Saturday, 10 December 2011

Back to reality?

Two years ago, most gymnastics fans were already aware of Viktoria Komova. Her beautiful presentation alongside super hard skills set her apart from the crowd: she was a trickster, but she carried it off like a soviet. She was, and is, beautiful to watch.

But what would the same fans say about her now? I am willing to bet that a significant proportion of the dedicated gymnastics audience has gone off the boil with regards to Komova.

Why do I think this? The reason has absolutely nothing to do with her skills. Nothing to do with her presentation. Nothing to do with, in fact, anything at all about her gymnastics. I am referring to the fact that at the Tokyo World Championships All Around competition, Viktoria Komova allowed her personal emotion to be broadcast to the world, which many will see as a window into the young girl’s personality.

We live in a culture that has become obsessed with celebrity, and it didn’t happen overnight. There was a time when the fame of the famous could be attributed to a vocation: a talent for acting, a powerful singing voice. Of course people still find fame based on these reasons, but more and more common is the obsession with what goes on behind closed doors. The last decade has ushered in a new age of journalism, celebrity and media obsession where the failings and mistakes of those in the spotlight command more attention and accolade than any of their more significant achievements.

The arrival of TV series Big Brother at the turn of the millennium could be easily argued to be the touch paper that started this reality blaze. On the wake of this new brand of entertainment came a whole host of repackaged broadcasts, and almost before we knew what happened we were spending our evenings watching Tyra Banks go through a mid life crisis via a host of vulnerable teenagers followed by hours of Heidi Montag bitching about Lauren Conrad. It is times like this when you stop and think “if I died right now, I would forever have passed away watching Whitney Port deciding whether or not to quit fashion school”. And it ain’t a good feeling.

Whitney Port and Lauren Conrad discussing the Eurozone crisis.

But that is another story. My basic point is that the world became obsessed with the failings of the individual leaving talent to languish in its shadow. Not to put too much of a Carrie Bradshaw spin on it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: has the same happened with gymnasts?

I was sent down this thought path by a thread on intlgymnast. So it turns out that some people make fake facebook profiles for their favourite gymnasts and sort of live vicariously through these fake personas. This gave me two instant thoughts: how someone can manage to live vicariously when the REAL version of their persona has to train dawn till dusk and eat like 1 leaf a day is beyond me. But secondly, a simple question: why do they care?

Personally, I don’t care if a gymnast gave a million dollars to charity nor embezzled 2 million from one. I don’t care how nice, how mean, how bitchy, how boring, as long as they are good at what they do. Yet despite this I cannot pretend that I too, at times, find myself slightly jaded by the caricatures that are painted for some top athletes.

It seems to me that most are Russian, and most are painted by the American commentary team. Aliya Mustafina is the most recent recipient of a bitch branding. “She said, don’t worry dad, I can’t lose” - how about you stop feeding me mistranslations and start talking a little about the sport? It gets so exaggerated and ridiculous at times (with Mustafina, and others, notably Khorkina) that the picture painted resembles some kind of James Bond villain. You can imagine Elfi saying “in her spare time Aliya likes to ominously stroke a large white fluffy cat and kill henchmen for fun”.

The real Aliya Mustafina

Elfi's version

The overall point is, whether the caricatures are true or false, they have no real place in our minds as spectators. A personality does not make or break an athletic performance, and the bias that can result from the peddling of these stereotypes can be damaging. 

When it comes to the reality of the situation, I’d rather not have it. 

  1. What Elena Produnova wants to achieve with her eyebrow plucking
  2. What Aliya Mustafina said to her dad on skype, or indeed if she skypes with her dad at all
  3. If Svetlana Khorkina is mean to her coach or not


  1. This has the potential to be a good article, but I'm not sure what your point is here, and you get WAY off-topic talking about celebrities. And the American commentary isn't just making this stuff up. It's what ALEXANDROV TOLD THEM. They're just quoting him, stop twisting NBC's words.
    Also, I'm not sure if you're talking about Komova's bad sportsmanship after the AA, or what, but you might want to rewrite this and make the article more clear.

