Not so long ago, the parent of a high profile gymnast messaged me to say how grieved they were that I had linked to an article that said such awful things about their daughter. I had, thoughtlessly, linked to a gym blog post on Facebook without looking at the content of the post because this site was one of a few that causes issues with my work computer. Once I read what was said about this gymnast I quickly took down the link and apologised profusely.
One thing this gym mother said in her message was that her gymnast didn’t mind when people said certain things about her performances, or her style, but when it got personal, it upset her.
What I want to know is why do gym fans feel they have the right to say some of the things they say?
So, this weekend alongside many other disappointed gymnasts, Beijing champion Nastia Liukin did not make the Olympic team. On the big night where it counted most the bar routine that meant so much became too much. Despite Liukin’s fall that moment of failure incited as much respect in me for this gymnast as her stellar AA performance in Beijing did. With grace, grit and an admirable sense of responsibility to herself, her coaches and her fans, she got back up and finished the routine- even though her Olympic chances were all but gone. It was truly sad to see the Beijing all around champion run out of time and steam trying to prepare to vie for this team.
At least, that is how I felt.
And after her effort’s tonight and the storm of positive attention, some attitudes may change. But I started writing this piece before the final night of Trials and I think I will go on. Because this is not really about Nastia. It is about the ‘fans’.
In the last week I have been confounded by all the comments that Nastia Liukin is ‘washed up’ and ‘making a fool of herself’. She is what? Twenty? Are you people for real? ‘How dare she keep training?’ these snarky voices cry. How dare she try and train to make an Olympic team after a period of indecision about whether she wanted to be in the sport? What was she even thinking?
Actually, what I want to know is what are you people thinking? Whatever it is, it is the kind of wasted, negative energy that spoils the joy of being a fan of this sport.
During this comeback, Liukin has been accused of all kinds of ridiculousness. My personal favourite, the most laughable, is the one where she is coming back and ‘stealing’ other gymnast’s spots. Who owns an Olympic spot? If time and history have taught us anything, no one, no one owns an Olympic spot on Team USA, not even the current World Champion. So how can it be stolen? Then there is the one where Liukin has been accused of relying on Martha’s love to get her on that team. Are you for real? You’ve got to be pretty dang crazy to believe that Martha’s love will get you on a team. Martha’s love didn’t get Chellsie Memmel on the National team and it sure as heck didn’t get a lot of talented girls on US Olympic teams over the years. Then there are the ‘Nastia is lazy’ accusations because she came to the party late. No, wrong. It isn’t laziness that whips you into competition-ready shape in the shortest time possible to compete for the Olympic team. Sure, I agree Nastia left going back into training too late, but Martha knows that, Valeri knows that, Nastia knows that too. Why keep harping on about it? The more you keep bleating the fact in accusatory tones won’t change the outcome.
I am starting to think this is the problem. Is all this really just about feeling let down? Did you see that beam set at Classics, witness the return of that floaty flic and gorgeous Onodi and think ‘just maybe….’. Did people get all twisted and bitter when they realised that Nastia wasn’t as close as she first looked? Is the recent outcry really just cries of disappointment-turned-to-bitterness?
For many, this sense of bitterness has more of a history than that. One thing that I think really altered public attitudes toward Liukin in recent years is the fact she announced her return to gymnastics at the Tokyo Worlds. The common criticism was that she was stealing all the limelight, hogging the attention away from the other US gymnasts. Oh, wow, get a grip, people. This is how sports publicity works. Who is even to say this was her decision? And you know what? It is more in gymnastics’ (as a sport in dire need of publicity outside of Olympic years) best interest to make this announcement at a major event than it probably was in Nastia’s. Yet people are so quick to believe Liukin is this crazed media martinet, plotting out her publicity path to the Olympics.
Actually, Nastia does this sport great favours by being highly visible. You want NBC to show Nationals, right? You want gymnastics stories to appear in the mainstream media, don’t you? You want gymnastics to become popular enough to attract the coverage and media attention it deserves every year- not just the Olympic year, yes? Well it is public figures with personality like Nastia that make this happen to a sport. You should be grateful for the attention she attracts.
Why is it that while people seem to decry the boring uniformity in gymnastics; to deplore the stock standard media-trained personalities, they then seem to turn around and castigate any gymnast the minute they try to break from the mold (except in very set, circumscribed ways)? And I am not just talking about one gymnast here, but all victims who have had enough success and enough personality to fall prey to tall poppy syndrome. All of a sudden confidence is read as arrogance. Silence is called snobbery. Game face is #$%^& face. Words are put in mouths. Disappointment on the sidelines is ascribed to bad attitude. People are accused of thoughts never once voiced.
And yes, I can still hear the more miserly and bitter among you mutter under your breath, ‘if only she was more humble…’
In her presser after the first day of trials Liukin admitted that she had run out of gas, that she made mistakes, that this wasn’t her best performance. She was classy and honest and dignified. If that ain’t humble, I don’t know what is. She did not say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter, Martha loves me and I am Olympic Champion, so I’ll make it.’ Yet that is what some people seemed to hear. Sometimes I think the high-pitched whine of negativity in some fans’ heads is so loud, they don’t actually hear what is said and just make it up.
I also tend to think people have a really screwed take on what humble means in the gymnastics world. When they say it, they don’t mean they want you to be humble in the human sense of simply being modest. What they really want is some sort nun-ish behaviour. All they want for you is to put your head down, work, say nothing, win meets and smile and reel off your standard post-meet quotes about doing it for the team.
And then they will complain you are boring.
Gymnasts. Have you learned yet that you can’t win in the great game of pleasing people’s irrational demands on your personality?
Don’t you dare to take advantage of the opportunity the sport has given you. Don’t even think of taking up some of the fun offers you have had after working your guts off for the better part of your youth and don’t even think for a second of branching out into other areas of your life. Okay, maybe you can get away with those few things as long as you don’t commit the cardinal sin of being indecisive about what you want in life at age eighteen…nineteen…twenty.
No, you cannot be a teenager. You cannot be on the threshold of so many new experiences and eye them hungrily like every other teenager around you. You must know exactly who you are and what you want, including the most important question- are you a gymnast or are you a former gymnast? And never forget you are public property- and sadly, you are the property of the audience of a sport that has an unnecessary share of obsessive, hyper-critical types watching your every move.
How about we drop the snark and move on already? Nastia probably will before some of you do. In my mind Liukin did a great thing in the last couple of months. She showed up. She worked hard. She proved she was still among the US’s top gymnasts. Sure, she was too late to the party, but she knows it. And when she didn’t make it, she dealt with it with grace because she has maturity and modesty on her side. She responded with emotion because she is human. Some of you seem to forget that.
Get hold of some perspective, people. If you can’t let a born athlete try and be an athlete for as long as they would like to without insulting their efforts at every turn, if you can’t let someone be celebrated for their past achievements, then what are you doing following sport? For people who say Liukin has refused to retire gracefully, with her dignity intact, you are wrong. She did more than that tonight.
And it is not Nastia being ungraceful.
Article: Brigid McCarthy
Thanks: Hannah F.