I cried a lot during the Youth Olympic Games this summer. Not because I was inspired by the dozens of 14- and 15-year-old junior gymnasts sobbing after missing skills or getting low scores, but because despite the falls and mistakes, the young gymnasts in Nanjing, China showed a level of camaraderie I’ve never before witnessed at a high level of competition.
Most adorable was the friendship that bloomed between the competition’s two littlest stars – Seda Tutkhalyan of Russia and Flavia Saraiva of Brazil. Perhaps Alexander Alexandrov, the former Russian coach now training the Brazilian team, was the link there; it could be that they bonded over being the best of the best; or maybe the two simply discovered they both really love One Direction and nail art.
Whatever the case may be, some of the best moments from the YOGs happened when Seda and Flavia were together. In one moment, Seda re-pinned Flavia’s number to her leotard after it went askew during beam, after floor finals Flavia was welcomed into a group hug with Seda and a Russian coach, and they seemed inseparable both in and out of the competition hall.
Despite language barriers, fighting for the same medals, and the drama some gym press tried to stir up between them because of the Alexandrov situation, these top two medal threats became the best of friends and I cried tears of joy whenever I saw them offering encouragement to one another, wishing things could be the same at the senior elite level. You see it with the guys – always a high five, a hug, and respect for good gymnastics – but the girls have a reputation for being chilly to their international counterparts, keeping game faces on and their eyes on the prize.
Not true at this year’s World Championships, where my heart was warmed over and over again at the international displays of affection. Yao Jinnan, called “big sister” by her Chinese teammates, gave Larisa Iordache advice before the beam final because she thought the Romanian had so much potential but tended to fall apart when it counted, and she wanted to see her succeed. Simone Biles and Kyla Ross adopted Iordache into their #HotPinkNation during the all-around finals, cheering her on the way they support each other. Iordache comforted Roxana Popa of Spain during a rough week for Popa.
Is that not enough for you? Mykayla Skinner cried upon realizing she wouldn’t win a floor medal by just 0.033, but tried hard to control the tears, saying “it’s okay,” and congratulated all of the medalists. The U.S., Romanian, and Japanese girls sat on each others’ laps on a crowded bus ride from the arena to the hotel one afternoon. There were even smiles and hugs between the Americans and North Koreans after Hong Un Jong won the gold on vault.
I understand why the atmosphere isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. Medals matter, and part of any medal strategy is focusing on yourself and your team. But does that mean you have to completely ignore your competition?
After event finals, Biles told the press in Nanning that she’s “not allowed” to watch other routines (likely meaning the routines that come before her own), while Ross said she preferred to warm up in the back gym to keep distractions at bay. I get it. You don’t want to see someone really hit the crap out of a 7.0 difficulty routine and get psyched out. You also don’t want to see someone fall and think, “YES! IT’S MINE!” and come in over-confident. Very valid, especially in a high-pressure individual final.
Most gymnasts at this level need to be “in the zone” during a competition. For some, that means eyes closed, mentally going over every skill until it’s your turn, and then when it’s over, you can finally relax. For others, it means pacing wildly with your iPod pumping 80s rock into your ears. Some sit still in the chairs against the wall, others nervously do back handsprings along the edge of the podium. At this stage of the game you need to be as mentally prepared as possible, so watching routines or chatting with friends – including your own teammates – can totally destroy your focus.
But in the past, often gymnasts would be just as stoic or isolated after a routine as they were before. They’d say “good job” to the champions or give them a stiff, rehearsed hug and a smile, but beyond that there never seemed to be much interaction.
In fact, the rivalries could even bring out the worst in some. Remember when the Chinese ladies won gold amid the age controversy drama in 2008? A few in the American camp, bitter about their silver, took to Facebook to make mean girl jokes about the situation. During the Pacific Rim Championships in 2012, a team of young Russians – most of whom were “B team” and would never see international competition again – watched in awe while the Americans trained Amanars, prompting one U.S. coach to call them “spies.”
Yes, you do have to protect your interests as a medal-winning team so obviously you don’t want other nations learning your athlete development methods or training secrets, but gymnastics isn’t a sport with protagonists and antagonists. Though teams are ranked and rankings determine medals, it’s not one team against another in the way it is with baseball or football. Your team will get a medal if your team hits routines of greater difficulty and execution than the other teams there. And guess what? The other teams are more concerned about hitting their own routines than they are about playing mind games with your team. Unless you’re on “Make It or Break It” and the other athletes are changing the settings on vault to make you fall and break your neck, they have very little to do with how well you perform.
