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.
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) May 21, 2021
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.