The United States men's gymnastics team is currently trying to achieve what no American men's team has ever done: win a team gold medal at a non-boycotted Olympics. The favorite is Japan, led by three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura, who is possibly the best male gymnast of all time. But the Americans have a realistic, if slim, shot.
Nevertheless, the lion's share of the media attention has been and will be bestowed on the American bid for gold on the women's side.
When I was a young gymnastics fan, the inequity in coverage did not bother me. Though I spent nearly every Sunday afternoon watching VHS tapes of the women's competitions until I had all of the scores memorized, I fast forwarded through the coverage of the men, if there was any at all. Broadcasts of men's national championships were often reduced to mere ten-minute recaps of top competitors and routines or marooned in the worst spots on the television schedule.
Back then, I could scarcely name any U.S. male gymnasts and would have struggled for a few minutes to come up with all six of their apparatuses. But as the American men started winning more medals in the early 2000s, I started paying more attention, and I realized what I had been missing for years. The personalities on the men's competition floor are bigger and more compelling as are the skills.
Male gymnasts aren't totally marginalized now—their meets are now televised in their entirety, if not in prime time—but they still trail the women in popularity. Why?
Female gymnasts aren't simply athletic competitors. The greatest ones become popular icons: Olga, Nadia, and Mary Lou. Their fame extends far beyond their Olympic events, and it lasts much longer. Every four years, Nadia and Mary Lou are dusted off to go on talk shows and speak to reporters about the current gymnastic field.
That doesn't happen on the male side. "No male gymnast has ever been Nadia. Or even Nastia," said Rick McCharles, a Canadian coach and blogger. "That has been the biggest problem." When he was in Japan last fall, McCharles said, he was shocked by how few people in Tokyo outside of the gymnastics community knew of Uchimura, despite the fact that he's on track to becoming a true legend.
Can casual viewers even name a past men's champion? Maybe Paul Hamm, but that has more to do with the start-value controversy that dogged his win in 2004. The only notable male champions who have maintained recognition—1984 Olympic gold medalists Tim Daggett and Bart Conner—achieved this not by presenting themselves as objects of nostalgia, but by getting jobs as commentators. They're in the public eye because they're always working.
The female gymnasts' youth and petiteness helps make them icons. Their power—and their tolerance for pain and danger—seems impossible in such childlike forms. They can be treated as tiny, ideal embodiments of whatever the narrative of the moment may be. The men's gymnastics blogger Uncle Tim wrote:
Right now, in an era of American exceptionalism, we are eager to prove that we can beat the other countries at their own game. The U.S. can have a centralized training program, but our very young girls—and we are obsessed with how young they are—can still be teenagers, which, as you know, is different from the Chinese and the Romanians.
Watching muscular, grown men perform feats of extraordinary strength and athleticism is exciting, but it's not at all surprising. And the men, by virtue of their age, are less malleable, narratively speaking. Many are at least in college before they make it to an Olympic Games; some have completed their higher education and are married.
To see a Nadia or Mary Lou years later, as a grown woman, is startling and nostalgia-inducing. Now, the cute, smiling teenager has become an adult—but old video and photos are always cued up, like childhood snapshots at a wedding. The effect is transporting.
Male champions, years later, mostly look like they used to—with some wrinkles, some gray, and perhaps less muscle. (Bart Conner, who looks practically the same as he did in 1984, has a definite Dorian Gray quality.) They don't evoke a lost past, unless their highlights include a really bad, decade-specific haircut.
Against all this cultural backdrop, too, there's the plain fact that the U.S. women have been more successful than the men. Over the past decade, the U.S. women have won an unprecedented number of international medals and titles, including two consecutive Olympic all-around gold medals.
But what is often not brought up is the less competitive nature of the women's side of the sport. There are really only four teams that routinely occupy the team medal podiums at world championships and the Olympics: the U.S., Russia, Romania, and China. Back in 2003, the Australians got bronze, after a fluke deduction against the Chinese women for flipping while they waited to start their routines.
And with Romania in the doldrums for the past three years, the Americans, Russians, and Chinese have been playing a game of musical chairs in which there are always enough medals for everyone. A similar situation was in place from 2005 to 2008, when Russia was faring poorly.
On the men's side, China and Japan have been consistently ranked 1-2 for years, but the battle for bronze has been fierce for the past four years. From third through sixth place, the United States, Germany, Russia, and France have constantly reshuffled the pecking order—and in the prelims this time, Great Britain showed it has a shot. So there are more true team medal contenders.
Team competition aside, the men's apparatus finals offer many opportunities for gymnasts from smaller, less dominant nations to get on the podium. "[Tomas] Gonzalez from Chile truly is as good as the best Americans. But there's no female gymnast from Chile as good as the Americans," McCharles said.
"Historically the [women's] judges would only give medals to certain nations.," he said. "[Men's] judges have always been more willing to recognize and reward anyone from anywhere."
Uncle Tim noted that in addition to the teams with a chance at team medals— in London, the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and possibly Germany or Great Britain-countries like Hungary, Romania, and the Ukraine have potential apparatus medalists. Even a Polish gymnast, Leszek Blanik, has managed to win several international medals on the vault.
Because the men have been competing in a more competitive field, their successes cannot be viewed through the lens of dominance as the women's can; rather it is often cast in terms of luck. "Were we expecting Trent Dimas to win a gold in 1992?" Uncle Tim asked. "Nope. Did it seem like Tim and Elfi thought that the men would win a bronze in 2008? Nope."
The luck narrative doesn't get as much attention in advance; it's hard to predict which team will be lucky. But it sure was more fun to watch the U.S. men win their "lucky" bronze in 2008 than it was to see the women win their expected silver.
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Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.