The World Artistic Gymnastics Championships that take place the year after the Olympics have the reputation of being something of a letdown; with the next Olympics three years away, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to meet the sport’s next mega star there. The 2013 Championships, which marked the senior international debut of Simone Biles, was a notable exception to this unwritten rule, but typically the women’s stars tend to emerge in the middle of or late in an Olympic cycle—early enough to gain some experience, but not so early that they run the risk of burning out or getting injured before the big show.
As for the gymnasts you came to know in Rio, many of them have either retired—the Olympics, for most gymnasts, is a culminating mark in an athletic career—or they have taken some time off from training to let their bodies recuperate. 2016 Olympic uneven bars champion Aliya Mustafina used her downtime to gestate and give birth to a baby girl. Mustafina is already back in the gym training, because there’s nothing quite like giant swings to get your pre-baby body back.
What this means is that if you’re simply a fan of Simone Biles or Aly Raisman or Laurie Hernandez or if you need Olympic-sized stakes in order to take an interest in gymnastics, this year’s World Championships may not be for you. This year’s competition, which will be held next week in Montreal, is for people who actually like gymnastics for its own sake and don’t need a mega-sporting event that lays waste to entire metropolitan areas to watch someone perform on the balance beam.
Fans of the sport—those who often refer to themselves as “gym nerds”—simply accept this boom/bust cycle as the natural order of things. And the Olympics are typically seen as good for the sport, which surges in popularity during the Games, resulting in increased gym enrollments after. This phenomenon has played out several times over the last four decades. The first big one came after the 1972 Olympics, when Soviet Olga Korbut became a global star arguably more popular and well-known in the U.S. than she was in the U.S.S.R., where the gymnastics powers-that-be saw her acrobatic, pixie style as an affront to the stately, balletic presentation her teammates embodied. Other booms would follow the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10s, and, especially after 1984, the nauseatingly jingoistic Olympics where Mary Lou Retton won the Olympic all-around title during a Soviet boycott. After Biles & co. dominated the 2016 Olympics, enrollment is up once again in the U.S. despite the fact that USA Gymnastics has spent the entire year since Rio fighting lawsuits and allegations that the nonprofit swept claims of sexual abuse under the rug. Such is the power of the Olympics and Simone Biles.
But what would happen if, one day, the Olympic Games ceased to exist? What would that mean for sports that, like gymnastics, orient their entire development cycle to the event?
While this is just a hypothetical question and unlikely to come to pass—at least not any time soon—the moral case for eliminating the Olympic is quite strong. The IOC, like FIFA, is basically a criminal organization. The bidding process is corrupt, and there has been ample coverage of how destructive hosting the Games can be to the city unfortunate enough to be saddled with the task: massive public debt, enriching the already wealthy, destroying communities, infrastructure projects that offer only marginal benefit the majority of the host city’s population, and an increase in racist policing practices. All of the downsides of hosting the Games have led city after city to withdraw from the bidding process. The 2022 Olympics came down to just two cities—Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China—after every other city in contention said, “Thanks but no thanks.” Beijing ended up winning the 2022 Winter Games despite the fact that snow is never in that city’s forecast.
I wish there was a floating city where this mega sports event could be hosted so that cities and locals wouldn’t be harmed. (Then again, we’re probably going to need the hovercity technology to escape rising sea levels, not host major athletic events.) That said, back to the question: What happens to sports like women’s gymnastics if the Olympics are taken out of the equation?
First, the downsides: Gymnastics would, undoubtedly, lose some of its popularity and revenue, both of which are tied to the visibility it receives during the Games. But it wouldn’t drop down to zero. Perhaps one of the first big popularity booms, before the Olympic ones, took place in 1970 after Cathy Rigby became the first U.S. woman to win a world championships medal—a silver on the balance beam. That feat—which wasn’t a gold and wasn’t an all-around medal and wasn’t even an Olympic medal—was enough to make her one of the most famous female athletes of that period. She even starred in a Stayfree maxi-pad commercial.
I think that Simone Biles would be a well-known gymnast for being a three-time world all-around champion and a gymnastics juggernaut even without the Olympics. In a world where college gymnasts’ floor routines go viral, I don’t think she would’ve stayed anonymous for long.
