**Content warning: this episode explores the political and cultural foundations of gymnastics that helped open the door to the abusive nature of the sport that we know well today.**
In the first of a two-episode interview, Johanna dives into a crucial conversation with Dr. Georgia Cervin that is almost completely left out of ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast account of gymnastics culture in Heavy Medals: how the international history of women’s artistic gymnastics helped lead to the sport’s abusive culture today. Cervin traces the sport’s harmful core beginning with its femininity-obsessed and racist foundations in International Gymnastic Federation (FIG)’s Code of Points. She explains how the female leaders of FIG used the Code of Points partly to dictate and ensure that the sport—and thus its female athletes—conformed to the IOC’s Western notions of white femininity.
This concept of gymnastics’ femininity underwent drastic changes in the second half of the 20th century. Female gymnasts were initially coached exclusively by women (men were banned from the competition halls!), and the sport was steeped in balletic traditions to emphasize femininity and grace in adult women. Starting in the 1970s, male coaches increasingly became assistant coaches and justified their presence as being necessary to physically train and support female gymnasts in acrobatic movements. They moreover facilitated the changes in gymnasts’ age and maturity levels, encouraging the training of increasing young and less-physically developed girls.
Georgia ends the episode by explaining how after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, former Soviet coaches sought jobs abroad and were welcomed with open arms by gymnastics leaders in Australia, for instance. These developments forever altered the global culture of women’s artistic gymnastics.
Stayed tuned for Part II, where we continue this history by looking specifically at the ‘Karolyi foundation,’ as coined by Scott Reid in his episode, in the US and how it compares to the pre-existing gymnastics culture in the US.
While we wait for her forthcoming book to be released, her most relevant publications include “Ringing the Changes: How the Relationship Between the International Gymnastics Federation and the International Olympic Committee Has Shaped Gymnastics Policy,” and “Gymnasts are Not Merely Circus Phenomena: Influences on the Development of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics During the 1970s.”
After listening to the episode, check out our recent piece "Canceling the College-Football Season Isn't Enough" published in The Chronicle of Higher Education