Saturday, 25 February 2012

Sportsmanshipgate

Taken from "movieclips" on youtube

It is fast approaching 4 months since Tokyo. The athletes are long since home, medals are probably secured in cabinets and all the dust thrown into the air at the time has most definitely settled. It is now possible to look back with some real perspective at the big stories from Tokyo.

I am of course referring to the Viktoria Komova sportsmanship scandal that set the many gymnastics blogs and forums the world over alight with strong, conflicting opinions. Some time ago now I wrote an article called “Back to reality” in an attempt to shed some light on the validity of our perceptions of who gymnasts really are, which is inextricably linked with the opinions of commentators and the perceived opinions of entire federations. However, I feel it only scratched the surface in terms of sportsmanship issues, and, inspired by a recent comment and excellent examples from “Thisyearsgirl”, I thought I would attempt a more in depth look at reactions to disappointment from our much loved sport, past and present.

RECAP

For those that don’t know (although I highly doubt that anyone ending up at this page wouldn’t), this issue was sparked by events at the world 2011 All Around competition. This meet was the much anticipated showdown between American powerhouse Jordyn Wieber and Russian wonderchild Viktoria Komova. This was to be a classic USA vs Russia situation: a super powerful but perhaps grace lacking American up against a super delicate executionist with some great bars.

Who was going to take it was really anybody’s guess before the competition, but Komova had been the favourite for this title among many circles since videos of her beam and bars work at junior meets began surfacing several years ago. She stamped herself as the frontrunner most notably, however, when she took a truckload of gold medals at the 2010 Youth Olympic games (including one on the vault, where she was already rocking the holy grail of AA vaulting - the ever more essential Amanar).

But 2011 was not a good year for Komova. A series of ankle issues and a growth spurt meant less training for the Russian hopeful and caused her to downgrade some of her elements by the time Tokyo rolled around (including the Amanar and her Patterson beam dismount). Althought she qualified in first for the AA, a stronger vault and beam from Wieber and fewer floor mistakes edged her into first place to take the gold despite a disappointing bars outing.

The following are a few things I think it is helpful to remember when interpreting these situations. I want to make clear that this is NOT support or criticism of Komova’s behaviour, but an attempt at a reasoned approach towards its perception by us, the viewers.



WE HAVE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES OF SPORTSMANSHIP


This applied to those fans who are not gymnasts themselves - like me!

It is remarkably easy for us to label Komova (in indeed any gymnast in her position) for reacting in a way that we would consider “sore”, “bitchy” or “disrespectful”. BUT, what do we experience in our lives that is in any way comparable?

When I think of the times in my life that I have to gracefully accept a defeat it is usually something fairly inconsequential: an argument or discussion with a friend, a quiz or a game, not succeeding at a job interview, and other things of this nature. Of course my reaction would always be graceful (or nearly so).

But these girls have been training specifically for these championship titles for about the same amount of time I have been in education. Its a bloody long time. I can’t personally empathize with that kind of disappointment because nothing in my life experience is in any way comparable. Komova has been hoping for that world title for as long as she knew how to say it, probably. And further, she will have been TOLD by everyone around her that she could do it. The kind of self confidence and unadulterated BELIEF one must have to keep training at such a level would be immense, so it is understandable that an emotional meltdown follows the loss of something you have been told was in the bag for a decade (an obvious exaggeration).

OUR BEHAVIOUR IS GOVERNED BY OUR SOCIAL NORMS

Grace in defeat and not displaying overt emotion are classic British codes of conduct, and to a lesser extent American. It is strangely admirably in the eyes of a British audience to enter situations with self deprecation rather than with confidence and a desire to win.

These kind of norms get passed down through generations and become social staples: the British obsession with saying please constantly is a good example. Often when coming into contact with people with different social cultures, we can be unintentionally shocked by what first appear to be rude infringements of our social guidelines (continuing the prior analogy, Europeans when speaking English often don’t say “please” and “thankyou” as much because this convention is not followed in their mother tongue - this is not rudeness, just different social conventions).

But this is not a sociology blog. My basic point is that we interpret Komova’s reaction to silver as if it were our own, or we compare it to examples of defeat in people that we know whom are generally from the same cultural background as ourselves. Sure if some British girl did that at a British competition, people would probably think she was a spoilt brat who didn’t have any manners, and would much prefer her to appear pleasantly surprised and keep a stiff upper lip throughout the proceedings (again, I do like to exaggerate).

My basic, although convoluted, point is that I know nothing about Russian social conventions. It may be perfectly acceptable to honestly express feelings both in joy and defeat, in which case she would have had no idea she would end up offending anyone.

WAG GYMNASTS ARE LITTLE MORE THAN CHILDREN

When you watch something all the time you develop an immunity to what you are seeing. When I first started watching gymnastics I DID notice the age of the competitors, but now it rarely if ever crosses my mind. Similarly, because gymnasts in general tend to have certain physical features, they standardize each other on the screen and you can miss the reality of the features. What I mean by this is illustrated by when I met Beth Tweddle: although I should have anticipated it, I was taken aback by how petite and small she was, and it made me realise how tiny the others must be!