But still, there would be a dip in popularity. There’s no getting around that point. And the loss of the Olympics could hurt the visibility women’s sports in general. The Games are basically the only time when female athletes get the same amount of attention as the men.
But it wouldn’t be all doom and gloom if gymnastics could no longer rely on the Olympics for visibility. There would, in fact, a whole bunch of potential upsides if the sport could get itself on an annual cycle instead of a four-year track—something it could do even with the Olympics maintaining their place as the sport’s preeminent competition.
First, there would be no more “letdown” years. This year’s Championships would be just as important as the one in 2016 and as the one in 2018. This would be similar to basically every other sport that runs on an annual cycle with a Super Bowl or a World Series or some other year-end championship. If the 2020 Olympics weren’t on the horizon, then this year wouldn’t seem inconsequential. And there’s no reason it should with a competitive all-around field and a potential uneven bars final way more exciting than the one in Rio.
This is how it is in NCAA college gymnastics. Like any other collegiate sport, they host a national championships at the end of season (after a host of qualifying competitions) and the team with the highest score wins that year’s title. No year is more important than any other year. And NCAA women’s gymnastics isn’t exactly hurting for fans. Teams like Utah and Alabama regularly get more than 13,000 attendees at regular season home meets and the sport now receives regular weekend coverage on the SEC and Pac 12 networks.
Also, the Olympics cause folks to lose perspective. When an event rolls around for two weeks once every four years, athletes are willing to pull out all of the stops, even at the expense of their health, to make it there. And you can’t really fault them for that, given what’s at stake and how long they’d have to wait for another chance to compete at the Olympics. Most gymnasts get just one shot at making the Olympic team.
In a world where there were no Olympics, though—or even where it was just deemphasized—perhaps cooler heads would prevail. While missing a major competition is always disappointing for athletes, if that competition came around once a year as opposed to once every four, I think it would be easier for injured gymnasts to take a break and recuperate, knowing that another chance for, say, a world championships berth will come along in 365 days.
For instance, Riley McCusker, who was placed third in the all-around at the recent U.S. national championships and was widely considered a shoo-in for the world championships team heading to Montreal, announced shortly before the women’s selection camp that she was withdrawing due to injury. Her coach, Maggie Haney (who coached Hernandez) posted this comment on Instagram explaining McCusker’s withdrawal from selection for this year’s team:
“In trying to quickly get ready for P&G’s; she developed a minor stress fracture; nothing major! We just needed to call it a year & let her rest. We are thinking long term; as this girl has a very bright future ahead of her!”
The “long term” thinking mentioned here almost certainly has to do with the Olympics or, at least, subsequent Championships that are part of the Olympic qualification process. (2017 doesn’t factor in but 2018 and 2019 do.) You can imagine that if it had been an Olympic year and McCusker was dealing with a “minor” stress fracture as her coach’s statement claimed, it’s very unlikely that she and her coach would’ve been content with “calling it a year.” They might’ve tried to push through the injury because the next Olympic opportunity wouldn’t come around for another four years. This hypothetical push could’ve worked out fine—McCusker wouldn’t have been the first gymnast to compete at an Olympics with a stress fracture—or it could’ve resulted in a more severe injury that not only took her out of the running for the Games but potentially impacted the rest of her athletic career and her health in the long-term.
The Olympics create a scarcity of opportunity in a sport where there are already very few opportunities and people react as folks do when confronted with scarcity, perceived or real—very foolishly or brutally.
While it’s possible to imagine what the sport would look like without the Games, it’s hard to truly disentangle gymnastics from the Olympic movement; they have been deeply intertwined for decades, especially in the post-war era. But it’s worth thinking about, not just for gymnastics but for all sports, especially since the Olympics have become such a force of destruction in the places they land virtually no city wants to host them anymore. There needs to be a fundamental re-thinking of how non-revenue Olympic sports are subsidized. Financial support for gymnasts, swimmers, track stars, and the like should not be solely tied to outcomes at a mega event that comes around once every four years. The Olympics should not be the North Star of funding.
But even if we never divorce gymnastics from the Olympics, we can, at the very least, appreciate the performances at the 2017 World Championships for what they are, instead of what they mean in the Olympic cycle.