Women’s athletics and the Simone Biles controversy


I do not watch sports much at all and almost never events like gymnastics or figure skating. But I do know that in those events, winners are decided by judges who weigh various subjective factors like the level of difficulty involved in what was attempted and the grace and style with which it was achieved. And this had led to a controversy in women’s gymnastics involving Simone Biles. She seems to have superior athletic abilities and has done things that no woman before has done in competition. So you would think that she would score highly. But in fact the judges seem to actually penalize her for her ambition. The latest example occurred last week when she did what had been thought to be impossible, something that is called the ‘Yurchenko double pike’. You can see her do it here during Olympic training.

So what is the problem? Why don’t the judges like her raising the bar for what can be done? The reasoning is a little strange.

Gymnastics routines are judged and scored based on their execution and difficulty. But rather than recognize or reward Biles’ exceedingly difficult routines and moves with the added points they deserve for their difficulty, judges have often undervalued her performances that include historic completion of new moves. The rationale for this scoring has often been that there are safety risks for other gymnasts who aren’t able to complete the moves that Biles is, if her moves are rewarded with high scores and other gymnasts are then motivated to try them.

Biles’ talent has also been criticized as somehow being unfair to other gymnasts, for her ability to do what others can’t — something that’s often celebrated and glorified for white or male athletes. For example, Michael Phelps, a swimmer who’s won more Olympic medals than anyone in history, is widely recognized and beloved as the greatest swimmer of our time, despite his immense, built-in advantages, including not just the size and proportions of his body, but how his body produces half the amount of lactic acid of the average person, which decreases his fatigue and sharply increases his recovery time.

In other words, on a technical and cultural level, Biles, a young Black woman, is being punished and subjected to undeniably racist and sexist double standards for her greatness. After all, we’ve seen some form of this before, for other Black women athletes — Caster Semenya, a South African two-time Olympic champion runner, was literally barred from competing in women’s sports last year unless she agreed to take medication to lower her naturally higher levels of testosterone. When Black women athletes work hard and go above and beyond, they’re treated with suspicion, as if they’re somehow being dishonest, or as if their success is a detriment to others that should be punished, restricted and prevented rather than encouraged. From Semenya to Biles, they and other Black women athletes face the same, intertwined racism and misogyny.

On an episode of Radiolab, they discussed a similar case in figure skating where French skater Surya Bonaly rarely got top scores from judges. She is the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade, that she did in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, one athlete pulled a move that, so far as we know, no one else had ever done in all of human history.

Surya Bonaly was not your typical figure skater.  She was black. She was athletic. And she didn’t seem to care about artistry.  Her performances – punctuated by triple-triple jumps and other power moves – thrilled audiences around the world.  Yet, commentators claimed she couldn’t skate, and judges never gave her the high marks she felt she deserved.  But Surya didn’t accept that criticism.  Unlike her competitors – ice princesses who hid behind demure smiles – Surya made her feelings known.  And, at her final Olympic performance, she attempted one jump that flew in the face of the establishment, and marked her for life as a rebel.

This week, we lace up our skates and tell a story about loving a sport that doesn’t love you back, and being judged in front of the world according to rules you don’t understand.

The top prizes, such as a World Championship or an Olympic gold medal, eluded Bonaly.

With male athletes in events like gymnastics and figure skating that require judges to assign scores, athleticism is valued highly. But with female athletes, it appears that looks also matter. If you are pretty and petite and (sad to say) white, you have an advantage over someone who is muscular even though the latter can do more things.

The idea that by not rewarding Biles for her daring, the judges are merely seeking to discourage other women from imitating her and trying things that might harm them because they do not have her athletic abilities sounds misogynistic, a relic of the times when women were thought to be weaker than men and that certain activities were not suitable for them because their bodies were considered fragile and easily damaged. This article looks at all the hurdles women had to overcome to even get where they are now.

The ideal Victorian woman was gentle, passive and frail—a figure, at least in part, inspired by bodies riddled with tuberculosis. These pale, wasting bodies became linked with feminine beauty. Exercise and sport worked in opposition to this ideal by causing muscles to grow and skin to tan.

“It’s always been this criticism and this fear in women’s sports [that] if you get too muscular, you’re going to look like a man,” says Jaime Schultz, author of Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport.

To top off these concerns, female anatomy and reproduction baffled scientists of the day. A woman’s ovaries and uterus were believed to control her mental and physical health, according to historian Kathleen E. McCrone. “On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, they related biology to behavior,” she writes in her book Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914. Women who behaved outside of society’s norm were kept in line and told, as McCrone writes, “physical effort, like running, jumping and climbing, might damage their reproductive organs and make them unattractive to men.”