Again, that focus before and during your performance is obviously necessary, because how well you compete determines your medal outcome. Yet the attitude from the top coaches and athletes in the past was to keep everyone else at a distance even after you were through. Be polite sometimes, but don’t bother going any further – they’re your competition and you need to keep them there.
The guys always seemed to recognize one another’s talent. They wanted the best athletes to win, even if the best athletes weren’t on their team. A missed high bar routine from someone like Epke Zonderland would result in disappointment not just from the Dutch, but from the Americans, the Japanese, the Germans – anyone who respected and understood just how much talent he has and how difficult his routine is would feel gutted for him, no matter their national loyalties.
Compare this to the American Carly Patterson in 2003. When the brilliant young floor worker Andreea Munteanu fell during team finals, it helped push the U.S. team ahead of Romania, the team champions eight years running. Naturally, the Americans were excited to come out ahead, winning their first team gold since 1996, but there’s a fine line between excited for your own team to do well and rooting for the other team to fail.
Patterson sarcastically uttering her now infamous “that’s too bad” with a smile on her face is the latter. Instead of recognizing that yes, it is in fact “too bad” that this very talented gymnast fell, the American girls went right to bratty. They’re teenagers, that’s what teenagers do, I had literally the same reaction as Carly and I wasn’t even on the team. I get it. But it perfectly reflects the sentiment of women’s gymnastics, where it doesn’t matter how talented the other team is – you want them to fail so you can win. And when you don’t win, you get catty and make accusations against the team that did.
This year, I didn’t see catty. I saw respect. I saw friendship. I saw modesty. I saw smiles and “congratulations” pushing through tears and disappointment. I saw encouragement and support, hugs and high fives. Not from everyone, of course – there will always be the drama queens calling things unfair – but overall, the attitudes were in check and the women were positive, happy, and supportive.
Gymnasts celebrated their own successes – i.e. Hong bursting into applause when she saw that Biles’ lower score meant she was the gold medalist on vault – but more importantly, were respectful if they saw that others looked upset. And those that were upset cried, but didn’t sulk in a corner or blow off the winners.
It’s almost as if gymnasts have realized that just to make it to international elite competition at this level requires a level of talent, guts, determination, and sacrifice that sets them apart from the rest of the human population. It’s like they understand that they’re all on the same journey, that they all work super hard, and that they all want to succeed. It’s like they get that a top routine one day might only be second place the next, and no matter how upsetting it is, that’s life.
Medals matter to gymnasts and their nations. Of course they do. In an episode of 30 Rock, what did Liz Lemon yell? “I DIDN’T COME HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS; I CAME HERE TO BE NUMBER ONE.” But as the young gymnasts who competed in Nanning are teaching us, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The spirit of Olympic competition is “to build a peaceful and better world” through “mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” The spirit of women’s elite gymnastics competition over the past several decades has been one of prideful winners, sore losers, bitter rivalries, Cold War tension, excuses and blame, dramatic accusations, and being catty or downright rude to fellow athletes.
But now something is changing. The Olympic spirit is so alive, it’s making my cold black heart melt into puddles and tears leak out of my eye holes. As a gym fan said on Tumblr:
Never would I have imagined living in a world where Romanian and American gymnasts are BFFs. Can you imagine Gogean and Miller being like CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU AGAIN XOXO *10 iPhone emojis*
As two of the biggest medal threats at this year’s World Championships, the fact that gold and silver all-around medalists Biles and Iordache acknowledge each other’s talent, respect each other in the media, and – most shockingly – are FRIENDS? It’s mind-blowing. And it’s how things should be forever and always in this sport.
Thank you to Biles, Iordache, and every other gymnast who displayed not only world class talent over the past two weeks in Nanning, but also world class hearts, attitudes, and awesomeness. Thank you for giving me goosebumps when you were thrilled to hit the routine of a lifetime, and thank you for giving me goosebumps when you were equally thrilled for people who aren’t you. Thank you for making me cry with happiness a million times while watching you, and thank you for making me cry with happiness a million more times while writing this.
Too often we focus on the negative, but thank you to the gymnasts at the 2014 World Championships who made us see the good.
Article by Lauren Hopkins