The women's gymnastics team final.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 13 2008 1:18 PM

The Silver Lining

The U.S. women's gymnastics team overturned cultural cliches in the team event.

Check out Slate's complete coverage of the Beijing Games. 

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It might not be obvious why being younger would be an advantage in a highly perfectionistic, skill-driven sport like gymnastics. After all, the younger athletes have had less time to refine their skills. But gymnastics in its current athleticized form rewards lightness and a low center of gravity. Smaller girls rotate more easily in the air. Their bodies are also less subject to the hormonal changes that can lead to injury. And the prepubescent tend, quite simply, to be more fearless. Romanian Nadia Comaneci helped usher in this new era of athleticism in 1976, when, at the age of 14, she scored the first perfect 10 with a routine on uneven bars, an apparatus on which she pioneered difficult moves. It's no accident that Nadia was both young and slight, or that so many of the Chinese girls today share her body type.

Routines today derive their value not so much from artistry as from the execution of feats of sheer difficulty; the more challenging elements you string together, the more points you earn. (Of course, the other big change in this Olympics is the advent of a new scoring system, which did away with the perfect 10, and uses two measures, execution and difficulty, much the way figure skating does.)

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And yet the Americans turned in a number of beautiful performances. It's been a long time since the United States had a truly charismatic gymnast, and boy do we have one now in Nastia Liukin. Where Carly Patterson performed like a Beanie Baby on steroids—cute and springy—Liukin has the flair of a ballerina and the elegant focus of predecessors like Comaneci. Nastia's dad was a product of the Soviet system, and she has the lean, angular Eastern European body type; in a sense, she's an Americanized Khorkina.On the uneven bars, Liukin performed a routine with a dauntingly high difficulty level and did it with the type of apparently effortless grace that reminds me of why, as a child, I first wanted to be a gymnast: At its best, the sport is a triumph of the will over gravity, and of art over sheer acrobatics.Shawn Johnson, who is petite without appearing emaciated, danced and leapt and tumbled on the beam with a perky pleasure. On the floor exercise, Alicia Sacramone bounced through the air with a light celerity—until she fell on a double Arabian front, opening up too early because she was worried she would step out of bounds. (Later, she did, making matters worse.) But the undoubted highlight was Liukin's uneven bars performance, which received the highest score of the evening—a 16.9, nearly the highest you can receive in the post-perfect-10 era.

Meanwhile, in other news: Apparently the Romanians are so "Westernized" that they actually "text message" between rotations now. Tim Daggett, NBC's color commentator, noted this development breathlessly, fingering it as the cause of the Romanians' dramatic decline in the past four years, practically bemoaning the passing of athletic slavery in Eastern Europe. (Gymnastics truly can bring out the fascistic perfectionist in anyone.) And isn't it time for NBC to rotate some fresh blood into its pundit box? All night long, Trautwig, Daggett, and Elfi Schlegel pronounced on the gymnasts—"This is an element she has struggled with"—with an accuracy that was stultifying, like going out for drinks with a friend who's always right. Without the barroom debate, the occasional surprise, where's the fun? Their running patter was, of course, characterized by a stalactic accumulation of cliches ("She's like a rock"; "She delivered") and the by-now routine appropriation of emotion. ("You gotta wonder if she realizes what a big moment this is," they said of one Chinese gymnast. The answer: Yes, she probably does.) NBC also kept the finals almost exclusively focused on the Americans and the Chinese; by my vague count, the network showed only one Romanian and one Russian on one event each, which only underscored the predictability of it all. The whole evening felt like a reality show that had hardened into self-consciousness and shtick, lacking whatever vibrancy it once possessed.

At the end, though, the show came back to life. When Sacramone fell on the balance beam, impairing her teammates' chances at the gold—and then fell again in her floor exercise—the other girls drew around her and tried to comfort her. (Not so the women's national team coordinator, Marta Karolyi, who barely touched Alicia after her floor routine.) With every reason to be disappointed—or just made nervous by her fall—the girls refused to let Sacramone beat herself up. They acted, in short, like teammates, murmuring to her and offering hugs. And in the last minutes of the competition, when Chinese gymnast Jiang Yuyuan performed her floor routine, harnessing the energy in the arena as she gleefully danced and tumbled, even the Americans seemed drawn in; Shawn Johnson smiled and nodded, visibly reacting with pleasure to the artistry. The Americans all managed smiles at the end. Along the way, they showed, perhaps, less individual joy than one might have wished, but there in the last moments, finally, an indomitable collective spirit was on view. In that regard, at least, they gave the Chinese a real run for their money.

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.