The Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina has kept busy after winning the gold medal in the uneven bars at the Rio Olympics. She got married to and split up with bobsledder Alexey Zaytsev, gave birth to a daughter named Alisa in June of 2017, and quickly returned to training. Ten months later, Mustafina was already back in competition at the Russian national championships where she placed fourth, earning the highest score on bars on the second day of competition.
Returning to gymnastics after having a child is an exceedingly rare occurrence at the top level. Only a few women have ever managed to do it. One of these is Oksana Chusovitina, 43, who competed at her first Olympics in 1992 as a member of the Unified Team. Her son is older than many of Chusovitina’s teenage rivals in the women’s field. Another is Larissa Latynina, who actually competed while pregnant at the 1958 world championships; she returned to competition after giving birth. So it may well be a long time before anyone else accomplishes what Mustafina already has.
While most fans view as Mustafina’s return to elite gymnastics as a good thing—because Mustafina herself is great, and also since it helps change attitudes about the length of a gymnast’s career—not everyone is on board. Mustafina, who is part of Russia’s five-person squad at the world championships in Doha, has faced harsh criticism on Russian social media for continuing in the sport while she has a baby at home.
The other day, for instance, Mustafina did some question/answer stuff on her Instagram story. One asshole asked, “Why did you give birth to Alisa if you aren’t participating in her upbringing?”
Mustafina hit back with, “Oh, do you live with me? Is that how you know if I’m participating in her upbringing or not?”
Discussing the Russian worlds team on VK, Russia’s version of Facebook, one commenter said that Mustafina had to choose between her baby or the sport.
“I would write that taking Aliya [to Worlds] doesn’t make sense and she’s only [being] taken because of her status. But we should compete and not raise the status, in my opinion, she needs to choose, the baby or the sport, if you’re trying to chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either of them [a Russian idiom meaning that you can’t do two things at once]. She needs to look after herself, to get in shape, but when? The baby also needs her time. At her age, everyone already retires, she needs to give way to the young ones, but on our team, as usual, the hopes are placed on the old ones and the young ones don’t get chances, so that’s what happens and the young ones don’t like to wait long. And for how long should they wait? For years? They burn out and then we’re complaining: where are all the young gymnasts? But you didn’t let them [compete] and they retired or switched to compete for another country.”
We have a true masterwork of online buttheadedness, here: Some light shaming of Mustafina for not giving her child enough of her time, with some “step aside oldster and give the young ones a chance” thrown in.
And here’s another one on VK:
“Young moms think children are toys and that’s why toys end up with no dads.”
For those who are truly concerned, young Alisa has not been left alone in a house filled with only scissors and other sharp objects. Mustafina’s mother is apparently helping to care for the child when the gymnast is competing abroad.
Unsurprisingly, there have also been comments about Mustafina’s weight on social media. This comment also appeared on VK:
“Too bad Aliya didn’t lose the weight. The gymnast looks like a weightlifter.”
Valentina Rodionenko, head of the country’s women’s program, speculated to Russian media that the knee pain Mustafina had been experiencing was due to being overweight. “We invited a professor for a consultation, he looked at her,” Rodionenko said. “She has only one problem—extra weight ... It’s very hard for her to lose this weight right now, it’s the only problem. It’s all in her hands now.”
You will probably not be surprised to learn that 1) male gymnasts also have children and 2) they are never subject to anything like this kind of scrutiny. One of the favorites to win the high bar title in Doha, 2012 Olympic champion Epke Zonderland, arrived to train at the world championships just six days after his wife gave birth to their first child. “It was quite hard to go away and travel [here] to Doha,” he said after qualifications on the first day of competition. “But I think it’s worth it to be here and make the best of this competition.”
It’s a double standard, of course: the male gymnast who leaves his child is presented as sympathetic, almost heroic; the woman who does it is a bad mother. It’s not just a Russian thing, of course.
Translation credit: Luba Baladzhaeva and Marina Galperina.