think society kind of encourages girls to go for certain activities, boys for others.

  3. Wow Tonya, so many issues here that my mind is getting dizzy just trying to pick something to think about first!

    Coincidentally I was pondering just today that actually team sports aren’t really that interesting to me, because I never feel like something extraordinary is being done. They are just games, while gymnastics have an artistic element and -as you say- can be very awe-inspiring.
    It’s not even like for example swimming, where records are broken (even though these days maybe a large part of that is due to improving gear rather than solely humans pushing their physical prowess), in team sports the competition itself is the only objective!

    Anyway, I can imagine those Chinese girls being older than they look, even compared to other people with that kind of training. After all, I am only half Asian and even *I* am always estimated to be under 16 – while actually being 25!

    On the other hand, there is a lot of ado about the propaganda in these Olympics (not *exclusively* from the Chinese government, I might add!) so I would not really be surprised if the officials there have been ‘creative’ with girls’ ages just to get their best ones out there to compete.

    Also, I don’t know to what extent the doping scandals in this summer’s Tour de France were covered in the States, but it goes to show the lengths people would go to in order to excel in their sports/art. Compared to taking doping, I’d say lying about your age seems like a minor thing. Especially because it seems a bit of a waste, not to be allowed to compete while you are in your best shape!

    I do think younger girls are at an adventage here, because that is when they are at their most agile.
    I’d say this is less the case for boys, even if it’s just because -like Meg said- later on men tend to get more muscular, whereas women just tend to get their ‘curves’: very pretty, but in gymnastics it’s just dead weight/volume, rather than a strength!

    As for parents sending their children away to be schooled, I think all the fuss about it is extremely small-minded. England has a very rich history of sending children to prestigious boarding schools too! What’s wrong with wanting the best for your child, and -living in relatively poor conditions in a high-pressured society- thinking that the chance of a *future* is worth a little homesickness?
    I really wish we could get some perspective, and stop trying to force our fashions (ever done some reading on how much the western ideas about parenting changed over the years…?) onto other cultures, thinking WE know best.

  4. Female athletes in sports like gymnastics and figure skating hit their perfect muscle peak at age 15, there are no two ways around it. Men hit it in their early twenties, so you see a lot of men in their early to mid twenties in figure skating and gymnastics. This is not the same for sports like baseball, softball, volleyball, swimming, running and on and on, so you can see someone like Dara Torres competing at age 41.

    I am against the requirement for athletes being 16 mainly because of how often it derpives great female athletes from showing the world their best performances. Had this rule been in place in 1976, we would never have seen Nadia Comenici’s perfect 10 routines, as she was 14 during those Games.

    China, well I’m going to have to say that I think their program goes above and beyond just picking the best athetes and taking kids from their families, they also do not allow these people to stop competing even after they have won medals and that is not something that you will see in this country.

    Jennifer Sey, a former competitive US gymnast has written a book that is highly critical of the training methods here in the US. It’s called “Chalked Up”. She is also writing a blog for Salon and I recommend reading her first article, which you can find at

  5. Thanks for the great comments you guys! I know there ARE a lot of issues, right, Gracia? That’s why I decided to write my own post in responding to Claudia’s on her blog. Thanks for the link, Benita. I didn’t know about Sey. I’ll be interested to read her book. I did a little search on her and found some interviews. In one, she said although the training was sometimes horrid, it was all definitely worth it in the end: I realize there’s a huge difference between being forced to do something and having it be your choice; I’m just critical of the spin the press always puts on things. And, yeah, you’re right, Gracia, a lot of kids go away to boarding school — ballet kids too. Of course they’re going to miss their families a bit; doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Oh, and thanks Benita for that info on Nadia — I didn’t know she was 14. So, they’ve actually increased the age. I agree that the age requirements should be whatever the sport itself feels is suitable — the age where the musculature and athletic ability will be the most ideal for the sport. I definitely want to read Ms. Sey’s book now!

  6. As a former gymnast… the younger you are it’s easier to do skills. Plus puberty in females doesn’t do good things for gymnasts. Males on the other hand, Puberty helps them. For example… Look at Sasha Artemev. He’s got amazing lines and his strengths are places like High Bar, Pommel Horse, and Floor but his body type does not lend itself for strength events such as Rings. However if you look at somebody like Kevin Tan. He was basically chosen for the 2008 Olympic team because he has the body type and muscles for Still Rings.

    The same is true for women. Taller girls like Nastia Lukian (though she’s not all that tall for general women) do better and look better on Bars and beam (which are Nastia’s best events). Girls like Shawn Johnson and Mary Lu Retton are short and stocky when tends to lead them more powerful on Vault and Floor (though Shawn Johnson is going to rock tonight’s all-around).

    As for Jennifer Sey. There is lots of controversy over her book and what she’s said. Be very careful when reading her book Tonya. She may not be fully… objective when it comes to USA gymnastics

    I’m one of the few in the gymnastic community that things the age rule is a good thing. The Chinese cheated, that’s all there is to say about that. Those girls are not 16. However it’s also tough with Asian gymnasts because they’re smaller in stature normally and also even though they may be of age, they look younger.

