Two weeks ago, NBC Sports aired the USA Gymnastics Olympic Trials for both the Men’s and Women’s teams. I didn’t get a chance to watch the Men’s competition, but my sister and I recorded the Women’s so I was able to catch it. Obviously, since the Olympics are only once every four years, this is a big deal–not only to the athletes but to viewers as well. And for somebody who at one point had the ambition to actually be in the Olympics (Athens in 2004 would’ve been my year), it’s an even bigger-ish deal.
As I was watching the Trials, I was listening to the announcers as they were talking about the different competitors and their background and life stories. Unlike other sports, most female gymnasts reach the top before they’re even in their twenties. For the most part, once you pass your teenage years, you’re pretty much over the hill. Compare this with ballplayers who retire in their mid to late thirties–many of whom are married, have families or you know, can at least drive. They retire and say they’re going to spend more time with their families, start this type business or whatever. The next step for a lot of female gymnasts is to go to or finish college. Most ballplayers get drafted when they’re about to leave college; most elite-level gymnasts go to the Olympics before they go to college (I would’ve been 18 for Athens).
I continued with comparisons between gymnastics and the Ball Sports and starting thinking about viewers and fans of different sports. I knew for the Trials, that most gymnasts around the country–young and old, current and former–would be watching. I wasn’t so sure about the non-gymnast demograpic. Although, I do know that my friend Wynn and her boyfriend caught at least some of it because she was telling me how amazed he was at some of the skills the gymnasts performed. Compare this uncertainty with that one Sunday in February where the country goes crazy to see a bunch of guys beat each other up on a field over a ball that, if I didn’t already know, I wouldn’t be so quick to call a ball since it’s not even spherical in shape. Many people who watch the Superbowl have never even played a game of football in their life. I’m not saying this is a bad thing or anything. I think it’s great that one sport can bring people together so well like this.
Just as it always does, throughout the programming, NBC Sports showed profiles on the individuals who were at the top of the list to make it to Beijing. As usual, they covered topics such as family life, school and social life and the occasional random unknown factoid about the gymnast. They also covered training schedules. Most gymnasts at this level can train up to 30-35 hours a week (I was between 25 and 30). It’s pretty much a job–on top of school since most are under 18–you just don’t get paid for it. Professional athletes on the other hand get paid millions and are spokespeople for a number of various products, from sports drinks and energy bars to luxury vehicles and cosmetics. They’re every where.
Watching these profiles, I was able to relate to the girls (because they really are just girls…I’m not sure why the call it Women’s Gymnastics when you can be a “senior” you turn 15) when they discussed their training schedules and their eating habits because I was once in their position. However, if I were to watch one on somebody like, Alex Rodriguez or LeBron James, I would have a difficult time relating because 1) I obviously don’t play those sports and 2) athletes like them are on such a level of celebrity that I am more prone to associate them with little snippets about which nightclubs they frequent or which supermodel they’re dating now. But then, I stopped to think about it and realized that they must have done and must be doing something right to get at and stay at the level that they’re at.
This thought was brought on by a book by Carly Phillips that I’d read around the same time where the male lead is a professional baseball player who wasn’t able to play the game he loved at the moment because of a shoulder injury, on top of many other issues. I was also reminded of this article I read a little while back about this reporter who was interviewing a basketball player. I don’t remember which publication it was in, who wrote it or which player for which team. What I do remember was the guy writing about how he walked into the gym and immediately thought of a high school basketball team as opposed to a professional one because the players–he named off a bunch of well-known ones, none of whom I can remember–were doing suicides and running basic drills. He was surprised because he didn’t associate these guys with actually working hard during practice. He was more accustomed to just seeing them at a game or in celebrity magazines.
Why is that? Why are some sports more revered than others? Why do some sports receive more credit than others?
A perfect example of this would be an article from Fox Sports on MSN discussing the world’s 10 greatest athletes. Working off a list of 79 male athletes around the world, candidates had to “be active in their sport and be among the all-time best.” A panel of five sports scientists narrowed the list down to ten based on
“performance stats, along with their subjective judgments about the relative difficulty of each sport, to give an overall grade to the athletes. The judges graded athletes on speed, reflexes, stamina, and coordination, as well as power, strength and size. The finalists, they said, exhibited a wide range of athletic skill in highly competitive environments.”
Here’s who they came up for their top 10:
10. Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees (baseball)
9. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, FC Barcelona (soccer)
8. Jeremy Wariner, 400-meter sprinter (track & field)
7. Liu Xiang, 110-meter hurdler (track & field)
6. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (hockey)
5. Roger Federer (tennis)
4. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers (football)
3. Floyd Mayweather (boxer)
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (basketball)
1. Roman Sebrle (decathlete)
As I went through the list I was waiting to see a gymnast but obviously, as you can see, nothing. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Maybe reigning 2004 Olympic All-Around champion Paul Hamm (see video) or 2007 All-Around World Champion Wei Yang. But I was disappointed to find not a single one. Is gymnastics an easy, non-competitive sport? Are gymnasts small, slow, short-winded, uncoordinated and weak? I think not. And neither do many of those who left comments after the article was posted.
I’m not disregarding the other athletes and dismissing their respective sports. I know that I personally can’t hit a tennis ball to save my life and am only semi-coordinated on ice; my height alone (5’0″) brings me to a great disadvantage on the basketball court. I’m giving credit where credit’s due. However, as a former gymnast, it’d be nice for others to do the same.