Basically I think we often forget than many gymnasts are in their mid teens. Handling such huge pressure at such a young age must be insanely difficult.

SHE WASN’T THE FIRST, AND SHE WON’T BE THE LAST

The most important thing to do is keep this issue a level playing field: we have to acknowledge that gymnasts have been doing the same thing (and worse) as Komova for decades and have got off lightly compared to Komova. Why? Because fewer or us had the internet and blogs were less of a big deal (at least for some of the examples). Daniela Silivas is one of the best loved WAG gymnasts of all time and yet her reaction to silver in 1988 is incredibly similar to that of Komova.

Some of the best examples (I thanks newyearsgirl for most of these):

Alicia blanks Shawn in 2007



...AND Shawn was her teammate! Alicia owed Shawn a lot more than Komova owed Wieber, after all they were going to have to coexist throughout an entire Olympic process. Obviously this wasn’t a big deal for either of them in the longrun, but Alicia’s reaction here is not a million miles away from Komova’s.

Carly enjoys Romania’s misfortune



This doesn’t need explaining. I appreciate that she was probably joking and people goof around saying things like that all the time, BUT she must have known that camera was in her face and how that other girl might have felt if she ever heard what she had said. The worst thing about this is the commentators reactions. They do sound shocked by what she had said, but in a funny way as if she is being really amusing and outspoken. This is a huge part of the sportsmanship issue: the imbalance of perception between American and European/Asian behaviour. Carly here is interpreted as being funny and sassy, but imagine the shoe on the other foot. Imagine if Cheng Fei had been filmed saying the same thing when Alicia bombed her front pike in 2008. If Oana Ban had said the same thing when Carly messed up bars in 2004. They would be mobilizing the troops, not giggling.

The same applies for the below....

Bross and Asac have a good eye roll



...when Porgras wins the 2010 beam title.

The Russians reject silver

Pretty much the same situation as Komova, but for the majority of a team! Yes this is a famous and well documented example of disappointment but it is portrayed mainly as a SELF disappointment rather than a protest of injustice. Could the same not be true for Komova?


CONCLUSIONS

I think when considering the Komova issue in future (and issues like it) we should consider the above points (age, upbringing, spectator experience, past events) and many more. It is important we remember the past, especially because there wasn't the facility for nearly as much discussion and response at the times of many controversial gymnastics moments. Imagine if there had been blogs and gym forums after the 1992 AA? If there had been more of them after the 2000 vault scandal? Our initial reaction is to not compare the actions of today's gymnasts with fairness to those of the past.

I think maybe Komova was just upset. Just a young girl upset at what had happened, and that might be all there is to it. 

12 comments:

  1. You make a very good point here and I basically agree with you completely. Especially your last point: "a young girl upset at what had happened." Her initial reaction was completely understandable; anyone would have been shocked and upset. However, she continued to carry on throughout the entire medal ceremony. It was almost like she wanted people to pity her, and then she proceeded to rip off her medal TWICE, in front of cameras from all over the world, and I think that's where all the outrage sparks from. She should have been calmed down by her coaches before she went out to get her medal. I do love her gymnastics, but I am an American, so therefore I do support Wieber. As I said, you do make a very good point about Komova and I think people should stop debating this. It is what it is. And yes, if only there had been internet like this after the 92 AA and the 2000 Olympics (vault scandal AND raducan).

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  2. Thanks for the comment :)
    I am glad you agree.

    I tried to just be level headed and reasoned as opposed to talking about my own thoughts on the matter. BUT my own inclination is to dislike some of Komova's behaviour that day. I also support Wieber, I think she was the much stronger gymnast during that competition.

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  3. People need to lay off on Komova. Jeez. People can ridicule all they want because next year when she is healthy, she is going to be ridiculously strong. Ridiculously. Wieber really is not going to compare...but that's another story.

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  4. Personally I thought it was a well-balanced article and postive about both gymnasts. I have no comparable experience because I've never felt that level of pressure but I can't imagine I would've held it together any better than Komova did when she discovered she was only second, her devestation was obvious. I think people forget though that in all her interviews afterwards she was very gracious about losing and it was just the initial shock that made her act the way she did. I hope Komova can come back strong and compete well at the Olympics. The only point about her behaviour that annoyed me was the removal of her medal twice. It seemed rude, Russian social conventions or not and one person did make a very apt point on a video: if the situation was reversed would we use social conventions to excuse Wieber's behaviour? However as you say she is only sixteen and the ability to accept defeat graciously is one that comes with time and experience. I doubt a gymnast of Komova's ability is used to losing important meets on a regular basis.

    On a slightly different note, there was a debate on Youtube about whether this is evidence for maintaining/raising the age limit. Do you think this has any bearing on the age limit issue?

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  5. Thanks for the comment - I am glad you thought so! :)
    I do understand what you mean about the medal removal....I think you make a great point that she probably isn't used to losing! But then again I suppose Shawn wasn't either and she did a good job in 2008, but I guess losing to your own federation is a bit different.

