Why Extreme Gymnastics Will Dominate the Rio Olympics

Has athleticism eclipsed aesthetic spirit? Dvora Meyers’s book traces the evolution of the sport.

Cristiana Couceiro; Express / Getty; Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty

In 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, the young Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci flew off the uneven bars in a dismount of astonishing height and extension, landing confidently, even if she took an “almost invisible hop,” as she later called it. The crowd roared, and she turned to look at the scoreboard: 1.00. For a moment, she later told the Associated Press, she was confused. She didn’t think it had been her best routine, but it hadn’t been that bad. Then a judge signaled that the score stood for a 10. At the time, a faultless routine was so inconceivable that the board had been designed to accommodate only a single numeral followed by two decimal points.

Comăneci wasn’t the only gymnast to get a 10 during the Montreal Games. The Soviet Nellie Kim received two, one for performing a novel and difficult vault and the other for her floor exercise. But Comăneci—14 years old, light and quick and pliable as a rubber band, with a ribbon in her ponytail—is the winner we remember. She went on to earn seven 10s during the Games, scores she received both for her aesthetic grace and for her innovative, daring athleticism. On the uneven bars, she pioneered a release move (now known as the Comăneci salto). On the balance beam, she did elegant back handsprings and precise aerial cartwheels. During her floor exercise, she performed a full-twisting back layout, as well as a beautiful Arabian pike (a kind of twisting forward flip). As the Soviet competitor Olga Korbut had in 1972, she captivated audiences with her seemingly effortless airborne moves—an irresistible juxtaposition of tiny girl and intrepid physicality.


Comăneci marked the arrival of an entirely new era of gymnastics, which had been in the making at least since Korbut’s dominance at Munich. She was one of a team of very young Romanian gymnasts trained by the iconoclastic, media-savvy Béla Károlyi at his school in Oneşti. Inspired by his days as a boxer, he made the girls work very hard at conditioning, and taught them acrobatic skills usually reserved for men.

Other countries took note. Gone, suddenly, were the matronly 20‑somethings like Larisa Latynina, who had competed in the 1958 World Championships while pregnant. By 1977, Comăneci writes in her memoir, Letters to a Young Gymnast, the new gymnast “was smaller, younger, leaner, and focused not only on mastering technique but also on pushing the envelope on each apparatus to achieve the maximum level of difficulty and the highest possible score.” She added, “It also meant that there was very little margin for error—if a gymnast made the slightest mistake, her chances of victory were dashed.”

Girls all over the world, and especially in the United States (I was one of them), wanted in on the revolution. The conditions were right for what we might call the Roger Bannister effect: Once Nadia did it, others thought they could do it too. Feminist stirrings in the 1960s and the passage of Title IX in the ’70s meant girls were encouraged to be more athletic than ever, making the old-style women’s floor and beam exercises look staid. And radical improvements in equipment—the addition of springs to the floor mat and bouncy fiberglass to the wooden bars—further enabled physical innovation.

Within the span of a few years, women’s gymnastics became a hugely popular and fast-paced sport, featuring not only demanding dance elements but risky, high-flying moves that had been unthinkable in the early ’70s. At the 2012 Olympics, the American gymnast McKayla Maroney performed an Amanar vault—considered one of the most difficult skills for women—and got more air than Kōhei Uchimura, the male all-around champion. Maroney’s vault was also evidence of another dramatic shift: Over the decades, as Romania’s and Russia’s teams have declined, the United States has become a dominant force in gymnastics.

The initial Eastern-bloc-driven revolution is the backdrop of Dvora Meyers’s The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score—From Nadia to Now, but the book’s real focus is the subsequent evolution of the sport, in particular its more recent rise in the United States. Meyers, a journalist, offers a strikingly optimistic take, very different from the sportswriter Joan Ryan’s account in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes in 1995. Ryan portrayed an elite gymnastic world rife with abuse, eating disorders, and emotional misery. She placed the blame largely on Béla Károlyi and his wife, Márta, whose relocation to the U.S. in 1981 helped lift American women’s gymnastics to new heights, in part by extending the ruthlessly authoritarian approach Károlyi had honed at home.

Writing two decades later, Meyers offers a much more upbeat view as she chronicles the growth of elite women’s gymnastics in the U.S. in the post-Soviet era. Today that world is home, she argues, to a greater diversity of body types, races, and ages, as well as of coaching practices. She also makes the case that high-level American gymnasts have more choices and agency than ever before. Much of the credit for this, Meyers suggests, can be ascribed to another striking change in the sport: the introduction of a new scoring system that emphasized athleticism and rendered the “perfect” 10 obsolete. As she points out, Simone Biles, American gymnastics’ current “It Girl,” is, at 19, more muscular and broad-shouldered than the waifish 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu was in 1996, in the Károlyis’ heyday. If Romania had qualified for Rio—shockingly, the team failed to make the cut in April’s qualifiers—Biles would likely have competed against 28-year-old Cătălina Ponor. Little girls no more.

The story of this transformation, Meyers notes, really begins with the Károlyis’ defection from Romania. In 1984, Béla trained the stars of the American women’s Olympic team, and in 1988 was named head coach. To hear Comăneci tell it, “Béla single-handedly refashioned the U.S. system of gymnastics. In order to be competitive with the Soviets and Romanians, he told the American girls that they had to practice six hours a day, not three.” The Károlyis’ intensive and controlling ethos (they enforced silence during practice and were rumored to have searched girls’ gym bags for food) meshed with rising American meritocratic anxieties: Parents across the country were ready to devote time and money to turning their children into competitive standouts.