Women were also thought to hold only a finite amount of vital energy. Activities including sports or higher education theoretically drained this energy from reproductive capabilities, says Schultz. Squandering your life force meant that “you couldn’t have children or your offspring would be inferior because they couldn’t get the energy they needed,” she says.

But it was even worse, as we see what happened in the 1928 Olympic games when women were finally allowed to run in the 800m event.

The 800-meter race—the longest distance women were given to run—would become a flashpoint that would resonate for decades. After the Olympic event, the female competitors appeared, (unsurprisingly) sweaty and out of breath. Even though the men didn’t look any better after their race, spectators were aghast. The distance was perceived as too much for the women. In the words of one sensational newspaper headline, the racers were “Eleven Wretched Women.” The backlash ensured that the distance would be banned from the Olympics until 1960.

There were exceptions to the mainstream narrative. Women who swam, for instance, made early inroads. As no one could see them sweat, the sport didn’t look as strenuous. This likely was what allowed aquatics events for women to be introduced in the 1912 Olympic Games.

We know that such concerns prevented women from competing in marathons, long seen as the most grueling of athletic events that was only included in the 1984 Olympics. And yet now they run ultra-marathons, involving distances of a hundred miles.

This issue should not be conflated with a different one, and that is that modern competitive gymnastics in general seems to rob young people of their lives if they want to succeed, requiring them to subject themselves to a rigorous training and diet regimen from a very young age that leaves them little room to have anything resembling a normal childhood and often results in injuries and long-term ailments. But that genie is out of the bottle and there seems to be no going back. In the drive for glory, parents and coaches will push these young people to the limits.

I would hate to see anyone get injured by trying a gymnastic maneuver that they could not carry off. But when I see women’s gymnastics, they routinely do things that scare the hell out of me and I presume that at one time it was thought that women could not do those at all and should not even try to do them. And yet now they do. I also cannot imagine that what Biles did cannot be replicated by others. She is likely just the first who had the nerve to try and succeed in doing the Yurchenko double pike and I am pretty sure that over time this too will become commonplace.

Comments

  1. johnson catman says

    . . . and that is that modern competitive gymnastics in general seems to rob young people of their lives if they want to succeed, requiring them to subject themselves to a rigorous training and diet regimen from a very young age that leaves them little room to have anything resembling a normal childhood and often results in injuries and long-term ailments.

    Is this any different from other activities, such as child beauty pageants, where the parents live vicariously through the child trying to mold the “perfect” specimen? At least Biles seems very happy doing what she is doing as she is striving for excellence. It is wrong to punish her for her abilities. At one point in history, it was thought that no human could run a mile in less than four minutes. It may take a while for other gymnasts to catch up, but without those like Biles willing to push themselves to their limits, humans would not make many advances physically or mentally.

  2. anat says

    I don’t recall such ‘protective’ considerations when Nadia Comăneci was given perfect scores. Of course that started the trend of extremely young ages for female gymnasts, and I am glad the sport has started moving away from that, at least.

  3. Holms says

    Imagine if no innovation had been permitted due to risk… how little would the sport have advanced from say 1952?

  4. mnb0 says

    “In the drive for glory, parents and coaches will push these young people to the limits.”
    That also happens in football (soccer) these days. I’m curious about the American big four.

  5. says

    It’s like there’s this pattern of behavior involving punishing women who excell, and this has versions among other minorities as well. I think the whole idea of monitoring hormone levels, hormones that have lots of other roles than muscles, is part of this.

  6. raven says

    The idea that by not rewarding Biles for her daring, the judges are merely seeking to discourage other women from imitating her and trying things that might harm them because they do not have her athletic abilities sounds misogynistic

    Yeah, that is exactly what it sounds like.

    If the judges and Gymnastics authorities really believed a move is too dangerous, the solution is obvious. Simply prohibit it on that basis for everyone.
    This is a simple idea that anyone could figure out.

    Rather than what they are now doing, which is judging down the world’s leading female gymnast.

  7. says

    This issue should not be conflated with a different one, and that is that modern competitive gymnastics in general seems to rob young people of their lives if they want to succeed, requiring them to subject themselves to a rigorous training and diet regimen from a very young age that leaves them little room to have anything resembling a normal childhood and often results in injuries and long-term ailments. But that genie is out of the bottle and there seems to be no going back. In the drive for glory, parents and coaches will push these young people to the limits.

    But these issues are directly related. For looking like a waif and touching the back of your head to your buttocks you are given rewarding, champion level scores.

    For engaging in strength training and taking advantage of height and muscle only available somewhat later in life, at or soon after reaching adulthood, you are penalized and accused of attempting to harm other competitors.

    But if patient strength training and a fully mature body were requirements (or at least rewarded), then at least some of the harm to children would be mitigated. The top level of the sport is endorsing harming children because if they don’t then children might have more time to have childhoods before reaching the physical peak of gymnastics friendly body development.

