For much of the casual Olympic viewership, there’s a single story (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say) about women’s gymnastics: that of a preternaturally gifted, young teen girl who performs spectacular acrobatics under enormous pressure, who is pushed too hard, too young, who is injured, who is possibly suffering from an eating disorder.
That’s not the story I tell in my forthcoming book, The End of the Perfect 10, not because I don’t believe that it’s true–it most definitely is in some cases–but because I don’t think that every account, short but especially long, has to be solely about gymnastics’ pathologies. Just as I don’t believe that every account of football has to be about its huge concussion and CTE problems.
My book doesn’t spend much time retracing the steps of Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. That very true, very necessary account of gymnastics already exists. And thank God it does–I do believe that her book and the publicity it garnered did force the sport to grapple with some of its deeper pathologies, from injuries to eating disorders to borderline abusive coaching. I am also not naive enough to believe that all of these problems are resolved just because one book and TV movie was produced. (Look no further than world champion’s Maria Olaru’s recently published memoir about her time as a gymnast for proof of problems with coaching abuse and food restriction. If someone can translate this from Romanian, please tell me!)
Instead, I was interested in the history of gymnastics as a sport almost created for women; the ideas and symbolism around the 10 and why Nadia was the first to earn one; what was at stake in the scoring changes; and how the world order of women’s gymnastics has changed over the last 20 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
These are some of the other stories of the sport, though certainly not all of them. I hope they help fill out the overall picture of where the sport comes from, where it is at the moment, and where it’s headed in the future.