Olympic Fever-Induced Camping Trip

Bethlehem Shoals: USA MEN'S GYMNASTICS RULES. I stayed up late watching that shit on Monday.

Carter Blanchard
: Ya, that was sweet, although the scoring makes absolutely no sense to me. How the fuck is it out of 18?

BS: The 18 thing makes perfect sense to me. Degree of difficulty is no longer an undefined variable.

CB: Fuck that, this is America, and in America we can rank our movies, dunks, and women all on the same convenient scale. Gymnastics shouldn't be any different.

Also, not that it would have mattered really, but I feel like we were robbed on the high bar. The scrawny blond dude killed it but ended up with practically the same score as the Chinese dudes who were on cruise control at the end.

BS: The Chinese have a funny way of looking like they're on cruise control, then they do the replay and I'm like !!!!!! The Americans are more conventionally "sick." They make it look hard when they do something hard, the Chinese make it look easy.

CB: Unless you pump your fists triumphantly after sticking the landing perfectly, I have no reasonable way of telling if you did well or not. Kind of like judging dives exclusively on the size of the splash.

Ty Keenan: Gymnastics freaks me out.

CB: It is a little terrifying, but the combination of purely aesthetic displays, freak athleticism, and complete absence of reasonable goals or purpose has to tug at the FD heart strings just a little, doesn't it?

BS: You know how in a dunk contest, the actions are meaningless except for the fact that they COULD be used to score a basket in a game? I feel that way about gymnastics and street fighting, which makes about as much sense as breaking out THE BIRTHDAY CAKE in a game. There really is nothing more FD than that weird Indian kid from Houston who failed a lot despite being expected to succeed, then took time off to read philosophy and learn yoga (you're Indian, isn't it laying around the kitchen or something?), and then from that inner searching decided to become more competitive than ever. Also he is a total nerd but his upper body is like all of Dwight Howard squeezed into two limbs.

TK: We're perilously close to someone making a Simmons Gymkata joke.

The difference for me is that gymnastics requires such specialized training that the indirectness of usefulness that you talk about here confuses the hell out of me. The idea that someone would train to do leg spins (for the love of Strugg, I hope there's a technical term for these) around a block with hand-holds for a good minute or so, and then pin the outcome of all that training on arbitrary judging that's accepted as corrupt makes no sense to me.

The obvious response to this is that the NBA has arbitrary rules and some corruption in its ranks (donaghy lolz!), so maybe we just accept that ridiculousness because the athletes get paid a lot and enough people watch the games to make it less of an outsider activity. But, really, I think the particulars of a sport like basketball (or baseball, or most of all football) are so ridiculously defined (seriously, I had to explain an onside kick to British people at a Niners game last year and they just laughed at me) that they actually seem more acceptable to us as viewers. So many arbitrary things happen in a basketball play with regards to players respecting and disrespecting rules, aiming for the goals defined by the rules, etc that we can only make sense of it by submitting fully to its skewed logic.

There's a huge difference in something like gymnastics -- at least for a relatively ignorant fan like me -- in that the movements seem more like bizarre revelations of ability rather than a submission to another plane of logic. Like, when I watch the best basketball players, I think "they're good at basketball" -- when I watch the best gymnasts, I think "these dudes are rocks -- why are they jumping on mats and not working as freelance ninjas?" Basically, I think gymnastics rests in this uncanny valley on the graph of sports ridiculousness right between "so basic that it works" (e.g. track and field) and "so complicated that it works."

That and the concept of talking boulders scares me.

BS: I think the new scoring makes it more arbitrary in the sports-y way you describe. It's not just a mysterious number that somehow encompasses everything and nothing, but two things measured: Difficulty and execution. To score well, you have to conceive of something difficult and then pull it off. Exactly how hard, or how well it's done, are subjective judgments more in line with "was he fouled" than "assign a score to this." Case in point: I don't know how you complain about a score before this, because it's hard to tell exactly what's going on and why. This, on the other hand, is probably at about the same place as a technical called, but coming from the opposite direction, where one's tightening up interpretation inside of negotiating guidelines that can't be literal.

You would feel better about all this if you watched gymnastics as if it had some point of reference. Like, I don't care if someone gets robbed in the dunk contest because it would still be sick in a game. So I imagine how impressed I'd be if one of these kids were fighting the Predator or something.