    Make no mistake: the judges are harming girls while Biles is showing how we can create gymnastics competitions for adult women.

  8. K says

    You mentioned figure skating and Surya Bonaly. In the 1980s, as the McMartin preschool Satanic panic case was used to drive women out of the workforce, sports like figure skating were rewarding the less-talented but more flirty, stereotypically feminine competitors. Katarina Witt pouted and winked and flirted her way to top scores even though she couldn’t land a double. Sportscasters swooned over her movie-star hair. Likewise, Mary Lou Retton was tut-tutted about her strong body over more delicate and less-capable competitors. Decades later, not much has changed.

    In tennis, John McEnroe threw his racket and slammed tennis balls at bystanders and cursed out the judges, but oooooh, the DRAMA if a female tennis pro with good manners doesn’t want to give endless interviews!

  9. garnetstar says

    Not rewarding Biles because her moves might be dangerous for others is shameful. So is not rewarding her appropriately because they don’t want to her win everything as the Greatest Gymnast of all Time (which she is). As was said, if a move is too dangerous, it can be banned (although, that would have banned all progress in women’s gymnastics.) Or, if a move is too dangerous for you, do not start to practice it. And, your coach should assess your abilities and refuse to train you in it.

    Greg Louganis never had to suffer low scoring simply because he was the Greatest Diver of all Time. He simply won every competition he entered for about 15 years there. And, he did a dive known as “The Dive of Death”, since other divers had actually been killed doing it. No problem, apparently, if other divers risked their lives trying it. Louganis always scored highly on it, as I suppose it’s OK for men to both be better than everyone else and to do risky moves.

    What K @8 says about what was wrongly reward in figure skating is quite correct. But, it is also true that Suray Bonaly lacked some skating skills on which figure skaters are judged and scored. Surya scored very highly on the technical mark for her jumps and other difficult and athletic moves. But she was less good than the rest of the elite women on length, depth, strength, and quality of edges, and also on footwork and centering spins, which rely on edge quality. Edge quality is the essence of figure skating and accounts for a large part of your score.

    Not to say that Bonaly wasn’t scored even worse on those because she was black, though! She very probably was.

  10. drken says

    Considering that Woman’s Gymnastics has only recently stopped designing their sport around the body of a 13 year old girl, I’m not that optimistic they’ll pull their heads out of their asses anytime soon.

  11. Matt G says

    I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if the people who condemn “affirmative action” are the same people who support handicapping this black athlete. Racism (sexism, homophobia…) breeds hypocrisy.

  12. Silentbob says

    The idea that by not rewarding Biles for her daring, the judges are merely seeking to discourage other women from imitating her and trying things that might harm them because they do not have her athletic abilities sounds misogynistic, a relic of the times when women were thought to be weaker than men and that certain activities were not suitable for them because their bodies were considered fragile and easily damaged. This article looks at all the hurdles women had to overcome to even get where they are now.

    That’s a really interesting read. I hope the commenters who -- in another context -- naively/ignorantly claim sports were gender segregated for “fairness” have a read and educate themselves, not thinking of anyone in particular *cough* Holms *cough*, excuse me.

  13. Holms says

    Er, that article is not about segregation on the basis of sex, it is about the total exclusion on that basis.

  14. Tethys says

    The world of elite gymnastics has a lot in common with ballet dancers. It requires a very specific body type, and years of intense training, to develop the ability to perform extreme feats of strength which appear completely effortless, on demand.

    Despite the judges scoring, she still won the competition, because Simone Biles IS the greatest gymnast of all time, male or female.

    All female gymnasts are “petite” and generally are 5’1″or 5’2″ as that is the required body type. However, Simone is only 4′ 8″, and regularly out powers the MEN. The maneuver she successfully completed is not going to become commonplace. It was truly a moment where it appears she defied all laws of physics…again.

    She manages to achieve such unbelievable height in both vault and floor, that any error in landing could result in serious injuries. I find the judges reasoning in scoring her successfully completed vault to be utter sexist shlock, but the danger of permanent spine and head injuries is quite real.

  15. Tethys says

    There are several stories about the physics of Simone’s skills floating around the web, though they don’t actually detail the physics beyond mentioning rotation and momentum.

    This is where her height becomes relevant. At 4’8″ she is 6″ shorter than her teammates. She can jump twice her height, 9’4″. This is called catching air, and that is simply an unprecedented amount of air.

    As impressive as her skills are, they are all power tricks. The grace and artistry aspects of gymnastics are equally important to getting high scores.

    Katelyn Ohashi is also an incredible gymnast who used to beat Simone. Her perfect 10 floor routine is sublime.
    She floats.

    Sadly, she also incurred a back fracture and two torn shoulders, which is pretty awful and not at all uncommon in elite sports.

