Regular viewers of NFL football, and they are legion, must know that their favorite sport has some horrifying drawbacks. The game does awful things to the minds and bodies of its players, and the NFL has done some equally awful things to cover all that up. People know this, and yet they watch anyway. As the world gears up for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Meghan O’Rourke has penned a cover story for New York magazine in which she suggests that women’s gymnastics may be every bit as bad as NFL football, or worse, and yet she, too, will continue watching. “My delight won’t be as unequivocal as it once was,” she admits. For O’Rourke, the appeal of the sport is extremely personal. As a teenager, she was once an aspiring gymnast herself “until a torn ligament ended my training.”
Football and gymnastics have a lot in common, in that both sports call upon athletes to perform at a level that can be described as superhuman. To put it another way, people aren’t meant to be doing this stuff. The body simply wasn’t designed for it. What makes gymnastics especially unnerving is that so much pressure is placed on teenage girls at a time in their lives when they might feel especially self-conscious and vulnerable.
O’Rourke only hints at some of the truly dark aspects of gymnastics, such as the sport’s terrible track record of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. She goes into more detail in describing the physical toll the sport can take on young women. Meanwhile, it is troubling the way the sport requires a very narrowly defined brand of hyper-femininity of its participants. To be clear, however, the article is not an all-out attack on gymnastics or the people involved in the sport. While O’Rourke does express misgivings and is obviously conflicted about this subject, she remains a loyal viewer of gymnastics competitions on television. The achievements of these young athletes are impressive and inspiring, after all. And even though gymnastics has been derided as anti-feminist, O’Rourke does not believe that this is entirely true. As she puts it:
What’s beautiful to me about the sport is the way that it dramatizes obsessive determination. When Gabby Douglas manages extraordinary heights in her uneven-bars release moves, we feel viscerally the extraordinary power of not just the human body but the human will. Teenage girls are often portrayed, even today, as rather vapid creatures, but here we get to see them take themselves incredibly seriously.