    I think age limits are very important issues, not just here but in many walks of life. In the end they all come down to whether or not an individual has enough life experience to be able to emotionally deal with any outcome, which in many cases of widely televised and commented-upon situations is very tricky to work out.

    I think the difference with gymnastics is that whatever the age limit, these girls will have been training for competitions their whole lives. In that sense a year doesn't make a great amount of difference. It isn't like, say, a national talent contest like the X factor or AGT/BGT where a child can enter on a whim and suddenly find themselves in a stressful spotlight. They will have known since their very early teens whether or not they will be in those situations. I guess it is really the responsibility of the coach and family to truly prepare them for thye kind of disappointment that can occur (I would venture a guess that this was part of the problem with Komova - she looked genuinely shocked that she hadn't won which leads me to believe she had been convinced the title was hers by others).

    Age will definitely play a factor here, as I said above, but I don't think it is enough of an issue to be used as an argument directed towards the age limit. I think it comes down far more to personality and the behaviour of your federation in general, and of course the kinds of competition values impressed upon them by their judges.

    Allen: not sure if that was directed at me or a general statement, but I certainly didn't mean to slam Komova, quiet the opposite actually. I don't fully condone her behaviour but I certainly understand it, based on the above points. I do agree with you though, that girl has intimidating upgrade potential over the next few months and I am expecting her to be fantastic come London. BUT I want Wieber to be fantastic too - I don't want to speak of Komova's great potential as if it is some kind of revenge against Wieber - I want everyone performing at their best. That's what makes for the best, most interesting competitions.

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  6. Oh no, I didn't see you as slamming Komova at all! I'm agreeing with you! Even though I love Spanny's blog, she was someone who made fun of Komova's attitude. I liked how you handled it.

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  7. I completely agree with the Carly Patterson example. The first time I saw this clip I was shocked not only by what she said, but the reaction from the commentators! I understand that she is young, but there is no excuse for that kind of statement. Keep it to yourself! Additionally, the commentators should have stated in what poor taste that comment is--so unsportsmanlike. And its not like the Americans had a mistake-free competition that day either. I think it is just another reminder of how young and immature gymnasts can be. We seem to forget that due to their talent, hard work and dedication.

    I think the thing that really bothered me was the comments made by Komova's coaches and mom, not necessarily the gymnast herself. They are adults and should know better. Even in the case of Khorkina though, she was in her twenties and still allowed her emotions to get the best of her (2004 Olympic Bars Final). As a Russian minor undergrad student, one of the things we talked about was the mindset of the Russian people. They are very proud especially for their country, so this may have something to do with both gymnast's reactions.

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  8. Allen: Thanks!

    ashlyn: It really is awful isn't it, and I agree that this is mainly due to the way the commentators react. They really should have made it clear that that kind of attitude is not the norm and certainly not what is expected of a world level elite athlete.

    Khorkina is a really good example. Is that when she left the building after she fell?

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  9. Love this article (and the title!), really balanced view. I don't particularly liked Komova's actions, but I found them completely understandable. And what is the maximum amount of time someone is allowed to be upset over something so big? The medal ceremony happened *right* after, seems quite reasonable to still be disappointed. We all want gymnasts who are not emotionless robots, but we also want them to display the perfect/right emotions every time. That's as manufactured as a blank face. That night, it seemed like she just wanted to get out, get away from everything fast - trying to avoid the photographers and the journalists. It is an important high-stakes competition, and everyone was really on edge that day, IMO the head coach and especially her mother behaved worse, they are adults, they've experienced this before - they should know better. I'm not trying to justify her actions as "right" on any count, but defend them against accusations like she's the worst sportswoman ever. As your list clearly shows, she's not.

    From an European perspective, Americans do say stuff more... directly and/or rudely, but they are usually regarded as good fun, being candid (the Carly example for instance). Rather, the Russians have more of a grouchy, aloof stereotype attached and when they do the same, its' perceived very differently. Just... different people, different society really, but most of gymnastics is covered by the Americans/British.

    I'm sure like any reasonable person, Komova understood that gymnastics is a fickle sport and so much depends on that day, that a silver AA medal after 3 months of training is an incredible feat. But that's logic, that's reason, those things will only come after the intensity and adrenaline of the night has passed.

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  10. Fantastic article with extremely relevant points and valid comparisons! Thank you so much for tackling such a controversial issue with diplomacy and finesse. Also, I really appreciated your point about how us “regular” folk deal with losing and disappointment making each reader reflect on their own sportsmanship; have we always handled ourselves with such grace? I am such a huge fan of your blog and can’t wait till competition season to read your reactions and coverage. Bravo!

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  11. I read those last two comments whilst miserably making my way to work this morning - cheered me up no end, thanks for the really kind feedback!

    Elanymire: I couldn't agree more and have literally nothing to add. "But that's logic, that's reason, those things will only come after the intensity and adrenaline of the night has passed" - so well put.

    thisyearsgirl: really glad you liked the outcome! And thanks again :) I can;t wait for competition season either!

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