  16. garnetstar says

    Tethys @15, interesting. Is it known how, or why, Biles can get such amazing height in her jumps? More than other gymnasts do, I mean. She must have great strength, but they all do.

  17. Tethys says

    Garnetstar

    She is super human? I don’t know how it’s possible she catches air twice her height. They did not have the spring floors when I was a gymnast, but I’m sure the improved equipment helps them to achieve more difficult skills like a double back layout.
    I’m amazed she doesn’t shatter her knees or ankles on the landings. The tumbling tricks are impressive, but landing is the dangerous part.

  18. John Morales says

    OP:

    The idea that by not rewarding Biles for her daring, the judges are merely seeking to discourage other women from imitating her

    Wikipedia (my emphases):
    “Simone Arianne Biles (born March 14, 1997)[4] is an American artistic gymnast. With a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Biles is the most decorated American gymnast and the world’s third most decorated gymnast, behind Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo (33 medals) and Russia’s Larisa Latynina (32 medals).

    At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Biles won individual gold medals in all-around, vault and floor; bronze in balance beam; and gold as part of the United States team, dubbed the “Final Five”.[5]

    Biles is a five-time World all-around champion (2013–2015, 2018–19), five-time World floor exercise champion (2013–2015, 2018–19), three-time World balance beam champion (2014–15, 2019), two-time World vault champion (2018–19), a six-time United States national all-around champion (2013–2016, 2018–19), and a member of the gold medal-winning American teams at the 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Additionally, she is a three-time World silver medalist (2013 and 2014 on vault, 2018 on uneven bars) and a three-time World bronze medalist (2015 on vault, 2013 and 2018 on balance beam).

    Biles is the gymnast with the most World medals (25) and most World gold medals (19), having surpassed Scherbo’s record 23 World medals by winning her 24th and 25th, both gold, at the 2019 competition in Stuttgart.[6] She is the female gymnast with the most World all-around titles (5). Biles is the sixth woman to win an individual all-around title at both the World Championships and the Olympics, and the first gymnast since Lilia Podkopayeva in 1996 to hold both titles simultaneously. She is the tenth female gymnast and first American female gymnast to win a World medal on every event, and the first female gymnast since Daniela Silivaș in 1988 to win a medal on every event at a single Olympic Games or World Championships, having accomplished this feat at the 2018 World Championships in Doha.[7]

    Biles is widely considered to be the best gymnast of all time,[8][9][10][11][12][13][14] as well as one of the greatest and most dominant athletes of all time in any sport.[15][16] ”

    How is she not being rewarded?

  19. Tethys says

    JohnMorales

    How is she not being rewarded?

    The judges are giving her much lower difficulty scores than she has earned, very deliberately.

    The Olympic point system was changed to an open ended format so that gymnasts who successfully perform unprecedented difficult skills like a double Yurchenko pike could have that reflected in the score. Since the difference between winning and losing in gymnastics can be .005 points, a new maneuver that no other gymnast can perform should get high difficulty scores.

    She sets new records, and is penalized.

  20. marner says

    @19 Tethys

    …a new maneuver that no other gymnast can perform should get high difficulty scores.

    While one could certainly argue that it deserves to be higher, at 6.6, the difficulty rating for her vault is the highest of any vault. Pretty sure the highest qualifies as “high”.

  21. Tethys says

    6.6 is close to the difficulty rating assigned to her exceedingly difficult signature Biles vault. It is preposterous that the judges gave her the same score for doing a vault that no other woman gymnast has ever performed in competition.

    A Simone quote from NYtimes

    “They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles said of the rewards for her beam dismount and the double-pike vault. “But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me.
    “They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”

    Despite not being properly rewarded, Biles, the defending Olympic champion in the all-around, said she would continue doing them.

    When asked why, she quickly answered, “Because I can.”

  22. Tethys says

    That should be signature Biles maneuver. She does it on floor, beam, and vault.

  23. John Morales says

    OK Tethys, I get it.

    She has been ;unished, penalised, and not suitable rewarded by getting a higher score than anyone else, but not as high a score as she should have got.

    A piteous plight, no doubt.

  24. Tethys says

    Do you need a hug John? My first comment was made days ago, and states that even though she was not scored fairly for nailing the historic Yurchenko, she still won.

    The judges claim that they do this so as to discourage other female gymnasts from attempting to match her ability. I can’t think of a single male athlete who sets new world records being rewarded by the judges giving them lower difficulty scores, so other athletes don’t get hurt

  25. John Morales says

    Tethys, huggy neediness is for other people. So, no.

    Point being, she won, she just doesn’t think she won by enough.

    Again, I don’t see how being declared the winner is being penalised, punished, and not suitably rewarded. Apparently, the best and winning score is not enough for some.

    And also, it’s not discouraging her, so why should it discourage anyone else?

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