By Susan Milligan
The U.S. women's gymnastics team has scored a stunning coup for the United States, winning a gold medal in team competition for the first time in 16 years. But there's a dark, tragic underside to the story, the Washington Post informs us: The teenage girls and women aren't providing the kewpie-doll cuteness and smiles that, it seems, are the real appeal of women's gymnastics.
In a piece headlined "Has Gymnastics Lost the Joy?" the Post bemoans the fact that improved technique, tough training, and sheer brute athleticism has taken the fun out of gymnastics (the men's team, which placed fifth in the team all-around, is apparently allowed not to have fun). The female athletes, the story says, aren't smiling as they accomplish incredible flips on the floor or precarious poses on the balance beam. The fact that the physical exertion and focus required to win-never mind just to compete-might be more important than looking like a sweet little girl isn't really addressed.
Why does the idea persist that women don't like sports and are uncomfortable with competition? Do you think pretty outfits mean a female athlete can't be tough, even brutal? Two words: Tonya Harding. Do you think women can't be fiercely competitive and relentless in their quest to win? A few more words: Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor (notably still winning despite not wearing little bikinis in the beach volleyball competition). Do you think female athletes can't even be as scheming and unsportsmanlike as any male counterpart? How about those female badminton players, throwing games to get an easier second round challenge?
Sports Illustrated can put women (models, notably-not athletes) in tinier and tinier bathing suits ever year on its cover, but it's no use. Women like sports, both as viewers and participants, and they aren't going to allow their competitions to be reduced to a glorified runway walk. The extraordinarily determined and talented female gymnasts who captured a gold medal for the United States might not have been grinning like simpering little girls when they competed. But that doesn't mean there was no joy present. We could see it all over their faces when the "Fab Five" held up their gold medals.