Romanian Gymnastics Seeks A New Path Forward

An interview with Romanian sportswriter Andreea Giuclea.

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When the documentary The Golden Girl, which premiered on HBO Europe last year, was finally translated and released stateside, I reached out to two people immediately to discuss it: Bea Gheorghisor, editor of the Couch Gymnast and my own personal Romanian gymnastics guru; and Andreea Giuclea, a Romanian sportswriter who has covered gymnastics and many other sports for the several publications including Decât o Revistă.

(Disclosure: I was a speaker at the 2016 edition of the Power of Storytelling conference, which is run by the crew behind Decât o Revistă, which is where I met Giuclea and many other smart, talented people doing really interesting work.)

When I reached out to Giuclea, who, in addition to her work on gymnastics has profiled former world tennis #1 Simona Halep as well as Cristina Neagu, one of the all-time handball greats, she told me that she had a longform piece about abuse and the Romanian gymnastics system that would soon be translated to English. I looked forward to reading this translation of Giuclea’s work the way some of you nerds look forward to a new Star Wars movie. (I have never watched any of those films. My epitaph will read, “Never watched Star Wars.”)

A couple of weeks ago, she sent me the link to her story, which was well worth the wait. She interviewed many notable gymnastics figures for the piece, including 1999 world all-around champion Maria Olaru and 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Alexandra Marinescu. Both gymnasts have spoken publicly about the abuse they experienced while training: Marinescu in 2002, and Olaru in 2016.

After reading Giuclea’s story—which is something that you should do, too—I had even more I wanted to discuss with the reporter. I sent her a bunch of questions and she sent me back a bunch of thoughtful answers.

Here’s the email Q&A, lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: Before you started reporting on women's gymnastics in Romania, what did you know about it? What were your general impressions of the sport?

Andreea Giuclea: I grew up loving the sport, as I assume many Romanians do. I remember watching gymnastics at the Olympics and being mesmerized by the gymnasts—their grace, their artistry, the level of difficulty, and of course, the many medals they won. I knew, of course, about Nadia, who was like a myth back then, about all the other great gymnasts Romania had, and how important this sport seemed to be for our country, even if I didn’t fully understand what it all meant back then.

As I grew older and read more about their life in Deva, I realized how hard they work, how young they are when they start, how different their childhoods are from the rest of us, even from other athletes. I admired them even more for their incredible resilience and toughness, but also started wondering if it’s not too much for a kid to go through all that. But I still loved the sport, I still watched and admired the gymnasts when they performed, but with these questions in the back of my mind.

DM: How has the sport's reputation with the general public changed over the last decade plus?

AG: I think the lack of results in recent years, especially the two missed Olympic qualifications, turned the narrative around gymnastics from it being the most successful and representative sport, the country’s symbol and international ambassador, towards one that cannot find its way back on track. Words like decline, failure, disgrace, disaster, have been used often when talking about the sport’s current situation, as opposed to its glorious past. This is why the present situation hurts so much, because people constantly compare it to the memory of the golden age. 

[The 1988 Romanian women’s gymnastics team]

And I think this approach may have also prevented those in charge from looking at things more realistically and coming up with solutions for a new future for the sport, one that’s anchored to today’s possibilities and realities, and not trying to replicate the past. 

Also, I think parents nowadays are less willing to let their kids go through the excruciating training, and kids themselves are less willing to put up with it and with being away from their parents for such long periods of time. I’ve spoken with mothers who told me they wouldn’t want their girls to pursue gymnastics, at least not at an elite level, as they think the sacrifices, the pain, the injury risks, are too high and the coaching too severe. 

I don’t know how it was before, but I’ve attended national championships with very few spectators in the stands, [and] I [think] this could also be a discussion of how you promote and sell the sport. The European Championships in 2017 was a success in terms of audience. The arena was packed and there were lots of children cheering in the stands. I remember speaking with a young girl who practiced gymnastics herself and wanted to be like her idol, Cătălina Ponor. But her mother, standing next to her, was worried about the many hours she was practicing a day, about how tired she was at night, about her sore hands and not wanting her to neglect school.  

And there is still a pretty big community of devoted fans who follow all the news and competitions and desperately want to see the sport rise and [for the Romanians to] win again.

