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."

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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.

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