Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Overcoming America's Culture of Bellyaching

It's hard to say when the U.S. male gymnasts and their coaches started whining.

At one point, the U.S. men were among the best in the world. Heading into the 1932 Olympics, the New York Times thought that the U.S. men had a "good" chance of winning medals. That sounds like a rather favorable prediction, but the newspaper's metric ranged from dubious to good to very good to excellent, which meant that the New York Times were rather cautious with its predictions when it came to American gymnastics. As it turned out, though, the U.S. men won the lion's share of the medals in Los Angeles, taking home silver in the team all-around in addition to Dallas Bixler's, George Roth's, George Gulack's, Raymond Bass's, and Rowland Wolfe's individual gold medals.

By 1970, however, the tone had changed. A culture of success had turned into a culture of insufferable and embarrassing bellyaching–usually misdirected at the victors. For many years, as the Americans spewed their complaints to the U.S. media, their comments were mixed with a heavy dose of jealousy, and sometimes, an extra layer of xenophobia and racism was added to the bile.

(And y'all think that a bunch of teenage girls sulking is bad…)

Let's take a look at some of the brilliant remarks over the years…

The Japanese

A fine example of this is Yoshi Hayasaki, whose name means very little to modern readers. But to the U.S. men's gymnastics community of the time, he was a figure enshrouded in controversy. The problem, you see, was not his gymnastics. That was quite remarkable. As Sports Illustrated reported in 1970, the execution of every move was "near perfection." There was "not a trace of wobble on handstands, no hesitation in transitional movements."

The controversy instead honed in on Yoshi's nationality. He was not American. Born in Japan and educated in Japanese schools, he could barely speak English when he arrived at the University of Washington, and men's college coaches took issue with this fact.

More precisely, they took issue with the fact that their U.S.-born and raised gymnasts were being slaughtered by a bunch of Japanese gymnasts, whose arms should be too short and whose hands should be too small to do gymnastics. (Yes, that was the racist, phrenological sentiment at the time…) With Hayasaki and his teammate Hide Umeshita competing in the NCAA, American gymnasts felt "demoralized," according to one NCAA coach, because the best they could muster was a third-place finish in the all-around.

Perhaps the most vitriolic response to Hayasaki's 1970 NCAA all-around title came from Gene Wettstone. Penn State's coach at the time and chair of the NCAA rules committee, Wettstone remarked, "A state university is supported by the people of the state, and it's bad enough to take kids from out of state, but from out of the country? Why waste our resources on guys who might beat us in international competition?"

Might beat us? LOL!

When Wettstone uttered those words, Japanese gymnasts reigned supreme. They had won team gold in every Olympic Games during the 1960s, and on top of that, Yukio Endo and Sawao Kato were crowned the all-around victors in 1964 and 1968 respectively. Meanwhile, the U.S. men weren't doing so hot. (To be honest, they weren't even on the struggle bus; they were running alongside it, hoping the driver would let them on.) In 1964, Makoto Sakamoto finished 20th in the all-around. That was America's top all-around finish during the 1960s, and as Sakamoto's name suggests, he was a Japanese-American gymnast, who trained in Japan growing up.

So, what was Wettstone's beef? Was it really a question of the allocation of taxpayers' dollars? Or was Wettstone tired of watching the Japanese wallop American-trained gymnasts? Or both?

The Soviet Union

By 1976, America's luck was changing. As evidenced by Peter Kormann's bronze medal on floor in Montreal, American gymnastics was on the rise. In fact, the entire power dynamic of men's gymnastics was shifting in 1976. The USSR's Nikolai Andrianov ended Japan's domination in the Olympic all-around, defeating reigning Olympic champion Sawao Kato by one full point. On top of that, Andrianov won three of the six event finals. Yet, despite Andrianov's spectacular performance, the Japanese team still remained on top in Montreal, and the Soviet Union finished second yet again.

But then it happened. In 1979, the scales tipped. At the World Championships that year, the Soviet team defeated the Japanese (the 1978 World Champions), and to boot, the U.S. men took home a bronze medal. Perhaps even more startling was the fact that the Japanese won only one individual medal–Koji Gushiken's bronze on the pommel horse–while the United States took home 7 individual medals, including Kurt Thomas's silver in the all-around. (The USSR had quite the haul, winning a total of 16 individual medals.)

After such a successful go at the 1979 World Championships, the U.S. men were poised to have a stellar 1980 Olympics. However, due to Cold War politics, specifically the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter decided that America would boycott the Moscow Games. This, of course, perturbed the American men.

Lord knows that I love Bart Conner, but his remarks about the Moscow Olympics render him a cantankerous nincompoop. Reflecting on the 1980 Olympics, he told the New York Times in 1982, "I remember reading about the 10s that were being awarded by the judges. Until then, there had never been a 10 awarded in men's Olympic gymnastics. Of course, in Moscow the Russians were the ones getting the 10s."

In other words, he was complaining about scores from a meet that he did not even attend! In fact, he had not even seen the competition! He simply had read about it and reached a conclusion: the home-cooked-crack judging was good for the Soviets.

Now, don't get me wrong; it's a plausible theory. I love a judging controversy as much as the next person. But the problem is that Bart Conner got his facts mixed up. "The Russians" weren't the only ones getting 10s. Indeed, two Soviet gymnasts received perfect 10s. Dityatin received one on vault during the all-around competition, and Tkatchev received one on the high bar during event finals. But non-Soviet gymnasts received perfect 10s, as well. These included Zoltan Magyar of Hungary on pommel horse, and Stoyan Deltchev of Bulgaria on rings.

2 perfect 10s for Soviets and 2 perfect 10s for non-Soviets--doesn't sound too biased to me… Just sayin'.