DM: For a long time, Nadia Comaneci was the most famous Romanian in the world, held up as the symbol of the country. What do you think it means for a person to be turned into a symbol of her country at such a young age? And what does it mean for a country to be primarily known for a young girl who does flips and leaps? 

AG: I can only assume it must be overwhelming for someone to become so famous at such a young age, even more so in a communist country where her success was appropriated by the regime and used as political validation and as a propaganda tool. She talks in her autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast, about how difficult it was to be seen and treated as a national treasure, which led to her being watched and controlled all the time. It got even worse after she retired from the sport and after the Karolyis’ defection when she wasn’t allowed to travel internationally. She wasn’t allowed to advance in her career and she was paid very poorly. All of these [restrictions] made her eventually flee the country.

As for a country taking so much pride in the performance of a teenager, it was in accordance with a communist regime obsessed with creating a positive image abroad and with justifying its rule. And also with the way children were treated, how they were used for political parades and rallies, and the value parents put on their accomplishments, even the grades they got in school.

[The 1976 Romanian women’s gymnastics team]

DM: As you noted in the story, while the Karolyis [Bela and Martha] perfected this strict, abusive kind of training, other coaches employed similar tactics, and not just in women's gymnastics. Can you talk a bit about the sporting culture of the 70s and 80s in Romania?

AG: There was a lot of violence directed at children in those times. It was the known way to educate and motivate them; teachers at schools disciplined kids like this, parents at home, and sport was just the same. Gabriela Geiculescu, a former gymnast I interviewed for the story who now lives and owns a private gym in the US, told me this is how society was back then—violent towards children and towards women. This was what was considered acceptable at home, so they thought it was normal [for it] to happen in the gyms as well.

In addition, people were very poor and didn’t have many options for a better life, and sport offered them a way out. So they put up with a lot in order to succeed. They left their homes at early ages. They trained as hard as they humanly could. They struggled, and they accepted the abusive coaching methods as the way to succeed. 

I think this is why most of the athletes who grew up in that system, and especially those who became successful, don’t talk about the system as being abusive; they probably don’t even see it that way, but as the way they earned a better life. And some of them have leadership positions in sport today, so that’s why things change so slowly. 

DM: In The Golden Girl, there is a lot of never-before-seen training footage from Deva that shows Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang belittling and berating the gymnasts as they trained. These videos seem to validate what gymnasts like Alexandra Marinescu and Maria Olaru had said about their experiences at Deva. I know that initially neither of the gymnasts' disclosures of abuse were taken very seriously, but is the tide starting to turn in their favor? Are people ready to believe that these things happened?

AG: I think people are more willing to believe them, yes. Or less willing to look in the other direction for the sake of Olympic glory, as they did for a long time. Because I think people knew or suspected this was going on; it was a kind of open secret. They just didn’t want to accept it or to believe it was as bad as it was. It was like a collective lie we told ourselves to justify our fascination with winning, which came on top of a tendency, as a society, to not believe children and not care that much about their well-being.

There are still people in the gymnastics community who told me the gymnasts are overreacting or are only focusing on the bad parts and it couldn’t have been bad every day. There are still comments on social media from fans who say elite sport can’t be done without sacrifices and the girls should have quit if they couldn’t take it. It’s frustrating, but I see it as the legacy of a system in which things were done this way for a long time. And it will take a long time for it to change, not just in sport but also in politics, and in other aspects of society.

At the same time, I did see a lot of positive reactions as well, especially from younger generations, people who look at the world differently and who don’t want to justify athletic success by any means. Romanian sport is still very much dominated by old mentalities and practices, but in recent years it [has] interacted with foreign coaches who worked with Romanian athletes, such as Darren Cahill, who works with Simona Halep, or several Danish or Swedish coaches who trained women’s handball teams and the women’s national team. They promote a more positive approach to coaching. They speak about trust, communication, motivation. They focus on mental training and sports psychology, and I think seeing them work can have an impact on other coaches, and also on the way fans perceive coaching. But it’s a process.

DM: This brings me to the Gymnast Alliance. It has really taken off all around the world. What inroads, if any, has it made in Romania? 

AG: Following Gymnast Alliance stories over the summer, I wondered why it didn’t have a bigger impact here. There was only one gymnast, Diana Teodoru, who detailed her experience on social media, and she said reading stories of other gymnasts gave her the courage to do it. But there wasn’t anyone else, and I still wonder why—whether it’s the fear, after seeing how those who spoke before, like Maria Olaru or Alexandra Marinescu, were treated, or is it this belief that speaking against the sport will be perceived as harming it at a time when it’s already struggling so much. 

