Why the American gymnastics team didn't deserve gold.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 18 2004 6:47 PM

The 2004 Olympics

Why the American gymnastics team didn't deserve gold.

Kupets: high-flying, but not graceful
Kupets: high-flying, but not graceful

There is a moment in certain gymnasts' lives when they are very small, very strong, and bounce as if made of vulcanized rubber. For the Romanian gymnast Oana Ban, this moment has been an extended one: At 18, she resembles a hybrid of a D-cell battery and a Slinky, bounding from tumbling pass to tumbling pass with alienating ease. Dance elements, she seems to think, are for suckers.

As soon as Ban sprang onto the floor, the evening's second-to-last competitor, it was apparent that the Americans were going to lose the gold medal. Then, when Catalina Ponor—whose graceful, earthbound style is more typical of the Romanian team's appeal—followed Ban with a routine that combined old-school elegance with unerring athleticism, it was clear what the American gymnasts had been lacking all along. Although the team won the silver, their performances—with the delightful exception of Mohini Bhardwaj's and Terin Humphrey's—were more competent than engaging; they wouldn't have won my heart even if they had won the gold. The bulk of the American bar and beam exercises were gracelessly efficient. The performances on floor appeared strangely schizophrenic, alternating between stunning tumbling passes and stumbling dance moves. (The stiff Carly Patterson reminded me of the strange dancing guy on Chappelle's Show.)

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Meanwhile, the Romanians and the Chinese—who have in the past seemed like automatons—performed with delight and verve, even smiling with spontaneous pleasure. One of the most remarkable performances was Lin Li'sroutine on bars—an innovative set of intricate turns and beautifully static poses that dissolved into the athletic velocity of her "giants" (full swings around the bars) before a perfect dismount. It was what gymnastics is meant to be: a combination of strength and power, flexibility and precision, like a beautiful fight scene in a samurai movie, at once stylized and fluid.

Style, of course, sets great athletes apart from their peers. You can see it when Michael Phelps gets into the pool and moves his arms in the big, slow windmills that make his speed seem all the more mysterious. But Phelps' style is merely an extension of natural athleticism in a sport that's all about speed; in gymnastics, style—as in surfing or skateboarding—is a large part of the challenge. We most admire those gymnasts who can bring to the balance beam a style that is recognizably hers because the overt challenge of gymnastics involves using a seemingly restricted set of media—like a surfboard, water, and the human body—in new and distinctive ways. What is magical about gymnastics—and the reason why so many viewers like to watch it—is precisely that it combines raw athleticism with the transcendence of pure style. But it's always an uneasy balance: A stunning tumbler may be completely graceless, like Oana Ban.

Don't get me wrong: I love the new athleticism of women's gymnastics, and in the old days the women were held to a distressingly lame male ideal of female elegance. But gymnastics moves me only when it swings—when awesome tumbling meets an expressive turn of the wrist, and suddenly you've got a flare—ignition. Russia's Svetlana Khorkina has it. Style radiated through her beam routine, which she executed in finicky precision, her twiggy legs bending and flexing, her toes pointed hard, her fingers splayed elegantly, each kick so precise it seemed to delineate tendons never seen before. Khorkina is the sexy Ice Queen of gymnastics—and its bitchy Queen Bee. It's no surprise that the male commentators kept calling her "temperamental" despite her good behavior: Every move she makes is infused with attitude, of the kind you often find in the pages of fashion magazines. (Khorkina, who has modeled, is in fact capable of great displays of temper, though she was all smiles last night.)

It might seem strange that great tumbling is, cumulatively, somewhat uninspiring. (They're doing double back flips with a twist! Now they're flipping without hands on a 4-inch-wide beam!) But tumbling is somewhat crude. If you haven't done gymnastics in a long time, it's easier to do a round-off, back-handspring, back-layout than to execute a perfect split leap. Those choreographed dance movements that look so trifling—the funny little elbow movements—are actually a test of skill: It's incredibly hard to keep the focus required to follow through every arm movement, especially the ones that aren't strictly "necessary." And the girls who can do it—like Catalina Ponor, the star Romanian gymnast—have a kind of innate athletic ability that can't be taught.

My favorite American performance of the evening belonged to Mohini Bhardwaj. After subbing in on the beam at the last minute for Courtney Kupets, who had pulled her right hamstring, Bhardwaj had to perform without warming up. It's tough when you can't warm up—it helps take the nervous edge off—but Bhardwaj moved with loose, limber meticulousness. Her performance was not incredibly difficult—I don't think she ever combined three strength moves, as nearly all the Romanians did—but her face was open and intent in contrast to Kupets' and Patterson's joyless efficiency.

Bhardwaj was compelling because she brought grace to the beam with her. Grace is a funny quality, one that, in our high-speed world, seems old-fashioned and strangely valueless. Those gymnasts who are primarily tumblers at heart—Ban, Kupets, Patterson—may fly higher than their peers. And yet the grace of Ponor, Bhardwaj, and Khorkina packs twice as much spirit into every moment. It makes the gymnasium seem bigger around them.

Did you notice: What was up with the Romanian gymnast sex scandal? NBC dropped that back story in a very peculiar cut-away history, superimposing soulful shots of the Romanian girls looking dour with the announcement that several had posed nude for a Japanese porn video dedicated to, yes, gymnasts. The strangest thing about it was NBC's cavalier, half-vicarious, half-embarrassed treatment: When they began to ask Octavian Belu, the Romanian coach, about the girls' motivations, I had to leave the room; the whole thing was too creepily complicated to learn about under the watchful eyes of Bob Costas.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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