To be sure, Bart Conner's complaint and historical inaccuracy are peccadillos compared to the accusations on the women's side. In 1978, a scandal broke when Robert Klein, chief medical examiner during the 1978 World Championships, told reporters that the Soviet gymnasts were using "braking" drugs, an unknown substance that allegedly stunted puberty. In fact, Klein went so far as to say that he had seen photos of a prominent Soviet gymnast whose breast tissue reduced over a four-year period.

As far as I know, nothing came of those accusations–besides the fact that my father repeated them to me when I was a child watching the 1992 Olympics.

The Russians

Fast forward 20 years to the 1997-2000 quad. The Soviet Union has disbanded, but its former republics–Russia in particular–are still powerhouses in gymnastics. In 1996, Russia wins the team title. In 1997, they finish third, and in 1999, they finish second.

Throughout this period, one of Russia's team leaders is Alexei Nemov. At the Atlanta Olympics, he wins six individual medals, including a silver in the all-around and gold on vault. At the 1997 World Championships, he wins floor exercise gold, and at the 1999 World Championships, he wins floor and pommel gold. By all accounts, Nemov is one of the best in the world.

The Americans, on the other hand, aren't doing so hot. They're not quite 1960s bad, but it ain't pretty either. Leading up to the Sydney Olympics, the U.S. gymnasts win no medals. Coming in fourth in the all-around at the 1999 World Championships, Blaine Wilson comes close to winning a medal, but, as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Then, it's the year of the Olympics. In Sydney, Russia wins a team bronze medal, finishing behind China and Ukraine. The United States places outside of the medals in fifth. A couple days later, Alexei Nemov wins the all-around, and Blaine Wilson finishes sixth. Despite glaring evidence to the contrary, Blaine Wilson has the audacity to open his yapper and tell the press that Nemov is nothing special. "Anyone can do what he does."

And after event finals, Wilson shoves his foot into his pie hole even farther, kicking around his large intestine for a few seconds. He tells reporters, "When you're judged on how you look and not by what you do, you're not going to get the score. The judges don't like Americans I think."

Eureka! I think he's got it! If only the American men were hotter, then they would be winning more medals.

Wait… If that's true, can someone explain why Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton, and Philipp Boy didn't win all the medals in London?

Paul Hamm's Legacy

In Sydney, Paul Hamm made his big international debut. Unlike Blaine Wilson, he did not have years of pent-up frustration behind him, yet the Olympic experience could not have been everything he had desired. Hamm, who qualified sixth, finished sixteenth in the all-around. But instead of using his competitors as a punching bag, he balanced out Wilson's doltish plaints. Of Nemov, Hamm said, "He's so good. He's got great form. What the judges love about him is how elegant he is. He's not as powerful as some guys, but he has that grace. He is very classy."

To compliment the victor was a rarity in U.S. men's gymnastics. (Back in the late 70s, Kurt Thomas did so, as well, but he was in the minority at the time. And his legacy did not stick.) But then an even rarer thing occurred in 2004. Paul Hamm dramatically won the all-around gold medal after falling on his vault.

It was a first for an American, but his gold medal–like the 1984 Olympic Team's gold medal–has an asterisk beside it. The judges reevaluated Yang Tae Young's parallel bar routine and determined that his start score was a tenth too low. The FIG asked Hamm to return his gold medal because Yang Tae Young was the rightful winner; Bob Colarossi, the head of USA Gymnastics, was against that decision, and so was the U.S. Olympic Committee.

After a long process, Hamm held onto his gold medal. Of course, to this day, some believe that Paul Hamm should have returned his gold medal, while others felt that justice prevailed. It's an argument that gymnastics fans still have on message boards. Regardless of one's personal feelings on the outcome, it is safe to say that, given the situation, Hamm was much savvier and classier than someone like Blaine Wilson would have been. (Can you imagine what Wilson would have said?)

To give one example, Paul remarked to the press, "I do feel for Yang Tae Young and empathize with what he's going through." That's not something that the typical U.S. gymnast would have said under those circumstances.

Of course, if you have followed Paul Hamm's career, you're fully aware that the mighty has fallen…

…over in the back seat of a police car. When we hear an Olympic gold medalist threaten to kill a police officer, it makes it difficult to remember that he was a real sportsman during his prime. But if we can suspend our feelings about drunken morons for a hot second, it's clear that the U.S. men continue to tread in Paul Hamm's footsteps during their media appearances.

From Jonathan Horton lauding Kohei Uchimura as a "machine" in 2010 to Danell Leyva praising Uchimura's "beautiful" gymnastics in 2012 to Sam Mikulak's giant bear hug with Yang Hak-Seon during the vault finals in London, echoes of Paul Hamm's words in 2000 can be heard today. The Americans have become much kinder in the press, doling out compliments when compliments are due. It's a far cry from the rhetoric used during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which was one of griping.

It's hard to say why this shift has occurred. Perhaps it is generational. Perhaps it reflects a shift in journalistic reporting. Perhaps it is a question of media training. Whatever the case may be, we mustn't conflate respect with a lack of competitive drive. To put it differently, doling out plaudits does not make a gymnast soft. America's male gymnasts still want to win. Danell Leyva, for instance, has vowed to keep working to beat Uchimura, and Sam Mikulak is trying to catch up to Yang Hak-Seon on vault.

But if the American men do not win gold at the 2013 World Championships, it's safe to say that we won't hear comments like, "Anyone can do what Uchimura does." The U.S. men, I trust, will keep it classy in the press, and their remarks will be brimming with praise for their fellow competitors.

Because, like it or not, that's the new American way.

Danell's face when he saw Yang Hak Seon's vault in London


  1. I'm not sure what Hamm's arrest has to do with the topic at hand, but I am certainly happy to see the upsurge of sportsmanship.

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