But I know that people in the gymnastics community are following the international stories and are up to date. The federation—who recently elected a new president after Andreea Răducan resigned—is working on making some changes in their code of conduct and on the methodology for training the coaches, and they also set up an ethics committee. The new president, Carmencita Constantin, a former rhythmic gymnast and current manager at General Electric Romania, told me athletes’ safety is important for her, so I’m curious to see how these measures will develop.

And I think watching Athlete A, and the Gymnast Alliance stories, also helped the gymnasts who spoke about the abusive culture in the past and were treated so badly when they did, and they retired from the public eye for so many years, like Maria Olaru or Alexandra Marinescu. They saw their stories reflected in this new international context, they realized it wasn’t just them, it wasn’t just Romania, and it gave them some hope things would start to change.

DM: The theme of "coaches as proxy parents" comes up a lot in gymnastics and sports in general. In the NBC broadcast of the 2000 women's all-around—which was absolutely heinous—the commentator speaks at length about how coaches like Bellu and Russia's Leonid Arkayev are like "fathers" to all these girls who don't have fathers. (Blech.) Something similar was invoked when the gymnasts defended Bellu and Bitang. Corina Ungureanu, in her dismissal of what Olaru wrote in her memoir, said, “[The filth] she dared to say about these two people who were like parents to us." How important is this proxy parental relationship in terms of understanding how the gymnasts perceive their treatment at the hands of coaches, especially when it crosses the line into abuse? 

AG: This is, I think, one of the major disadvantages of the centralized system Romania had in place for so many years: The fact that coaches had total control over gymnasts, and they all lived together, far [away] and isolated from their families. When you leave home at such an early age and spend all your time with your coaches, who are responsible for every aspect of your life—from your training, to your meals, to your school, to your birthdays or Christmas presents—of course there’s a special connection that develops. And this connection makes it confusing and difficult for children to separate the abuse, to respond to it, even to understand it, as psychologists told me. If you accept this from your parents, you will accept it from the coaches who are, more or less, substitutes for your parents while you’re training. And so it will be even harder to speak up, as you don’t go against your parents. As a famous Romanian saying goes: “You don’t wash your dirty laundry in public; you do it at home.” 

People in the community of gymnastics speak a lot about this gymnastics family, and don’t like it when you disturb it, and they say you can’t understand things from the outside. But I come back to what Denisa Morariu-Tamaș, one of the directors of The Golden Girl, told me: “It’s not about the gymnastics family, it’s about people who are paid by the Romanian government to coach children. I believe what happens there is of public interest.”

DM: You made a really good point towards the end of the story about how it was natural for the gymnasts to not quite know what to make of their experiences—how to feel about a coach who screamed at them one minute but was caring at other times—but that officials looking in from the outside should've been able to see the situation more clearly. Except, as we know, they didn't, not in Romania and not in the U.S., and not in many other countries. Why do you think people who should've understood that what was going on was wrong either didn't realize there was a problem—or realized, and simply didn't care? 

AG: I think in Romania, at first, it was because that was the system, as I mentioned before. That was how things were done, in other sports as well, in other areas of life as well, and that is what people thought was acceptable. Then there was this national obsession with winning, this pride we took in those medals that made people who were in charge look away. Also, the coaches were extremely successful and popular, and who would risk replacing them while their system was producing results? I think it was hard for anyone to stand against them. Besides, there weren’t many other good options anyway, as most Romanian coaches left the country in search of better salaries and better lives. 

DM: You wrote about the decline of the women's program in recent years in the story. (This is something I've spilled a lot of ink on over the last few years.) When I interviewed Bea Gheorgisor, who writes about gymnastics for the Couch Gymnast, she brought up the reputation of gymnastics in Romania as a factor in diminishing recruitment numbers. Do you think that's playing a role? Where are the current and future generations of gymnasts being recruited from? 