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The Károlyis’ tyrannical approach seemed vindicated when the American women’s squad—known as the “Magnificent Seven”—won its first-ever team gold medal, at the 1996 Olympics. But the triumph was short-lived. A stressed-out, injured, and tense U.S. team went on to a poor showing at the 2000 Olympics, with Béla in a new role as “national team coordinator.” Time was working against the Károlyis. The dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern bloc, as Meyers vividly describes, had brought a flood of coaches to the U.S., who by now ran well-established gyms of their own. And more coaches began opening gyms—among them a former member of the Chinese national team, Liang Chow, and Kim Zmeskal Burdette (a 1992 U.S. Olympic-team member who had trained with Béla)—further weakening the Károlyis’ hold on the sport. In a turn-of-the-millennium restructuring, Márta assumed the role of national team coordinator.

Aspiring elite gymnasts now have an assortment of training styles to choose from. Chow, for example, doesn’t believe in excessively long days of practice. Zmeskal Burdette and her husband, Chris Burdette, hold weekly yoga sessions and encourage chatter at the chalk bucket (the gym’s watercooler). Simone Biles’s coach, Aimee Boorman, saw right away that Biles needed to have fun in order to improve. Select gymnasts travel to the Károlyis’ gym once a month, which means coaches no longer have to “figure out everything … from drills to progressions to training plans to competition schedules,” Meyers writes. Each coach has his or her individual strengths, and Márta works with the gymnasts on consistency and takes care of larger strategic decisions. In turn, the gymnasts get a chance to benefit from multiple advocates. Whether or not the U.S. is any sort of model for other teams facing their own organizational struggles (most notably the Russians and the Romanians), the division of labor has served the Americans well so far.

But the new heterogeneity should not evoke visions of seamless harmony. Meyers’s own account undercuts her sunny and often too-simple emphasis on a sweeping, scoring-driven transformation of women’s gymnastics—the authoritarian ways of the past replaced by a more federated, American-style model of female empowerment. Her sanguine analysis of rising pluralism in the sport turns out to be something of a disjointed muddle: She makes stabs at isolating causes and effects that are more complex than she indicates. For example, she argues that gymnasts can stay in the sport longer than ever. Yet three members of the “Fierce Five”—2012’s gold-winning team—have retired (or moved to college gymnastics), citing physical and motivational obstacles to maintaining their peak training levels. She treats the Károlyis gingerly, skirting controversies that suggest reasons to wonder what the pressure behind the scenes is really like.

And eager though Meyers is to attribute the new pluralism to the advent, in 2006, of the new, and still contested, scoring system, she doesn’t clinch the case that the system is the main source of change. Under the old code, an athlete couldn’t earn above the “perfect” score of 10. Gymnasts now receive one score for execution (still capped at 10) and another for difficulty (uncapped), assessed by separate panels of judges and then added together. A gymnast’s total score includes as many points as she can accrue for her 10 most difficult moves; top scores now range into the 16s. The effect is to give competitors a real incentive to prioritize challenging combinations.

Because scoring in gymnastics (unlike in baseball or basketball) is almost entirely subjective, its structure profoundly influences what the sport looks like, shaping and reflecting its shifting values—whether that might be originality or perfection of technique. No wonder, then, that advocates and critics alike are tempted to link a big swerve in the sport to the now decade-old system. In the eyes of detractors, current scoring (besides confusing spectators) has allowed athleticism to eclipse the aesthetic spirit of the sport. In the eyes of Meyers and other defenders, a system that allows a gymnast to make up ground after a fall has encouraged a culture of risk taking and bold physicality. The numeric flexibility, proponents add, means that a gymnast needn’t be as much of an all-around artist-athlete, trained from the age of 3 to master both an exquisite relevé and a panoply of tough skills.

There is no question that the wider array of scores reflects, and more accurately assesses, the range of difficulty exhibited by today’s gymnasts. The two-pronged judging approach also helps minimize inevitable scoring distortions. (Meyers cites a study suggesting that judges can’t see all the mistakes a gymnast makes; a single error by an athlete whose execution is nearly flawless is bound to get noticed, but detecting all the mistakes in a slipshod routine is almost impossible.) As for those engaged in the sport’s culture war, it’s worth remembering that some version of the aesthetic/athletic debate has enlivened gymnastics ever since it took off 40-some years ago. Before we rush to ascribe decisive causal power, for good or for ill, to the new scoring system, we should pause to appreciate that the sport continues to thrive on such contention.

Today’s best gymnasts, like Simone Biles, still have it all—both the grace and the tumbling chops. Whatever problems the system may have, Meyers persuasively endorses one important benefit: It emphasizes daring accomplishment over meticulous flawlessness. An obsessive and illusory perfectionism may lie at the heart of many girls’ dreams of being a gymnast, but so does a more primal urge, the desire to just see if you can—or, as one former gymnast puts it in Meyers’s book, to get as close to flying as possible. The desire to witness that convergence of élan and power will have many of us glued to the women’s Olympic competition this August. When Biles takes the floor mat, what you’ll see—I hope—is not a stressed-out, anorexic little girl, but a 19-year-old athlete soaring through the air, fully enjoying herself.

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