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. 

China celebrates its gold medal. Click image to expand.
China celebrates its gold medal

Once again, the United States women's gymnastics team has taken the silver in the team finals at the Olympics. After falling to Romania in Athens, the Americans this time lost out to the Chinese, who performed with surprising joie de vivre. We've heard a lot about the collective, hardworking ethos of Chinese culture—which David Brooks contrasted earlier this week with America's individualistic impulses—but the irony early on was that it was the Chinese who seemed to be joyfully and expressively performing while the American girls looked drawn and anxious. There was even a dour helicopter parent thrown into the mix, adding to the tension: Former Soviet champion Valeri Liukin, father of superstar Nastia Liukin, an elegant performer with all the diva potential of a Svetlana Khorkina. When she briefly wobbled on the beam, he put his head in his hands, as if he couldn't watch any more. Finally, an NBC commentator said, almost chidingly, "His daughter has done a good job."

The team final was, everyone understood, a showdown between the Chinese and the Americans, with the Chinese team favored. (Their routines possessed a greater level of difficulty.) For the Americans to have a chance, the Chinese would have to falter; that didn't quite happen. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that a kind of subconscious anxiety about global politics inflected some of the commentary. When it looked, for a moment, as if the Chinese had made a crucial error, Al Trautwig said, wishfully, "One moment they look like a world power, the next they look so vulnerable."

Advertisement

The big back story this year has been a controversy over birth certificates. Today, you have to be 16 within the calendar year to compete in Olympic women's gymnastics, and online records suggested that half the Chinese team was too young, according to the New York Times. The Chinese denied the allegations and provided passports that "proved" all the girls were of age.

Boy, did they not look it. The American girls came out onto the floor in shiny red leotards that made them look like Las Vegas showgirls. On average 30 pounds heavier and 3.5 inches taller than the doll-sized Chinese gymnasts, they had the sheen of aging starlets, imbuing the scene with a peculiar Sunset Boulevard feel. From the start, we knew how this would end, with the young outshining the "old." Briefly, after the Chinese team completed its third rotation, the balance beam, it looked like the Americans had a real shot at the gold: The Chinese team leader, Cheng Fei, had taken a dramatic spill, earning a huge 0.8 deduction. But Alicia Sacramone, the oldest member of the American team, misjudged her mount and, arms windmilling, fell from the beam before she even got on it. It was as metaphorical a fall as it was literal. In the next event, the floor exercise, all three American competitors—Shawn Johnson, Liukin, and Sacramone—stepped out of bounds, as if the equipment were taunting them: You're too big and old.

It was hard not to see the American girls' failure to stay inbounds as a kind of Freudian slip—or Freudian step. It was as if, worried that the Chinese might have an unfair advantage, the Americans suddenly became aware of their growing bodies, of the potential for harm, of how easy it is to make a mistake, of how fast time flies and the body stiffens, even for those who can flip through the air and perform ever more complicated release skills on the uneven bars.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.