AG: It probably played a role, as I spoke to several parents who told me that they didn’t want their daughters to go through the intense training regimen required by gymnastics. People from the sports community also believe that the scandals from the recent years have pushed parents and children away from the gyms. But Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang have been speaking about the decreasing number of gymnasts ever since the early 2000s, so the problems were there before, and include a vast range of factors (social, cultural, economic). In fact, the results of the early 2000s were achieved by overworking a couple of seniors, not by having a large pool of gymnasts to select from. And the decline probably contributed even more to this situation, as you can’t create the same enthusiasm and adulation around a sport that’s suffering as you did when you had success. 

The current gymnasts are not that many. As several of them retired in the last years (even Denisa Golgotă this spring), there is Maria Holbură, Ioana Stănciulescu, Silvia Sfiringu, Antonia Duță, Daniela Trică, and Larisa Iordache training separately for her comeback after her Achilles injury (I spoke to her about the injury last year).

As for the future, a lot of hope and expectations rely on the national selection program started by Bellu and Bitang in 2014, called Țară, țară, vrem campioane (Romania, we want champions, or something like that). The gymnasts seem to be promising and most of them are currently training in Deva and Constanța, but it will be interesting to see how they make the transition to senior level and if they can stay healthy, which has been an issue for Romanian gymnasts in the past.

Last year, the [Romanian] Gymnastics Federation implemented another selection program aimed at helping local clubs attract children and offering them support and know-how for developing better connections with the local authorities with possible local sponsors. As the clubs do not belong to the federation, but to the local authorities, the federation can only do so much, the former president, Andreea Răducan, told me last year. 

DM: Do you think Romania is headed towards a similar reckoning with coaching abuse as is happening in places like the U.S. and Great Britain?

AG: I really hope so, but I’m not very optimistic it will happen soon. I think we’re a bit behind in terms of how we understand notions of positive coaching, sports psychology, and the difference between tough coaching and abuse. We never had these kinds of debates openly, and some of the reactions I got after publishing this story were in the same direction: that we shouldn’t talk about it, it would only harm the sport, that the gymnasts are overreacting and it wasn’t all bad and they should also talk about the good memories, not just focus on the negatives. But we’ve focused on the good parts for so long. And how can we move forward without recognizing what went wrong in the past, without addressing it properly, without coaches admitting they were wrong, as they have started to do in Western countries? The gymnasts here didn’t receive any of that—any apologies, any public recognition of their experiences. That must be very painful.

I think an honest conversation and reckoning would also be important for all those involved in the gymnastics community—coaches, parents, officials, fans, athletes. It would help everyone understand better the line between what’s wrong and what’s acceptable; to reflect; and then maybe start to change. But those who are now leading the sport were raised in the same system. As we’re still so reluctant, as a society, to talk about painful things, and we still hide them under the rug, I’m not too optimistic about us being able to have an open conversation about abuse, or other complicated topics anytime soon.

Photos are from Comitetul Olimpic si Sportiv Roman

Interview With A Nap Queen

Eloise the Cat has gymnastics takes for you.

Hello! As you can see from the byline (look up), today’s newsletter was not written by me. It comes from Lela and her cat Eloise. In the year since I started this newsletter, I’ve done a couple of interviews with the second dog of the sport, my beagle mix Lizzie. She has shared her thoughts on wolf turns, Tatiana Nabieva, and what floor music she would use in her floor routine. (Unsurprisingly she chose food-themed songs for both her elite and college floor routines.)

But I want Unorthodox Gymnastics to be welcoming to all species; I don’t want to present a dog-centric worldview here. And there are many cats active on the gymternet. (Hi Theo.) But it is difficult to schedule an interview with a cat, what with their demanding sleep schedule and their general disdain for humankind. Fortunately, Eloise agreed to sit fur an interview for this newsletter and I cat even.

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I’ve been copyediting this newsletter for about the same length of time as the pandemic, which is to say, 500 years. My eye is pretty sharp, but no mere human eye is as sharp as that of my cat, Eloise, under whom I do all of my best work. 

Some background on Eloise: She is a domestic shorthair (aka cat mutt). She is all white but for a pair of gray eyebrows. She is approximately 12 years old, but she has owned me for just nine of those. She came from a cat hoarder’s house before being whisked out of the ASPCA kill shelter and brought to a rescue in Brooklyn, where I found her. Eloise rejects most human contact, particularly if initiated by small children (which is unfortunate as she shares 850 square feet with a 3-year-old who adores her). She tolerates being petted only by adult human feet, preferably enclosed in fresh, fetid running socks; eats a special diet, because of course she does; and makes angry biscuits on fleece blankets. She has a moderate degree of Instagram fame under the hashtag #whitecatproblems. And yes, she is named after the famous literary sprite who resides at the Plaza. IT’S ME, ELOISE. (Eloise, like most cats, speaks in caps a lot.) 

