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.
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?
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.