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Gender Equality: Girls, Guys and Gymnastics


The world of gymnastics has not been a pinnacle of respect for athletes of late, marred by the infamous horror of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of multiple members of the US gymnastics team. Only recently news has broken that Steve Penny, former head of USAG is suspected of tampering with evidence linked to the abuse. The brave members of the team, whose voices were finally heard, exposed yet another facet of the MeToo movement’s unfortunate scope and impartiality when it comes to those who have fallen victim of the crime it aims to fight. For a long time I have had issues with aspects of competitive gymnastics that, unlike the abuse of its athletes, were not hidden in the shadows. This was something at the very forefront of the sport that left me not just uncomfortable but conflicted., something that raised questions for me regarding the wider world of gender equality. 

It’s August 2016, I’m sitting on my couch settling down to watch another round of events at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The US Women’s Team has been dominating the gymnastics scene at the Olympic Games and one name is on everyone’s lips: Simone Biles. She is about to make history as the American woman to earn the most gold medals in gymnastics at a single games with four. Her last event is the floor exercise which she nails, scoring a massive 15.800. She enters the arena, gets into position and assumes her starting pose.

Then the music starts, wait… music? I had just been watching Max Whitlock win a fantastic gold for Team GB for his floor routine and, unless I had accidentally been watching it on silent, there had definitely been no music. I re-watched it to make sure but no, I was right, there had indeed been no music.

British Gymnastics openly admit to the different treatment of men and women based on gender stating on their own website that women may have points deducted for artistry which includes: choice of choreography, composition/music and musicality. Men do not. It’s not the only gender discrepancy either, just look at the actual events men and women compete in. Men don’t compete for instance in the beam, the event which require perhaps the most grace from participants and women don’t compete in the rings or the pommel horse, arguably the least ‘pretty’ of events. They are not hiding anything, this gender inequality is unbelievably transparent.  

How do you start to get past the hidden inequality in sport if we haven’t even got rid of the sparkly, musical, “British Gymnastics Approved” discrepancies? Additionally, how do we address issues surrounding the different treatment of female athletes? Because I’m not entirely sure that the solution is to make them more like the men. And when I say not entirely sure I really do mean that I am conflicted on the subject. For example, this spring when the debate surrounding the grid-girl ban broke out, I was one of the voices who called for feminism to allow for women to make their own choices and their own money. I don’t want there to be a stigma surrounding traditionally ‘feminine’ roles, I would rather see both males and females within these roles. Rather than eliminating a career path for women, why not encourage the industry to include ‘grid-guys’ into the mix? We shouldn’t want to stop women entering the more traditionally feminine workplaces such as teaching, nursing, creative arts and insist they all join STEM programs, rather we should show our young boys that these ‘feminine’ career paths are open to them as well. Because I think ultimately, we’re getting better at telling girls they can do anything that boys can do such as become scientists, athletes and soldiers which is wonderful, but we’re not as good at telling (particularly heterosexual) boys that it’s OK to be like girls.

How this worry translates for me to the world of gymnastics is that I’m not convinced the way to go is to remove the ‘artistry’ section or more ‘graceful’ events from the women’s program, tempting as it is to get rid of the seeming frivolity. Granted this is a sport and it would seem logical to want to prioritise the athletic aspects, however grace, poise and precision are all qualities useful in sports, they’re just usually associated with female athletes. Could it instead be feasible to simply add them to the men’s program as well? Would it be more progressive for the Olympic Gymnastics Association to ask male athletes to demonstrate their artistry and grace as part of the sport? It may seem jarring to imagine male athletes having to choreograph a little dance and look composed and dainty on the beam but that’s the whole point, it shouldn’t seem jarring at all.

As with all aspects of addressing gender issues, we have to reevaluate not just our concept of femininity but masculinity too. As Raewyn Connell points out, the mere fact we have these two terms and not simply ‘male’ and female’ suggests that there is a spectrum of personality inside and not just between both societal genders. It may seem trivial advocating that male gymnasts get in touch with their artistic side, but I would hope this would be a step towards highlighting the strength in traditional femininity as well as offering a non-traditional strain of femininity. To return to the subject of MeToo, one could hope that this would allow male victims of abuse the confidence to join the movement without fear of being labelled emasculated and pathetic and allow women and men to truly compete on an equal stage, or floor.