Eloise can also leap six feet in a single bound and nimbly sidestep a toddler’s graspy hands, and thus has many a hot take on her favorite sport, gymnastics. 

These questions and answers have been edited for clarity, with most sniffs of her disdain and my yelp of pain when she kneaded her claws into my leg during the editing process removed. 

Lela: Eloise, it’s been a long year without gymnastics. And you know, global pandemic and stuff. 

Eloise: Imagine how it’s been for me. You came home one day in March, and then YOU NEVER LEFT.  I am supposed to nap AT LEAST 18 hours a day and I have been averaging, at best, 17.

Lela: I did buy you extra treats. 

Eloise: They are DENTAL treats. You can’t fool me with that Savory Salmon flavor. I know the vet is behind those things.

Lela: Moving on. If you were a gymnast, who would you be? 

Eloise: Aly Raisman. She likes to nap. And Laurie Hernandez recently spoke about how she used to make fun of Aly for napping, but now, during her comeback, she has embraced naps. Welcome to the sleepy side, Laurie. 

Lela: But Laurie has a dog. Did you know that?

Eloise: That doesn’t mean she’s anti-cat, silly. The youth, they’re a lot more openminded and progressive than your generation. They appreciate cats and dogs.

Lela: How exactly do you know this?

Eloise: I watch videos on TikTok.

Lela: Have you tried to do any of the dances yet?

Eloise: No. I may lick my own butt on your Zoom calls, but I still have some dignity.

Lela: Don’t do that again. But speaking of dance, let’s talk about the cat leap.

Eloise: A cat leap is neither a cat nor a leap. Especially the way gymnasts do them.

Lela: I think it was devalued in the code.

Eloise: So the Code of Points is anti-cat, yet the hideous wolf turn from the canine family is worth so much that some gymnasts do two (!) in their beam routines. I bet you Nellie Kim is behind this.

Lela: Which event do you think you’d be best at? I’m guessing beam so you could show off your cat leap form.

Eloise: I actually think I’d be great at vault. Cats have great blocks. When I stretch my paws overhead, there’s, like, no shoulder angle. I’d hit the table perfectly and then I’d ping right up. I could get the triple twisting Yurchenko named for me. But maybe also balance beam. I do have impeccable balance, even for a cat. Remember that time I escaped your old apartment through a broken window screen and ran across the gutters to that rooftop a few houses down? 

Lela: You did that on my birthday. 

Eloise: That is the purrrfect time to be reminded of your mortality. See what I did there?

Lela: Yes, you’re the first to ever use that pun.

Eloise: You’re being sarcastic because you’re bitter that you have but one life and I have nine and I’ve used up maybe half of one. LOOK OUT WORLD. 

Lela: Looking out at the world is all you can do, since I now check our window screens religiously. 

Eloise: [Yawns] How much longer did you say this would take?

Lela: In just a few more minutes, you’ll be free to return to staring out of the window, contemplating your remaining eight and a half lives.

Eloise: Time moves so slowly and yet so quickly. Have you ever really thought about that?

Lela: Let’s not go there. This is supposed to be a lighthearted newsletter to distract readers from the horrors of this week/month/year.

Speaking of 2020 things, what do you think about Chellsie Memmel’s comeback? She is arguably the best thing to come out of this trash year. 

Eloise: Oh yes. I’ve been following her comeback closely. She only trains three days a week! I bet she naps on the other days.

Lela: I think she does conditioning on those days. And she has two kids.

Eloise: You must find her particularly impressive, especially as a mom.

Lela: I really do find her-

Eloise: Even if your greatest athletic success as a mom was 11th place in the Coney Island Turkey Trot.

Lela: Hey, I did great in that race. 

Eloise: Did you win a turkey? 

Lela: Well, no. 

Eloise: I like turkey. I might like you more if you had won a turkey. 

Lela: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you turkey-flavored cat food. 

Eloise: And if I do, what are you going to do about it? Let me escape out a window? FACE IT LADY, I OWN YOU. 

