Gymnastics is the summer equivalent to figure skating: very pretty, very difficult, very sexist, and full of eating disorders. If these are your main criteria for making something a sport, I have no idea why they don't run Olympic ballet, but nobody asked me, and I have a feeling that logic is not the strong suit of the IOC.

It is, in fact, even more overtly sexist than figure skating in many respects, and that's something when your main competition is a sport that regulates the color of the shoes you're wearing under costume spats anyway. The men and ladies of figure skating at least run the same events (singles skates for each gender, pairs skates, ice dancing, and formerly the actual figures, the set of which was the same for both genders), albeit the requirements are somewhat different between the sexes, whereas in gymnastics the only events both genders have in common are floor exercise and vault. Men work on parallel bars, high bar, pommel horse, and rings; women work on balance beam and uneven bars.

Yes, the women have fewer events. No, there is no especially good reason for it. Dumb tradition. The mens' events in general emphasize upper body strength over leg strength, so you could make an argument that running co-ed rings events would give a statistical lead to the men, but if you're worried about that then you can still segregate by gender. Technically, the women would have an equally unfair advantage on uneven, high, or parallel bars, as a lot of the standard moves on those involve rotating around the hips, which is roughly the center of gravity for women, but some distance below it in men. Mostly, though, it's just sexist bullshit.

That there is no reason for men not to compete on the balance beam is demonstrated quite aptly by a very short, very furry man named Paul Hunt, who performs here in drag, under the joke name "Paulette Huntinova". (He's also used "Pauletta Huntescu", in case the Romanians felt left out.) The effect is not unlike stuffing Wolverine into a tutu.

'Bloke in a dress' is not normally automatically funny to me, but in this case he's highlighting the patently ridiculous difference in style and standards between the men's and women's events. The sport has a history of jamming the ladies into nauseatingly cute, childish costumes, and then telling them to fill in around their real gymnastics moves with "sexy" things like strutting and hip wiggles. The worst cases strike the same awful note as toddler beauty pageants -- the competitors are clearly supposed to be acting out feminine attractiveness, but equally clearly they are supposed to be too innocent to know what that means. It can be done to a point where it's genuinely spritely and cute,  but overall I find the effect to be rather demeaning, just as I do in figure skating.

I also don't ordinarily find balance beam very interesting to watch. Modern Olympic beam is basically a bunch of 12-year-olds doing their floor exercises on a very narrow strip of floor. It wasn't always; someone has thoughtfully put a video up on YouTube showing what it used to look like.

Gymnastics was apparently finalized into the Olympic sport of today in about the mid-1950s, sez Wikipedia. (It existed before that, but not in a form you'd really recognize.) The women in the earliest clips are clearly young adults -- on the athletic/muscular side for, say, a professional ballerina, but any one of them would make a respectable tap dancer or chorus girl. They get markedly thinner in the 1960s, but not alarmingly so, and they look to be about college-aged. Notably, nobody is doing saltos on the beam at this point. You couldn't, frankly; that kind of hair only looks like a helmet, it doesn't actually function as one.

It's not until the 1970s that the gymnasts start looking alarmingly young and bony. I don't know enough about the history of the sport to know if something happened right around then; I know that the figure skaters abruptly got much younger when the ISA abolished the precision figures part of the competition, which cut years off the necessary training time. Possibly this is when the Eastern Bloc started sweeping medals, using athletes who had essentially been kidnapped out of school as children to do gymnastics full-time instead, for the "good of the state". (Not that the US is any better about getting our Olympians an education. It's just that the government officially separating children from their parents and sending them through grueling drills instead of kindergarten would have gone over rather less well here.) Romania, for one, was a sure bet for a long time. I don't know anywhere near as many gymnasts as I do figure skaters, but I do recognize Nadia Comǎneci.

After the '70s, the artistic gymnasts seem to have dropped most of their dance training -- the girls pose occasionally in floor exercises, but the flow of Comǎneci and Olga Korbut on the balance beam is generally lost, making it more a technical showcase than any kind of entertainment for me.


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