TK: I'll admit that I don't know much about the scoring, and I think what you say on that makes sense. I think my point is more interesting in the context of what constitutes an action in each sport. For instance, a dribble is obviously a physical act, but it's defined so strictly by the rules as the only way to move with the ball on the basketball court that I think it's different than whatever way gymnasts are supposed to run towards the vault. Then again, you can push off the vault in different ways just like you can shoot in different ways, and you're reaching the same goal either way, so you're probably right that they're more structurally similar than I'm making them out to be.

Also, the issue of compartmentalized physical action ties into the weirdness of the difference between floor exercises for the men and women. It would be really cool to hear from a gymnast about the thinking behind the routines, because my novice eyes see a routine as a series of difficult moves rather than a theoretically and thematically grounded piece of shockingly athletic dance. The female floor exercise really bugs me because they almost always set it to classical music -- it would make much more sense to me if they used something more avant-garde, or maybe the kind of math rock that's more interesting to read about than to listen to.

BS: Would all of you feel better if they did gymnastics against each other? Like a battle or something? I mean, dunk contests aren't like that, but again, there's an implied point of reference. If they did the flips facing each other, it would introduce that.

TK: It would be like a breakdancing battle that's always on the brink of turning into a fight. I see no downside.

: Am I a rank sexist for thinking none of this applies to women's gymnastics? I still find myself thinking "this is some of the most ridiculously athletic activity possible, and it only matters to most people a few weeks, every four years." But—and maybe this is just because I've seen more of it, or it doesn't have that bizarre combination of masculinity, aggression, and utter frivolity going for it—you really see it as an irrational exercise that grows out of an entire little world of irrationality. That's why men's gymnastics is so confusing. It almost feels like a real sport, not a subcultural spectacle. Except for the fact that it makes no sense.

I guess there's this very fundamental "you guys rock! Why aren't you doing something else in the Olympics?"

Brown Recluse, Esq
: I don't think it means you're a rank sexist, but that sexism has shaped the evolution of the sport. Women's gymnastics has these forced elements of dance that highlight the gracefulness of some performers (like Nastia, who looked like a ballerina) and seem like a ridiculous burden for others (like Sacramone, who looked like she was engaged in some sort of intricate flailing). By contrast, the men are all about flexing their power and control.

: The random dance gestures are completely bizarre. Their half-hearted attempts at musicality make zero sense. I could have sworn one of the 12-year-old Chinese girls was attempting a booty shake.

: The question is: Does men's gymnastics lack the dance/music component because it's so overwhelmingly physical, or do the ladies get it because they're lacking something? I also think it's worth noting that I'm capable of compartmentalizing women's gymnastics as this weird kind of aesthetic exercise that, almost smugly, includes all sorts of physical exertion. But there's very little pretense in men's gymnastics, which is why it both seems to lack meaning and seems like it's always on the verge of expressing something other than itself (i.e. a dunk contest).

: I think it has something to do with the age and gender assumptions of it. Male gymnasts are short, but they still operate within the ideal of men in their physical primes with incredible strength. Female gymnasts are still in sexual development if we go by their ages, but that process has been retarded by the fact that they're made to become these tiny, powerful, flexible people who are still presented as developing women with bows in their hair, shiny outfits, and awkward dance moves. And in America, the most prominent figure looking over these people for twenty years has been an Eastern European dude who still looks like 1976, so there's also a touch of Humbert to it all, which somehow makes us fear for the girls' safety even though any one of them could kick his ass with no problem. The weirdest thing about this situation is that the female gymnasts usually revert to standard physical development for their age once they stop competing (i.e. they look 22 at 22), as if their entire athletic careers took place in a Judith Butler fantasy world.

: Can we pause and acknowledge how brilliant it was when they superimposed Bela watching the gymnastics over the footage that was happening? WOW.

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At 8/14/2008 3:04 PM, Blogger Loren said...

The difficulty score isn't exactly arbitrary. Each skill has a point value attached to it and then the difficulty score is just the sum of all of those point values.

I think anyone who has ever attempted some of the moves would agree that watching the Chinese guys on rings is simply ridiculous.

And if Artemev doesn't medal on pommel, something is wrong with the world.