Lela: Then why do you have a microchip embedded in your shoulder that brings up my phone number when scanned?

Eloise: So whoever finds me knows to call my servant to come and get me. I thought that was obvious.

Lela: Can we get back to Chellsie? I mean, finding time AND motivation to train at the elite level, while raising little people, is a real feat. Add in that she’s parenting and making a comeback during the pandemic and it’s even more impressive. 

Eloise: And here I thought it was impressive that I let your child touch me the other day. 

Lela: Aw, you and Ned are forging a detente. See, the pandemic’s not all bad. 

Eloise: Ned needs to learn how to nap again. He’s very loud when he doesn’t nap. Children should be sleeping, not heard. 

Lela: Finally something we agree on! So before we wrap up and you go back to sleep, is there anything you’d like to discuss that I forgot to ask about?

Eloise: I can’t believe you forgot to bring up the most important gymnastics-related cat story—the one about the Dutch gymnast who dressed up like one of us and did her routine to my favorite musical “Cats!” They banned her!

 Lela: Technically, they only banned her makeup. And then she retired. But you’re right, it was an injustice.

Eloise: Did Nellie Kim also do this?

Lela: I don’t know. I’ll have to check. But can we talk about you liking “Cats”? Why have you never told me this before?

Eloise: [Looks as nervous as, well, a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs] Sometimes, I sing “Memory” late at night, all alone in the moonlight.

Lela: Is THAT what you’re doing? I mean, it sounds very elegant, not at all like caterwauling.

Eloise: The makeup in the movie looked like an actual cat did it. Like, without opposable thumbs. Except Judi Dench, who apparently got to keep her opposable thumbs until they edited out her hand. But the story always gets me, as a shelter cat who got a new life.

Lela: Aw, Eloise. I didn’t realize that you felt this way. You’re a real-life Grizabella! 

Eloise: Wait, why do YOU know so much about “Cats”?

Lela: That is a very long story involving mandatory seventh-grade dance and high school glee club. Probably also Nellie Kim.

Eloise: I’m still mad about poor Celine Van Gerner. If I ever saw other cats, I would have organized a strike against the FIG. Hey, do you think Lizzie would join me? This movement would really be stronger if it crossed species.

Lela: I’ll be sure to ask her the next time I see her.

Eloise: Can you also ask her what it’s like to feel the dewy grass under her paws? I know I’ve felt it before, but now it’s just a faint memory.

[singing] Memory, all alone in the in the moonlight!

It me, Dvora, again. In keeping with the cat theme, this newsletter is dedicated to Katharine Graham, Diana Moskovitz’s cat who passed away a few months ago. (Diana is one of my former Deadspin colleagues. She is also the unnamed Defector editor who, per last week’s newsletter, forgot to give me a word limit for the 2000 Olympic all-around vault clusterfuck story.) Katharine was a very special lady who deigned to let me pet her when I stayed with Diana in LA. She was also a fearsome slayer of insects. But most significantly, she was the steadfast companion of Diana, one of the best sports reporters in the biz, for 14 years.

And like Eloise, Katherine Graham had opinions on gymnastics. According to Diana, her favorite event was the balance beam because she was a cat who “prided herself on her ability to jump over whatever her humans had left strewn on the back of the sofa or the various photos on top of the bureau to get her (imaginary) birdie.” Katherine also had some hot gym takes. For instance: she felt that the gymnasts should perform more, not less, difficulty in their beam routines. Before you get up in arms about this take, consider this:

“She believed today’s gymnasts are up for the challenge,” Diana told me. “There will be little debate about this as she was a cat and, therefore, always right.”

Kind of hard to argue with that logic. We’ll miss you, Katharine Graham.

Lead image: Sarah “Slothnova” East

Photos courtesy of Lela Moore

How To Change The Culture Of Gymnastics: An Academic Weighs In

A Q&A with Dr. Natalie Barker-Ruchti

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Last week, I wrote a story about the Gymnast Alliance, the global gymnast human rights movement that originated in Great Britain in response to the Netflix documentary Athlete A, for VICE. I spoke to several amazing people for the story, including 1986 U.S. national champion Jennifer Sey, 2012 British Olympian and former UCLA Jennifer Pinches, and former Belgian elite Dorien Motten. But as often happens, not every interview makes into the final published story due to length considerations. I am pretty well-known among editors for submitting drafts that are way too long. I submitted a 5,000 word draft for the 2000 Olympic all-around clusterfuck story for Defector and an unnamed editor was, um, taken aback by its length. But whose fault was it really? She didn’t set a word limit for me. It’s like she forgot who I am.

