Sprites in Spandex: The Onset of “Cuteness” in Women’s Gymnastics

On Tuesday, the US women’s gymnastics squad captured the Olympic team title. The “Final Five” outscored second place Russia by an impressive 8.209 points. This margin was historic and astonishing. It was the greatest difference between a first and second place team in fifty six years. On air, NBC commentator Tim Daggett likened the spread to “a football game where it’s 120 to nothing.”

While highlighting the impressive margin of victory, some journalists subtly undermined the athleticism of the Olympians. Instead of detailing the athlete’s strengths or skills, writers instead cast them as youthful sprites in sparkly leotards. For example, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times opened his column by noting that the victors “are five women tiny enough to huddle under a single American flag. Chalky and taped, they competed in spandex and crystals.” When the gymnasts stood atop the podium in triumph, he commented that “they were draped with gold medals that looked bigger than them.”

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Such imagery paints female gymnasts as girlish pixies on parade. This is both unrealistic and disparaging. First, the average age of the Olympic gymnasts is just under twenty one. The average age of US swimmers is just over twenty two. Yet, as New Yorker writer Reeves Wiedeman pointed out, media coverage “encourages us to look at the swimmers as some of the world’s premier athletes, and the gymnasts as the world’s most coordinated beauty-pageant contestants.” Second, and more frustratingly, the accounts belie the athleticism and power necessary to be an elite gymnast. Portraying the Olympians as pocket-size fairies diminishes the sheer strength necessary to vault, twist, jump, and soar.

So why does this occur? Criticism of the media’s poor Olympic coverage has been widely reported. But for gymnastics specifically, some of the issues started long before the Final Five dominated in Rio. As Wiedeman argued, today’s coverage “is hindered by an outdated image of the gymnasts as teen-age pixies bouncing around the screen.” The perception of gymnasts as tiny, fluttering acrobats started when Olga Korbut stole the show in the 1972 Munich Games and Nadia Comăneci usurped her in the 1976 Montreal Games.

The US adoration of Korbut and Comăneci began as the women’s liberation movement extended into the athletic realm. The popularization and portrayal of gymnastics in the United States occurred largely as a result of the advances women gained in sport in the 1970s. As female athletes fought for more sporting opportunities and consequently shattered gender norms, gymnastics developed into one of the country’s most popular pastimes for girls. The focus on the gymnasts’ “cuteness” tempered their athleticism and assured that they competed in a controlled, socially-approved fashion. The obsession with “cuteness” slowed the momentum of the women’s liberation movement by reassuring the public of women’s appropriate place in sport. In other words, as strong, muscular female athletes took to the courts, fields, and stadiums, many in the United States found comfort in the “little dolls with pigtails.”[1]

 Age and Size in Gymnastics

Larisa_Petrik_1966b

Larisa Petrick, 1966. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Soviet Union, which dominated gymnastics in the 1950s, started to train younger and smaller gymnasts in an acrobatic fashion in the 1960s. The 1964 Soviet National Championships therefore proved to be a watershed moment for the sport, one which accelerated the downward trend of age and size. In this meet, 15-year-old Larisa Petrick became the country’s youngest all-around champion. Called the “Little Gypsy” in Eastern Europe, the “modest, freckled girl” who “like many Soviet schoolgirls . . . still wears a white bow in her hair” defeated 30-year favorite Larisa Latynina.[2] According to gymnastics historian Minot Simons, after Petrick’s spectacular performance “it began to be clear that the Soviet team would, in the future, be made up of more youthful gymnasts.” From that point forward, Soviet teenaged gymnasts became commonplace. For example, in the 1966 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany, 17-year-old Soviet standout Natalya Kuchinskaya earned three gold medals, two silvers, and one bronze.

Other countries quickly followed the Soviet’s lead, including the United States. Notably, in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, 21-year-old Linda Metheny, who had previously competed in the Olympics at age 17, was the oldest competitor on the US squad. More importantly, her 15-year-old teammate Cathy Rigby became the highest-scoring American gymnast when she placed 16th in Mexico City. Rigby followed her Olympic success by becoming the first US gymnast, of either gender, to win a gold medal at the 1970 World Championships. Recognizing the decreasing age of gymnasts, in 1970, the International Gymnastics Federation lowered the minimum age in international events from 14 to 13.

