Until a torn ligament ended my training when I was 15, I thought about gymnastics obsessively. My fascination with the sport hasn’t really diminished — 25 years later, I still regularly dream about being called on to compete — and this August I’ll be watching the American women in the Rio Olympics alongside millions of other viewers, enthralled by the spectacle of adolescent girls defying gravity and common sense as they launch into space and contort themselves in ever-more-outlandish ways. But my delight won’t be as unequivocal as it once was.
That’s no reflection on the skill of the athletes. The U.S. team is expected to dominate, with two of 2012’s gold-medal-winning “Fierce Five” — Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas — returning, plus the addition of the remarkable 19-year-old Simone Biles. Rather, today, we know more about the complexities behind the spandex and scrunchies: the sport’s history of sexual and emotional abuse, its amplifications of adolescent body-image problems, and its complicated coach-gymnast relationships. The sport’s obsessive focus on the body and self-presentation is like kerosene poured on the flame of female adolescent self-scrutiny. By some lights, women’s gymnastics has come to seem almost retrograde, anti-feminist. I’ve even wondered whether watching gymnastics today is like watching the NFL in an era when we know its true price.
Paradoxically, these concerns derive from the great leap forward gymnastics took more than 40 years ago, on the heels of second-wave feminism — and, in the United States, of Title IX’s empowerment of women in sports — which liberated women from fusty old ideas about their delicacy. Before the 1970s, women’s gymnastics had been snoozy and staid, resembling, as a Sports Illustrated writer put it, “a lyrical exercise somewhere this side of ballet.” Gymnasts were older, judged for their delicacy and grace more than for their strength, and their bodies were nowhere near as relentlessly honed as today’s gymnasts’ bodies are. (In the 1950s, Larisa Latynina, the Soviet Union’s star, competed while pregnant.) Soviet Bloc–driven competition led to an arms race of athletics, spearheaded in Romania by former boxer and junior hammer-throw champion Bela Karolyi, who sought out young, small, fearless girls to train, and ferociously introduced conditioning and long hours of repetition in his team practices. Regarding the more and more advanced moves these girls were executing, as exemplified by Nadia Comaneci, who earned of the first “perfect” ten, an International Gymnast writer in the ’70s observed, “From a biomechanic viewpoint, this is hardly conceivable.” There were calls to ban these dangerous skills, which now seem almost quaint.
Since then, the relentless pace of innovation (from the high-flying release moves on bars to the full twisting back flips on beam) has dramatically reshaped gymnastics, making it increasingly dangerous for and demanding on young bodies — to the point where the performances truly are “hardly conceivable.” In 2006, the International Federation of Gymnastics had to come up with a new scoring system to accommodate the astonishing increases in difficulty, removing the cap of the “perfect” ten in favor of a score that can be raised ever upward.
And yet even with this turn toward athleticism, gymnastics never fully let go of its obsession with traditional femininity, a quality that lingers at its core. This year’s U.S. Championships were replete with many of the stranger trappings of the sport, the startling incongruities between the gymnast’s strength and her performance of girlishness — her spangled leotard, her beribboned hairdo, her makeup. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that boxing may be “our most dramatically ‘masculine’ sport”; if so, gymnastics may be our most dramatically “feminine” sport, even as it is also among our most physically demanding. In being both those things at once, it speaks to all that remains unresolved in our ideas about the female body and its power — the push-pull between the ballerina’s slim, delicate “clean lines” and the vaulter’s muscles blasting her into the air.
This tension may account for some of the darker aspects of the sport’s modern era. When the Karolyis emigrated to the States, they brought a top-down Eastern Bloc approach to their gym in Texas, where the majority of America’s top gymnasts train. The couple, some former gymnasts have alleged, searched their bags for food and micromanaged what they ate in order to get them “in shape”; others felt they pushed them to train through damaging injuries. Mary Lou Retton recalls in her memoir that when she got to their gym, she was immediately put on a diet. Dominique Moceanu, the youngest member of the 1996 Olympic team, said that once she joined the Karolyis’ gym, “there was certainly a lot of negativity, a lot of humiliation, a lot of criticism,” which “started to affect my self-esteem.”