Unfortunately this tendency means that you guys didn’t get to read the words of Dr. Natalie Barker-Ruchti, an associate Professor in sport management and sport coaching at the School of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden. Her research and publications have focused on the culture of gymnastics and the impact it has on the athletes. In addition to her academic work, Barker-Ruchti also has an extensive background in the sport, both as a gymnast and later as a coach.

She’s also one of the many academics involved with the International Socio-Cultural Research Group on Women’s Gymnastics (ISCWAG), which published a manifesto this summer with eight steps/actions that various gymnastics institutions can take in order to reduce harm and protect athletes from abuse.

I thought that what Dr. Barker-Ruchti had written to me was insightful despite the fact that some of questions could’ve been phrased better. (Especially the first one.) I asked her if I could share the email interview exchange we had done for VICE in the newsletter. She gave me permission to do so. Here it is, very lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: You mentioned in your interview with Luba (over at Gymnovosti) that you had started out wanting to be a coach but then thought, after spending some time coaching, that you weren't harsh enough. Can you describe some of the coaching practices that you were witnessing during your time as a coach and also what you saw during the course of your research?

Natalie Barker-Ruchti: It was not so much what I saw in other coaches that made me feel that I wasn’t harsh (enough). It was more the harsh coaching that I had witnessed as a gymnast that hadn’t sat well with me. At one particular gym, some of my peer gymnasts were constantly being yelled at, belittled, and even sent home. The coach targeted certain gymnasts, and I am not sure why. Many of them were crying a lot. I had always felt really bad for them. When I was coaching in NZ [New Zealand], I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by two positive and child-centered coaches. This type of coaching I could identify with. I wanted the gymnasts I was working with to learn and achieve, but I didn’t want for them to experience what my peer gymnasts had experienced back in the days when I was training.

What I saw in my ethnographic research, and also what former gymnasts described to me in research interviews, was worse than what I had witnessed as a gymnast. The emotional/psychological and physical abuse in the form of yelling, belittling, intimidation, blaming, overtraining, etc. was incessant and it had a meanness to it that was wrong. It was really hard to observe, but as a researcher, my obligation was to observe, not to interfere. I was there to document and explain the realities of contemporary (sub)elite gymnasts. But it was very hard to sit at the gym, watch the abuse, and record it into my recording device.

Later, in research on who athletes become, I also started to hear from the athletes what their experiences had done to them long-term. Some of the stories were disturbing and difficult to hear. At that stage of my research career, I wasn’t coaching anymore, but it made it even more clear to me that coaches have a huge long-term influence on gymnasts, and with that a massive responsibility.

DM: I'm really fascinated by the project you discussed called "Coming of Age," in which you interviewed older gymnasts about how they navigated the transition from teen elite to adult elite athlete and how they negotiated new terms with their coaches to have more control over their training. Is there anything in their experiences that all gymnasts can take and implement in order to reset the terms of their "contract" with their coaches, regardless of age?

NBR: It is not easy to identify a specific ‘something’ that gymnasts could adopt. The gymnasts’ ability to negotiate the terms of their training/lives was affected by a number of interrelated changes, including their growing up, some life experience they had gained, often some time to reflect and do other things because of injury-related timeouts, and also a coach that was actually willing to listen and adjust to the gymnast’s changing needs. This transitioning is very important, and I mean here for both the coach and the gymnast. Instead of sticking to the same coaching protocols, it is really important that WAG organizations and stakeholders (i.e., coaches) strategically create environments that allow for gymnasts to grow up, gain life experiences, and reflection. The coach-gymnast relationship cannot stay the same, and certainly as child athletes grow into adult athletes, the relationship must evolve, or else the gymnasts will leave the sport (the gymnasts interviewed in the Coming of Age research clearly said this). It is this that the gymnasts described, a transition that affected the coaches as well as themselves.  

But of course, I am not suggesting that it is ok for coaches to be controlling and authoritarian (and abusive!) during a gymnast’s childhood. It is important to understand that the positive effects we heard from the older gymnasts we interviewed in the Coming of Age research also applies to younger gymnasts.