The shrinking of gymnasts’ ages and sizes started in the 1960s; yet, few people outside of the sport noticed. Petrick and Rigby thus never received the same level of adulation as those who followed in their footsteps. It was the advancements of the women’s liberation movement, and the backlash against feminism, that propelled the sport and helped launch Korbut’s and Comăneci’s fame.

 Women’s Liberation and Backlash

A western women’s movement emerged in the 1960s that subsequently revitalized feminism. Inspired by both civil rights and Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement in the mid-twentieth century outlined goals for–and tactics to achieve–gender equality. Despite fracturing along lines of race, class, and sexuality, when assessed collectively, the “second-wave” of the women’s liberation movement experienced a “golden” moment during the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to historian Estelle B. Freedman, by the end of the decade, “A generation of Western women came of age influenced by feminism to expect equal opportunities.”

Women’s sport increased in conjunction with the women’s liberation movement. Perhaps most notably, Title IX aimed to attain equitable financial distribution between men and women, which sparked unprecedented growth in women’s sport. As a result, US girl’s and women’s participation in sport increased dramatically. On the professional level, tennis player Billie Jean King was among the first to embrace the cause. Led by the vocal advocate, female tennis players began to fight for equality in tennis. Eight of the top competitors started the Virginia Slims Tour in 1971. Shortly thereafter, King earned $117,000, becoming the first female athlete to breach the 100-grand mark. Her easy defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973 provided additional justification for the expansion of women’s sport. King’s on-court efforts buttressed the women’s movement and provided a strong symbol of successful female encroachment into traditionally masculine realms.

However, not everyone viewed the expanding opportunities for women favorably. As historian Robert M. Collins argues, when the culture moved to the left, politics moved to the right, creating friction and culture wars. The women’s liberation movement consequently came under attack. The rise of the conservative right sought to erase the gains of the women’s liberation movement; specifically, the leaders of the counter-movement claimed that the opportunities afforded to women through Title VII, Title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment would shift the natural sex roles, de-center the family, diminish the duty of men to care for the family, and harm sport. According to historian Sara Evans, the new right blamed feminists for the turbulence of the 1960s, a view which gained accord in the 1970s. “Virulent, even vicious opposition to feminism” ensued, she said. Sport similarly became a cultural battleground.

Resistance to women’s advancements in sport surfaced as female athletes made strides in athletic activities. With the enactment of Title IX, Congressmen and male sport enthusiasts quickly attempted to derail the legislation. For example, in 1974, Senator John Tower sought to limit Title IX’s impact by ensuring only non-revenue producing sports faced compliancy. Two years later, the NCAA filed a lawsuit that claimed its implementation was illegal. NCAA officials suggested that female participation reduced male prospects. When legislative efforts failed to curb female involvement in sport, conventional gender norms entered the conversation.

 Enter the “Cute” Gymnasts

In the 1970s, a new paradigm of female athleticism developed, one which embraced contradictory ideals. On the one hand, women athletes experienced new sporting freedoms. On the other, concerns about female masculinity and same-sex sexuality ensured gender regulation. According to sport scholar Jaime Schultz, in the 1970s and 1980s, a “New Ideal of Beauty” permeated women’s physical activities. This paradigm directed women into socially acceptable pastimes that both upheld conventional gender norms and sought to enhance heterosexual attractiveness. In other words, women worked out through aerobics, dance, jogging, and slimnastics to maintain a culturally sanctioned standard of physical beauty. Schultz explains that “With women on the cusp of a sporting revolution . . . feminist retrenchment in the subsequent decade meant a cultural recalibration that directed attention toward aesthetic fitness . . . at the expense of women’s athletics.”

Within this context of backlash, “cute” female gymnasts gained popularity in the United States. The sport necessitated physicality and strength; however, the focus on prepubescent bodies and girlish looks stymied women’s advances in sport. As US journalist Janice Kaplan adeptly noted at the time, “we like our female athletes in huggable packages. When they are cute, they are not threatening.”[3] Elfin features and diminutive sizes therefore became the emphasis of women’s gymnastics in the 1970s.