In 1995, the sportswriter Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes depicted a sport warped by eating disorders, bullying coaches, and devastating injuries. The stories she told were vivid and disturbing in their evocation of the way that men who have unregulated authority over young women can abuse it. Don Peters, the coach of the 1984 Olympic team, was banned by USA Gymnastics in 2011 after being accused of sexual abuse by some of the athletes he’d trained. (The statute of limitations had expired by the time he was accused.)
Today, some important things have changed. There are more top-level coaches, who in turn have a wider range of styles. Aimee Boorman, Simone Biles’s coach, has told journalists that early on she saw Biles needed to enjoy herself to keep pushing onward. Bela Karolyi has stepped down, and for years now Martha Karolyi has been not the “team coach” but the “team coordinator,” working with individual coaches in a more collaborative approach. (Allegedly, she even ordered pizza for the national team once.) Body types in gymnastics have also become more varied. Raisman and Biles are muscular and broad-shouldered and don’t seem as terribly undersize as Moceanu or Shannon Miller did in the 1996 Olympics. USA Gymnastics has reorganized the Olympic selection process so that girls who don’t make the team aren’t on-camera when they find out.
And yet, gymnastics is a sport that still takes an enormous toll on these adolescent bodies and minds — perhaps more than ever in this more physically ambitious era. Watching the U.S. Championships, I found myself worried for tiny 19-year-old Madison Kocian, who seemed drawn and taut; a commentator reported that Martha Karolyi had said, “She’s a little bit fragile.”
That’s why, even without the history of dubious coaching practices and unaddressed sexual abuse, many spectators would have questions about how far they think young gymnasts should be encouraged to go — how hard to train their developing bodies, and how hard to push their young psyches. Of course we are right to have concerns — and to call for structural and institutional reform in a sport that long turned a blind eye to the emotional and physical damage particular coaches or practices wrought on young gymnasts. Vulnerability and power go hand in hand in gymnastics, and the drive that pushes these athletes ever onward can easily turn into a form of masochism.
But it is too easy to focus only on female wounds. What’s beautiful to me about the sport is the way that it dramatizes obsessive determination. When Gabby Douglas manages extraordinary heights in her uneven-bars release moves, we feel viscerally the extraordinary power of not just the human body but the human will. Teenage girls are often portrayed, even today, as rather vapid creatures, but here we get to see them take themselves incredibly seriously. When it comes to female obsessiveness of nearly any kind — romantic, professional, physical — we often focus on its downside. But obsession is a gift as well as a burden.
That gift is why I watch. I love the display of these young women’s fierce wills. The June and July competitions leading up to this year’s Olympics — the U.S. Championships, the Olympic Trials — showcased some of the most stunning gymnastics I have ever seen. I love the dramatic ardor that Laurie Hernandez brings to her floor routine. I love watching — as I did on a grainy video of a practice that went viral among fans a while back — Simone Biles do something that no woman had done in competition before, like throw a double-twisting double backflip off the balance beam and make it on her first try.
And I watch because some of the best hours of my life were spent as a 12-year-old in a stuffy, chalk-filled gym repeating one move over and over as if in a trance. The first time you try a risky skill — jumping backward over the uneven bars and hoping to catch them, say — there is an anticipatory thrill and a tiny moment of terror. (What if …?) At home, watching on TV, we feel it, too. The moment of held breath: Is she going to make it? It is undeniably part of the appeal. In that way, gymnastics shares a captivating tension with other risky sports: the pileups in football, the crashes in NASCAR. But in gymnastics, I remind myself, we are rooting not for the derailment of something powerful and fast but, instead, for the strong, stuck landings.
*An earlier version of this article misidentified a photo of Ragan Smith as Aly Raisman.
*This article appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.