    The problem with the age is because of the new code of points. The way it’s currently structure causes gymnasts to do higher degrees of difficulty which its easier to do when you’re small and lighter..

    Personally I do think that centralizing training is kind of a good thing. I mean look at diving. US Diving has improved over the last couple of years due to the sports governing body moving the training center to Indianapolis. There is a reason that Russia dominated sports in the 1980s. They centralized their training.

    As for Nadia being 14. That’s true, however look at the differences that have come since then. I mean just look at Uneven Bars! They’re much farther apart then they are now. The Skills Nadia was doing then and the skills that they’re doing now are completely different. They’re much more complicated today.

  7. There are many great thought-provoking points here, but the only one I want to mention in this comment is “delayed puberty”. While it is true that gymnastics done intensively will delay the onset of puberty, as in fact can any intense physical training in girls, it would be an error I think to default to thinking of this as a “bad thing” without further analysis. A quick google search finds a few sites that list historical average ages of menarche (for instance here, here and here.)

    To give a quick example (quoted from the first site) “Researchers noted the trend 140 years ago. In 1860 the average menarche happened at 16.6 years, in 1920 at 14.6, in 1950 at 13.1 and 1980, 12.5 years. Kluge attributed the early maturation mostly to obesity caused by fast food. Lack of fat can also stop menstruation, which is what happens with anorexia.”

    Additionally, it would be important to look at the family history of menarche, as the age of the mother’s menarche has an influence as well (if I remember correctly). So then a logical next question would be, does being athletic self-select for a later menarche?

    Personally, I am thrilled I was “delayed” at 14. I wouldn’t have made it to 5’2″ otherwise! :-)(My sister in contrast started at 10 1/2, which is probably the only thing that kept her from being as tall as my mother – as she was already 5’7″ at 10.)

  8. Gingembre, that’s really interesting. I don’t have stats offhand but I know generally earlier menarche is associated with higher rates of gynecological problems, like certain cancers, especially in tandem with adult lack of exercise and over-eating. And why *is* delayed puberty deemed such a bad thing? Because the primary responsibility of females is to reproduce?… I think in general, lack of exercise in girls and women is a far bigger problem than intense training. One thing I love about the Olympics is that it inspires awe and encourages people, at least in the short run, to be more athletic.

    Katrina, I didn’t know you were a gymnast; that’s so cool! I think you’re right about how different body-types look on the different apparatuses. I loved Nastia in general last night and I’m so glad she won. She really nailed everything. I kept worrying her long legs would hit the ground on that low bar though. One commenter said she looked really balletic on the balance beam and I think he was right. Unfortunately I missed the awards ceremony, was too tired and had to go to bed. But I saw her father crying — so sweet!

  9. Oh and Katrina, regarding Sey: yeah, I don’t expect pure objectivity from anyone’s autobiography (Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, etc. etc.) I still think they’re interesting and educational to read though.

  10. Tonya she looks tall but in all actuality she’s not. She’s 5′ 2″ and Shawn Johnson is 4’9″
    Svetlana Khorkina is 5’5″ and she was “tall” for a gymnast.

    She was crying too…

    I think had the scores on beam not been so wonky, I think Shawn Johnson would have won.

  11. Hey there,

    Just to chime in with my own thoughts about biases (body image and age, etc.) and their lasting effects. I definitely hold certain opinions and fallacies about certain body types being more ideal, and I’m black american by the way, which means that aside from having the requisite female body parts, I don’t look like my white or asian counterparts. FYI- I’ve been told directly and indirectly all my life that I’m not attractive by asian or white standards since I don’t look like they do. In terms of Nastia Liukin having a more balletic, leaner body type, I thought she created better lines because of it. When I first spied Shawn Johnson, I was like that’s her; she has a weird body type. I hate to say this, but it did make me judge her differently at first even though she is very talented. Eventually, I found a way to overcome my own biases and to appreciate all of the athletes despite all the possible lies and drama. Once I realized I held my own prejudices and biases, I was able to appreciate the fact that blacks will likely continue to be judged more harshly than other races for looking different by the non-black society because it is just so easy to do. I am not saying it’s 100% acceptable, but I understand it and try not to take it personal. It just makes life more challenging if you’re on the opposite end of the bias, etc. I can guarantee you that in black Africa (the Sub-saharan desert region and below), the black body type rules there at least for the time being anyway.

    The real question is to understand why as humans, we are compelled and possessed to inately act out our biases and prejudices? It ALWAYS boils down to FEAR, which leads to survival and self-protective thoughts, feelings and behaviors. All countries and cultures behave in this manner so I think it is human nature to become socialized in this way almost insidiously and unconsciously. How shall we overcome? It really comes down to building or creating ones sense of self-worth and self-appreciation for simply being alive and for going against the ruling class or predominant tendency in one’s culture. It starts with self, the man/woman in the mirror, or one person at a time deciding consciously to do things differently despite the risk. Going against popular belief has always been tumultous and often leads to suffering negative consequences including death to self and others that one loves. If no one is willing or able stand up for something greater than themselves then they will fall for anything.