Korbut seemed to epitomize the turn to cuteness. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, she debuted the “Korbut Flip,” a difficult act that entailed completing a back flip from the high-bar before re-grasping the lower-bar, and the world fell in love with the “elfin Russian girl.” As New York Times writer Dave Anderson recalled, “Olga’s manner had been perfect for show biz–a smile, a wave, pigtails, a wiggle.”[4] Numerous accounts highlighted her gamine appearance, small stature, and daring acrobatics. For example, the Washington Post labeled her the “teenage darling of the Games,” while the Los Angeles Times described her as “a tiny Russian doll with an impish smile, saucy style. . . . [At] a wispy 84 pounds.”[5]

More important than Korbut’s initial success was her momentary faltering in the all-around competition. She only needed to score a 9.4 on the uneven bars to take the gold in the individual all-around, a seemingly inevitable outcome. However, Korbut misjudged the force necessary for a parallel handstand, stubbed her toe, and fell to the ground. In tears, she completed the routine. Korbut scored a 7.5 and dropped to tenth place. Although the mistake cost her the individual all-around gold medal, her tearful resilience earned her increased adoration. US fans loved that “the tiny, tearful trooper, didn’t quit.”[6] As Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray explained, “Olga Korbut was not really the best gymnast at the meet. But she was the most adorable. . . . When tears began to course down her cheeks, the spectators would have killed for her. Little Red Riding Hood shouldn’t get eaten by the wolf. Little dolls in leotards shouldn’t cry.”[7] Her vulnerability and sadness added to her cuteness. Even Korbut recognized the significance of her tears. “I think that if I hadn’t fallen from the bars that awful night in Munich, I would have occupied a completely different place in history,” she wrote in her 1992 autobiography. “But my uncontrollable tears really made the audience there in the arena—and television viewers all over the world—feel for that young gymnast.” As other powerful female Olympians competed in Munich, the small, teenaged gymnast who cried stole the show.

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If Korbut started the cuteness hype, Comăneci crystalized the standard. By the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Korbut was not only old news, she was actually considered old. Reports noted she was “old now,” “ancient by some standards,” and “washed up at age 21.” Comăneci, however, was the sport’s “newest darling,” a “flying 14-year-old sprite who won the hearts and admiration of the world.”[8] She gained recognition for earning the first perfect score in Olympic history, then continued to impress by receiving six additional 10.0s. While her accomplishments proved extraordinary, few described her perfection in athletic terms. Rather, signifiers of cuteness crept into the accounts. As a notable example, New York Times reporter Dave Anderson erased all indications of strength when he described Comăneci as follows:

On the uneven bars, she whirls as easily as a sparrow fluttering from limb to limb on a tree. On the balance beam, she clings to it as surely as a squirrel would. On the vault, she lands as softly as a sea gull on a beach. In her floor exercises, she is part go-go dancer, part ballerina, part cheerleader.[9]

Anderson offered no suggestion of skill, power, or strength.

Similarly, many in the United States focused on Comăneci’s age and stature. The Chicago Tribune labeled her an “86-pound package of Romanian super-athlete,” while Tribune writer Rick Talley called her the “perfect imp.” Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Shirley drove the point home when he commented that Comăneci “looks as if she ought to be in bed at 9pm, or in kindergarten.” He then suggested her size provided an advantage for “What judge cannot be swayed by little dolls with . . . ponytails flying as she somersaults and cartwheels?”[10] Significantly, several accounts likened the Romanian athlete to a Dresden doll, a delicate porcelain figurine. Robert Markus of the Chicago Tribune explained that “Up close, she looks like a Dresden doll who would shatter into a thousand pieces if you dropped her.”[11] This likening served to highlight Comăneci’s fragile appearance and physicality, thereby tempering her impressive strength.

