This post will be about politics.
I really like sports, but I only follow a few of them with as much eagerness as I follow vaulting. In particular, I enjoy watching gymnastics. More specifically, it has been a few years since I first became a fan of American gymnasts; Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles later on. I have also been paying close attention to the development of the sexual abuse scandal led by Larry Nassar that affected not only these gymnasts, but around 140 others that we know of.
This is a vaulting blog, therefore I am not going to speak about gymnastics, but vaulting is an incipient sport and we are always questioning where the changes in regulation are going to take it and what is the sport that we want to build for the future. Gymnastics often appears as an example to follow. In this post, I will question if this is really the best idea. The inspiration for it was the situation in the USA, but as you will learn, it doesn’t end there. I do argue that paying attention to this story is essential for us not to make similar mistakes, but I also think that there are several reasons why we shouldn’t take the gymnastics approximation too seriously. Bear with me.
#1 The age issue
If you have been around for a while, you might remember that in the past our sport looked very different. Until not long ago, there was an age limit for vaulters to be part of squads: Most athletes would do team vaulting until 18 and either quit or move to individuals after that. I was on a senior squad in 2007 and we were all 15 – there were two older members but this was not the rule back then. For all the effects, our team today would be a junior squad. The level of vaulting we were doing was more or less similar to what we would expect from a junior squad today. We were kids, we had the strength of kids and we were vaulting as kids, with goals and a mentality of children. But in 2018, the age average for a senior squad seems to be much higher. Younger athletes can have a prominent career as juniors and senior squads can have experienced vaulters as well. This enabled the sport to grow and develop both technically and artistically which is great. It is a positive thing, it means that the sport if more mature.
As some people consistently consider the possibility of framing vaulting as an Olympic sport, here is one of the questions that we need to ask: is the average age of flyers in senior teams also increasing? Yes, since 2010 squads can no longer place all their bets on flyers that can barely mount a horse. Today, all the vaulters in a squad are required to perform compulsories as well as the freestyle, which means that having a little flyer that only serves for the second is no longer a possibility. But could vaulting as it is, still remain interesting without children in their teenage or pre-teenage years as flyers? This article talks about techniques to delay puberty used to develop teenage gymnasts in the USA and across the gymnastics world. Professional athletic environments are ruled by adults, and there are many unwanted consequences that can come from raising children in this environment. This is why the Olympics have a minimum age requirement.
The Larry Nassar scandal exposed a dark side of how gymnastics is organized in the USA. The female gymnastics programme was structured as a gold medal machine making that erased the possibility of athletes having agency or voice and subjected them to abuse from their coaches and sexual abuse from the national team doctor. As that same article exposes, the system profited on teenage girls being treated as robots and being discarded when they no longer served its goals. As a contrast, vaulting is a sport in which young athletes have agency and learn to work together towards collective goals. It is a sport based on the respect and understanding of the animals that are an integral part of a vaulter’s life. We definitely want to keep it that way.
At this point, it is important to make a few remarks on how gymnastics works.
Male and female gymnastics are complete opposites in many important ways. Men compete in six apparatus (rings, pommel horse, vault, floor, high bar and parallel bars) and women compete in four (floor, vault, balance beam and asymmetric bars). The artistic side of the sport is only a requirement for the female – men don’t have to be creative or artistic, they only have to be tough. The sport is also ruled by a code that determines the value of each move that can be performed and for the ladies, there is also artistic requirements on floor and beam routines. This is why modern gymnastics is a hybrid of skills of high difficulty and standard dance moves; even the art of it is coded.
#2 Vaulting is a sport for everyone
The thing that I enjoy the most in vaulting is that it is a very democratic sport. There are athletes who are very skinny and flexible but not that strong, there are athletes who are very strong but not very agile, there are athletes who are very tall and athletes who are very short. They can all compete together and use their skills in a way that is tailored to their own strengths. This means that apart from a technical distinction between the male and female category, they are both following the exact same rules. If we were to use gymnastics as a benchmark maybe the addition of a move-by-move codebook would change this democratic character that makes our sport so welcoming to everyone. I don’t think that we want to follow gymnastics in this particular criteria.
Let’s take only the male body types: Lambert Leclezio, Eric Oese, and Kristian Roberts. These three athletes compete against each other in major championships, Lambert is very slim and hyper-flexible. Eric is tall and very technical. Kristian is strong and has remarkable gymnastics skills. In our sport, these three can have their specific talents valued and tailor their performances to what they want to do. Compulsories include strength, flexibility and agility moves. The same applies to the technical test.
#3 the artistic score
There might come a day in which we have to question how an artistic score is given in vaulting performances. When this day comes we might want to decide if we want the artsy side to be ruled by pragmatic factors and reduced to an artistic requirement or if we want it to be an in-depth evaluation of each performance.
FIRST SCENARIO: In gymnastics, they solved this dilemma by reducing the importance of artistic scores. It is now only a transition, something to add coherence to female performance (in the case of balance beam there is not even a music to interpret). It is objective, there is no philosophy, there is no subjectivity.
SECOND SCENARIO: In this second case we might have to think not only of how things fit with a song and the overall creativity of a performance but also to the meanings and to what it represents. This is something that could turn judges into almost theatre critics. Maybe it would implicate in deducing some points if an athlete claims to be performing a Brazilian themed freestyle but uses Spanish music and salsa moves. Or uses Thai music while performing to a Chinese theme. These are subjective considerations that might have to be taken into account if vaulting would become progressively more artistic. We have already spoken a little bit about this in the past when we discussed the possibility of a perfect ten.
NOTE FOR FUTURE REFERENCE: In times of winter Olympics, how is it that figure skating solved this issue? Maybe they have a better solution.
#4 The injuries
One of the most heartbreaking issues with the Larry Nassar Scandal is that he was a USA Gymnastics doctor. Someone who was trusted by the community. But he was also part of a federation wise system of abuse; last week victim after victim spoke of how they would suffer the whole day at the hand of terrible coaches and later use Nassar’s office as a sort of refugee because he was so nice and would secretly give them food. At a certain point, one of them questioned if USA Gymnastics kept Nassar around because he was a good doctor or if it was because he would let them compete despite their injuries.
These were 16-year-old girls who were completely patched up and suffered more injuries than a person should endure in their whole lives. Here is another worldwide problem in the sport; gymnast Maria Paseka, from Russia, has recently described the procedures she had to go through so that she wouldn’t end up in a wheelchair.
Gymnastics seems to be a sport that calls for injuries. Given the evident connections between the two sports in terms of athletics, should we be worried about that as we progress towards a more technically advanced vaulting? Also, we have already talked extensively about this, but in the case of vaulting the athlete’s well-being is often connected to the horse’s well-being. Throughout 2017 we saw many of the top clubs withdrawing from competitions because of issues with their horses, and this is quite a noble attitude which should always be at the front of any decision.
These four items aimed at drawing the link between the big issues that gymnastics is trying to solve and that we might want to avoid and also find our own solutions for. It is also interesting to think that there is no correct answer here. One can indeed read these descriptions and come to the conclusion that gymnastics should be the inspiration. In that case, I hope that we can be inspired by its positive aspects and not make the same mistakes that they did. We have the opportunity to look at the main benchmarks we have for our sport and question how we want it to look in the future and stay away from what we dislike.
If you want to know more about the Nassar story and what is happening now at USA Gymnastics, I recommend following International Gymnast Magazine, they are doing a terrific job in covering this.