At 8/14/2008 3:28 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

sacramone did seemed pissed about having to do the little arm dancing, or whatever its called. I went to highschool with a kid who was all awesome at gymnastics and I used to make fun of him to my friends, they'd say but he's awesome at it and its really difficult/takes alot of sttrength. To which i'd respond, but its still gymnastics...
One of the best chats ever posted on here.

At 8/14/2008 3:34 PM, Blogger Loren said...

Great observation about the gymnasts catching up to their age. I was completely blown away by the Shannon Miller ad for Claritin that keeps showing considering that she looks like this 12 years ago:


At 8/14/2008 3:55 PM, Blogger RHYbread said...

Better watch out with the Indian thing. Some of the bloggers at Sepia Mutiny will get butt hurt and come after you.

At 8/14/2008 4:02 PM, Blogger Browny said...

This a little gay.

At 8/14/2008 4:07 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Oh yeah, well at one point in this chat I said "I don't know if male gymnasts are the gayest straight men in the world or the straightest gay men."

-rb, several of us have Indian significant others. So there.

-Day to Day just aired this piece on bodies and gymnastics.

At 8/14/2008 6:55 PM, Blogger Folkhero said...

I think of gymnastics as being less of a sport that is about the event, and more about the individual athletes. With most sports its about training to do well in a game, match, race or whatever; in gymnastics it's more like 'get as physically fit and functionally strong as possible and then do these events to show off how awesome you your body is.' It's like bodybuilding but instead of the silly judgment of strength based on how big and ripply the muscles look, the judgment is based on the completion of incredible tasks.

At 8/14/2008 7:33 PM, Blogger Seth said...

in response to folkhero, i'm pretty sure gymnastics training is the same concept as other sports training-- you train for the event. it's not like bodybuilding because then the gymnasts would be way too bulky and have no flexibility or endurance, etc.

the thing about gymnastics/streetfighting parallel: i don't think that gymnastics is meant to have a use in the real world. i think it is just meant to be a display in itself. for a competition that would matter in real life, you would go to judo probably. maybe wrestling, but in a fight, someone can punch you if you try to wrestle them. duh..

finally, artemev: the most simply and obviously FD competitor i've seen. just because so much of what is written here confuses me, i know that a guy with huge potential, who is forced to wait the whole day and then be the very last competitor, and then comes through in a huge way, is FD. that is freeing darko right there. FreeArtemev!

At 8/14/2008 9:26 PM, Blogger Tree Frog said...

There are talking rocks in Glen Cook's Black Company books. They first appear in The White Rose as the servants of a Tree God. They are usually found sneaking up on people and uttering cryptic phrases that don't mean anything until after something bad happens.

The rocks find that funny.

At 8/14/2008 11:07 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Chinese DJs are so hot: Billy Squier during beach volleyball was a "stroke" of genius.

At 8/15/2008 2:09 AM, Blogger moonsover said...

Great discussion.

I'm pretty sure this is some kind of Cold War hangover, but for me - more than in any other Olympic event - gymnastics teams inevitably have their countries' greater geopolitical identities superimposed upon them. With all the teams under one roof at the same time, it's like the arena becomes a life-size Risk board, each apparatus a continent, and gymnasts forced to rotate around each other with appropriate international tension.

I find it both baffling and riveting every time.

At 8/15/2008 3:41 AM, Blogger Walton's Wisdom said...

Moonsover - I like the analogy.

At 8/15/2008 4:45 AM, Blogger Folkhero said...

Re: Seth
I wasn't referring to the way the gymnasts train, but the experience that I have watching them. When I watch basketball for example, I think to myself "wow, what a phenomenal athlete," about twice a game (a few more if LeBron or Amare is playing). When I watch gymnastics, especially men's and especially the rings, I don't think anything else.

Perhaps tri-,pent- and decathlons are a better analogy than body building. They are all basically displays of pure athleticism as opposed to more specialized sports like tennis, baseball, or whatever the first thing thing you think of when someone says 'sports;' those are essentially games in which being athletic can be a huge advantage, but it's not the only factor.

The reason I brought up body building mainly because I think that gymnastics are basically what body building should be like. Instead of building up huge muscles for the sake of having huge muscles, gymnasts build big muscles, while training to be flexible and coordinated so that they can put the muscles to use. I'm not sure where weight-lifting fits in. It's clearing more functional than body-building, but I don't think that a man picking up a heavy looking object that has a number attached to it is much fun to watch.

At 4/13/2009 2:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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