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Along with repeatedly comparing Comăneci to a doll–and reminiscent of the recounting of Korbut’s tears–the US press highlighted her childlike vulnerability. Apparently she suffered severe homesickness during the Olympics. “Romania’s Nadia Comaneci is the world’s Olympic darling but she also is a tired little girl of 14. She looked like a little girl who was desperately anxious to run away and play,” noted the Chicago Tribune.[12] Shirley similarly testified that “Nadia Comaneci is homesick. . . . She looks as if she ought to be playing dolls or skipping rope instead of holding press conferences.”[13] By and large, the supposed weakness of the childlike Comăneci displaced her athleticism.

Women’s gymnastics in the United States experienced tremendous growth following the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympic Games. As Korbut recalled later in life, “in the post-Munich America . . . gymnastics classes and clubs seemed to be springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain.” If television increased the sport’s popularity, the cuteness of the acrobatic teenagers increased its appeal. Private gymnastics clubs grew from 50 in 1970 to over 500 five years later, and the number of female participants jumped from 45,000 to 500,000 in the same span. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported substantial growth in both the schools offering gymnastic teams and the number of girls participating. Richard Aronson, secretary of the National Association of College Gymnastics Coaches, noted that “girls are taking to gymnastics like they’ve taken to no other sport in this country’s history. . . . They have discovered the aesthetic appeal of the sport, its contribution to femininity and beauty.”[14] Such claims of femininity and grace were common justifications for the sport’s popularity.

***

In the 1970s, the pushback against women in sport fanned the fire of popularity for women’s gymnastics. Accounts ignored the Olympians’ athleticism and instead described the athletes as diminutive, elfin acrobats. Centering cuteness in the narrative not only served to highlight femininity and downplay strength, but it also offset the supposed indiscretions allowed by the women’s liberation movement.

Such depictions remain intact in the coverage of women’s gymnastics today. Rather than focus on the appearances and statures of the Final Five, coverage could highlight the skills and strength necessary to win medals in gymnastics. Borrowing from Wiedeman, “Here’s a suggestion for NBC . . . How about celebrating this group of American gymnasts, perhaps the greatest ever, by explaining to Americans exactly what makes them so great?”

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

 

[1] Bill Shirley, “The Nadia & Olga Show,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1976, E1.

[2] “15-Year-Old Girl Hailed in Soviet,” New York Times, December 17, 1964, 57.

[3] Janice Kaplan, “Views of Sport: Women Athletes are Women,” New York Times, March 4, 1979, S2.

[4] Dave Anderson, “‘She’s so Good, You Get a Chill,’” New York Times, July 22, 1976, 1.

[5] “Olympics at a Glance,” Washington Post, September 1, 1972, D1.; “Miss Korbut: Twice a Golden Girl,” Washington Post, September 1, 1972, D7.

[6] “Russian Gymnast Honored,” Los Angeles Time, January 18, 1973, E1.

[7] Jim Murray, Comaneci Olympics,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1976, F1.

[8] Jim Murray, Comaneci Olympics,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1976, F1; Rick Talley, “Nimble Nadia is a Perfect Imp,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1976, E1; Bill Shirley, “It’s Another Perfect Night,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1976, D1; “‘I’m Nadia, Not Olga,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1976, A2.

[9] Dave Anderson, “‘She’s so Good, You Get a Chill,’” New York Times, July 22, 1976, 1.

[10] “Gymnasts Seek End to Drought,” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1976, K23; Rick Talley, “Nimble Nadia is a Perfect Imp,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1976, E1; Bill Shirley, “The Nadia & Olga Show,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1976, E1.

[11] Robert Markus, “Comaneci is Games New Gold Girl,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1976, C1.

[12]  “Nadia ‘Tired,’ Homesick,” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1976, C1.

[13] Bill Shirley, “Nadia Homesick,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1976, F1.

[14] Joseph M. Winski, “More and More Girls Flip Over Gymnastics,” Wall Street Journal, July 6, 1973, 1.

2 thoughts on “Sprites in Spandex: The Onset of “Cuteness” in Women’s Gymnastics

  1. Pingback: A feminist guide to making sense of the Olympics - Nutrition and Wellness

  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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