  2. I didn't twist anything, I quote NBC once and it is accurate. I appreciate it might be a little untidy but the basic point I am making is very clear: that people often get too hung up on what gymnasts are like in "real" life when it bears no significance to their athletic performance. Whether or not these portrayals are true, voicing them on the commentary can bias the audience AND it fills time that could be used to speak about the routine itself, especially some explanation about the skills which I feel is incredibly lacking in many commentaries especially NBC.

    I began by talking about Komova's "bad sportsmanship" because it is recent and relevant and aimed to spark speculation about what this will do to her press portrayal in the future.

    I hope this makes what I meant more clear.

  3. Enjoyed this post. The whole Komova "bad sportsmanship" thing was so frustrating to me.

    You are correct that American commentators don't spend much, if any, time explaining the skills. I watched a couple of routines from the grand prix in Italy and I could hear the announcers list of skills. I'd rather get information like that from the commentators instead of manufactured drama.

  4. Thanks Amy, that was exactly my point: that putting any validity of these stories aside they take up time that could be used for more relevant, sport related commentary. I for one know that if commentary was more like this it would have taken me a lot less time to understand the code and the skills performed.

    I too was annoyed by the bad sportsmanship claims. I didn't in any way advocate her behaviour and I thought it was quite inappropriate, but I am quite worried that she will become tarred by this in terms of public opinion, which would be a great shame because she has enormous potential.

  5. I think sometimes a reputation can help a gymnast. As in Svetlana Khorkina or Shawn Johnson, who may have received the benefit of the doubt because of their name in gymnastics.

    Love the article :)

  6. Thanks! And yes I totally agree with you. I was watching the 2000 team final yesterday and it never fails to amaze me that Khorkina outscored Lobaznyuk on floor. I love Khorkina but that is insanity

  7. Oh wow yes! She def got the benefit of the doubt on floor, and I think a little on beam too (in 2004 moreso than 2000).

    How was Produnova and Lobaznyuk not in floor finals?? Damn two per country rule!

  8. Can I just say I loved Produnova's eyebrow? I thought it brought some much-needed "badass-bitch" contrast to a competition with lots of tiny cute gals (read: Andreea Raducan)!

    Eyebrows aside, I actually like gymnastics all the more because personalities in and out of the gym, for me, go hand-in-hand with their performance. Since gymnastics is an expressive sport, particularly on floor, I think it's fun to know details about the girls lives and personalities, and if they've chosen a routine that fits who they are, it's all the more exciting to watch--especially if they can tell a good story with their movements. I actually don't dislike Komova's routines due to her "bad attitude." If anything, it makes me anticipate her performance more, because I hope it has a little bit of diva flair (though I don't think it will ever live up to Mustafina's or Khorkina's!). In my mind, if you don't want to know anything about the players, gymnastics is the wrong game for you ;-)

  9. All fair points, and it is undeniable that personalities increase excitement and anticipation. I do think that they can get taken too far though and overshadow more important things.

    I liked the eyebrow itself too!

  10. Yes! Too true, NBC cares more about manufacturing drama than commenting on actual gymnastics. Well a bit of gossip can be fun, too much, and when taken too seriously, is damaging.

    I think the Russian-American cultural difference plays a part. When Marta Karolyi says Aly should have won floor, she was being candid. When Alexandrov does the same, he is a sore loser. When ASac (or any American gymnast) gives a "bitch-face", they are intense and competitive. When Mustafina or the Russians do the same, they are divas.

    I don't exactly approve of the way Komova acted after AA, but given the circumstances its completely understandable. From the forums you'd have thought she was the most despicable gymnast ever.

    But sigh, I wish the focus was more on the gymnastics. It is interesting enough on its own.

  11. "it is interesting enough on its own" - exactly. And you are so right about the American/ Russian distinctions that are drawn. Perhaps its some weird hangover from the cold war (or perhaps that is overly political) but whatever the reason, it is too overblown

  12. I like this post and I think you make interesting points. I don't think it's appropriate for commentators to vilify anyone, but I do enjoy seeing the gymnast's personality whether they are commented upon or not. For example, after the 2008 Olympics AA final, when Shawn Johnson tapped Nastia Luikin on the shoulder to give her a congrats hug, I became an instant fan of Shawn. Those glimpses into someone's character really do make me a fan of one gymnast over another!