    Anyone can be a racist, prejudiced and elitist even when it makes no sense and is harmful to oneself and society. If you live in a society, you will have prejudices and biases in some shape or form. On the otherhand, if you are raised by wolves or without human (social) interaction, you likely wouldn’t even be capable of reading this blog let alone commenting because of serious cognitive, behavioral and social deficits. The microcosism of issues that have arisen during the Bejing Olympics will no doubt plague our society for years to come. Prejudice, racism and social biases will likely continue to predominate in every society with only a very small minority of people being able to actually rise above it all. Human history has shown us that this is how we have behaved since the beginning of written or spoken language. It takes a tremendous amount of work and conscious action that few will ever bother doing nor are capable of doing in order to view other people, races and cultures with high esteem, high regard or in a positive light. Being human is both our greatest weakness and strength.

  12. Chimene,
    I understand where you’re coming from, however, my so called biases comes from both experiences and my educational training (Forensic Anthropology). I was a gymnast for almost six years. If you look at almost every other gymnast in the world, they are short, compact, and very muscular. There are some exceptions but that is the body type. Look at Mary Lou Retton. If you look her videos, she looks and moves almost exactly like Shawn (and is a huge support of Shawn. She was in the stands on all-around night). And as I said before, Nastia looks tall but she’s not. She’s very short compared to the average American women. Nastia also looks a lot like her mother who was an Olympic Rhythmic Gymnast (yep that’s right. she has an Olympic pedigree) That’s where her long leggedness comes from.

    I’m not biased. I understand body type and know about bone structure.

    Tonya, I’ve hit the low bar… it doesn’t feel so good 😉 The second time I bled all over the bars.. Bars was never my favorite and wasn’t great at it either (my lower ab muscles just don’t function *eye roll*). I was always better at Floor and Beam. Vault scared the crap out of me.

  13. Yeah, it does seem, just from my little knowledge of the sport, that Shawn has the typical gymnast body. I do have to acknowledge that Nastia probably appealed to me more because her body is more like what I’m used to in ballet, though I realize she’s still short in comparison to the other gymnasts. So, Chimene has a point about me 🙂 Svetlana Khorkina — that’s who I was trying to remember — she was really tall for a gymnast, like you said, Katrina, and I think she hit the floor once right? So, I guess it does make sense why the sport favors a certain body type.

    The funny thing, though, is that, while watching her in contrast with many of the other gymnasts I had a preference for Nastia (but I also like an underdog, and the press kept making Shawn out to be the champion and Nastia looked more sympathetic and not expecting to win and her father seemed so sweet — so many things go into a preference!), but even if I had a predilection toward Nastia’s body type here, when I go to the Ballet, I like to see different body types and it annoys me if they’re all too much the same. That’s why I like Alvin Ailey — there are tall thin ‘balletic’ types like Alicia Graf, and more gymnast types like Hope Boykin, and then many of the others are a combination. Of the ballet companies I’ve seen, ABT seems more well-rounded in terms of body types and I’m thrilled Gillian Murphy, who really doesn’t have a typical ballerina body, is one of the stars. (And of course the men have different body types too — Craig Salstein, Marcelo, David, etc.) I still love willowy Julie Kent and Irina Dvorovenko (who looks more like a fashion model), but one of my favorites is Misty Copeland, who has nothing like the ‘typical’ ballet body — and I really think she’s the ballerina-type of the future; you don’t know how many young people I’ve heard saying wonderful things about her on the way out of the Met. Now if they will only give her some more of those star roles…

  14. Tonya.. she fell more than once 😉 But then again for the average women, she’s still very short. I hate to be catty but… The reason Nastia is the underdog is because she’s not the best gymnast…. She didn’t even make Event finals at last year worlds for Floor. I like her on beam though. If she doesn’t win gold there, I’ll be upset.. except for her dismount.

    See I don’t like Alvin Ailey stuff.. *shrugs* just not my idea of “ballet” I just don’t like contempoary balley.. not my style 🙂

  15. i think that it all depends on how long your body can put up with that much exercise. i am 15 years old and an extreme gymnast, and my doctor says that overworking your body isn’t a good thing, and that’s why gymnasts retire at 20 most of the time. I am okay for a gymnast. i’m 5’3″ 100lbs, and that is tall for gymnastics. you would want your body to be more compact because that way you would be able to move faster because there is less of you to move. and my previous coach had even said that i was fat. now, i might be in your opinion, but i personally think that i am okay. nastia liukin is the same height and one pound less than me, and one pound isn’t all that much (actually in gymnastics it’s a lot, but i don’t care about all of the guidelines.)
    tonya, i fell on bars today. my grip wasn’t chalked enough and i fell on my head, landed onto my back, and now my spine, back and ribs are bruised severely. but i still have to wake up tommorow at 5AM, do 2 hours of gymnastics, go to school, then do 4 hours in the afternoon. gymnastics is tough.

Comments are closed