On Gymnastics

I’ve been staying up late to watch Olympic gymnastics on TV for the past week and I gotta say that its brought up a whole bunch of emotions I had about competing in that sport all those years ago.  The years of sacrifice, dedication, determination, emotion, pain, suffering, and even isolation that an elite gymnast goes through to get to the Olympics is tough to capture in those little video bio pieces they do during the Olympics. But even before getting to the elite level, there are years of training and competing in state competitions that take just as much dedication as elite gymnasts have.  Believe me. I’ve been there. Not at the elite level, but at the Class III and Class II level that had me putting in four hours a day of training for competitions.  I even got out of school early so I could get to the gym and train — which was tough when your friends are enjoying their teen years and you are, well, punishing pushing your body everyday to master a series of movements on six different events.

Gymnastics is a tough sport because it’s not about a team, it’s about the individual.  No matter what you’ve read about Alicia Sacramone’s falls during the team competition, the individuals who are competing at the Olympics are there primarily to compete against each other.  Sure, there’s “Team USA,” but these individuals have not trained together for years, and they really only know each other by competing at the elite level in nationals, world competitions and the like. But because our popular sports are team based, many Americans view gymnastics like it’s a football or baseball game.  It’s not.  Football and baseball are about many things, but in terms of scoring they are sports based on the collective effort of the team to earn the most points (or runs) during a given competition.

Gymnastics is about losing points from the moment you start your routine.  A tenth deducted here for a slight stumble, a tenth deduced there for stepping out of bounds, another tenth deducted for not having enough “high value” elements in a routine.  It’s brutal, and it demands a certain dedication to perfection that you don’t see in football or baseball.  If a pass is sloppily thrown to a receiver during a football game, but the receiver still scores a touchdown, it doesn’t change how many points are allotted.  Imagine if football teams were judged on not only how many touchdowns were made but also the quality of the plays? That would make for a mighty different sport, huh.

I guess I’m really miffed at all the criticism Sacramone is getting for the falls she took at the Olympic team finals. I was reading in today’s Los Angeles Times that there are a bunch of people out there in the good old U.S. of A who look at a silver medal in the Olympics as badge of failure.  To wit:

Sacramone, 20, who fell twice and stepped out of bounds once on her final two routines in the team competition, has one more event left, the vault final Sunday. A medal would be fine, and Sacramone will smile again, but while Johnson and Liukin were able to immediately put away the team performance, Sacramone couldn’t. Her teary eyes are being offered as photographic evidence on message boards and Internet sites that Sacramone was the one to blame for U.S. winning silver instead of gold.

I’m sure Alicia Sacramone feels horrible, but her team mates don’t blame her for having a couple of bad routines. When you’re waiting for your turn to perform on whatever apparatus you’re competing on, you’re trying to get fired up and focused on what your about to do.  If you’re waiting and waiting for your turn, but the judges won’t signal that it’s time to begin, you start to lose your focus and start to worry about other things.  It can really blow your confidence and throw you off your game.  That’s pretty much what happened to Sacramone.  She got nervous the longer she waited for her name to be called (i.e., put up on a screen).  No word on why it took so long, but once she was given the green flag, she was not in the right head space and faltered on the beam mount. She’s probably done that mount a million times without any problems, but from what I saw of the footage, she didn’t get enough height off the spring board (and she also slightly dropped one shoulder which put her out of alignment with the beam).  She’ll probably be replaying that mount and the tumbling pass she stepped out of bounds on over and over. But be that as it may, if I were her, I would be so proud to have achieved a silver medal in the team competition. And for all the haters out there, I don’t hear any grumbling about the Men’s team taking home the bronze, so stop looking at a silver medal as a “parting gift.”

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