DM: The fact that you need to specialize very young and peak very young are two of the very deep-seated assumptions in women's gymnastics. What are some of the other assumptions that we need to work to counter? 

NBR: We need to move away from seeing gymnasts (and athletes) as commodities that can be consumed. I mean here consume to make money (e.g., WAG organizations; sponsors), consume to establish/develop careers (e.g., coaches), and consume to be entertained (e.g., fans, spectators). Gymnasts are human beings and we need to ensure that their rights and needs are recognized. This move away from commodifying requires a number of changes, both at the organizational and coaching levels, but also [at] the media level.

Also, there is the issue of gender and femininity. Historically, WAG was included in the Olympic Games because it was assumed appropriate for women. The apparatus, clothing, performance requirements, and the music on floor are examples that demonstrate this feminization. As WAG changed to a sport that was predominantly performed by children (during the 1970s), this feminization took on a new meaning. The child gymnast, often wearing a white leotard, protected by a male coach, performing difficult acrobatic movements effortlessly, often playfully and while smiling, represented innocence and cuteness. It was able to ‘hide’ the harsh realities of training and coaching, the difficulty of the performances, and the risks involved. The pixie appearance charmed everybody, and in so doing, ‘hid’ the harsh realities and abuse quite effectively

A feminist perspective might also suggest that the pixie gymnast has a soft pornographic touch, something within the context of consumption, may be linked to sexual phantasy and abuse.

In general, though, the feminization of child gymnasts, when considered as part of how gender constructs women as obedient and objects of consumption/pleasure, needs to be countered. Gymnasts need to be represented for what they are: strong, powerful, extremely able (not just at the elite level), and with a voice.

Lastly, in research at least, but perhaps also elsewhere, abuse is often associated with sexual abuse. This is changing, and much attention is now paid to culture and emotional/psychological and physical abuse. This focus on non-sexual forms of abuse is really important as these types of abuses are widespread, deep-seated, very damaging, and precursors to sexual abuse.

DM: Now to the Gymnast Alliance. What do you think is happening at this particular moment that has led to the spread of this uprising around the globe? 

NBR: I think it is a result of a combination of events that have resulted in the uprising: the #MeToo movement has ‘normalized’ women speaking out about abuse for a number of years now, and this calling out of abuse is widely reported; social media offers an accessible way to speak publicly and to speak to large audiences; the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal has brought much to light, including what abusive coaching/training is. As this scandal was broadcasted around the world, I am guessing that gymnasts started to realize that their experiences were also abusive. Athlete A provided additional confirmation of what abuse is. And lastly, it may be that COVID-19, because current gymnasts and everybody around the world had downtime to reflect over their past and current lives, has something to do with it. Then I think once gymnasts not related to the USAG sex abuse scandal started to speak out, others found courage and inspiration to follow suit. Research into hashtag movements shows that speaking out about abuse can create connection, affirmation, and empowerment.

DM: The focus thus far has been mainly on national governing bodies but the problem of abuse in gymnastics is clearly global given the widespread use of the #gymnastalliance hashtag. What role does FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] or other global organizations have to play in changing the cultural practices of international gymnastics? What sort of interventions could FIG implement?

NBR: I would like to suggest that the FIG and other global organizations are standing at a crossroads—they can either adopt some weak/superficial changes to tick the box of athlete welfare, or they can really change things. I hope that they will choose the latter, even though I completely understand that cultural change is a huge challenge. But I would like to propose that the FIG and other global organizations have been given a massive opportunity to demonstrate courage, professionalism, and humanity. Wouldn’t such an image also be hugely marketable?

I am also thinking that the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games could offer a suitable occasion to demonstrate these characteristics. After all, the Tokyo Games are supposed to be the sustainable games. There is much that could be achieved here, which could really give sport the positive social/global status it actually seeks.

Behind The Floor Music

Australia's Allana Slater on her 2004 Olympic floor routine.

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Earlier this week, I wrote about the Greatest Clusterfuck in All-Around Gymnastics History—aka the 2000 women’s Olympic all-around—for the new site Defector, which was created by my former coworkers at Deadspin after they quit in protest of the new management meddling in editorial. (I wrote a little bit about the demise of Deadspin here.) For that piece, I interviewed the hero of the story, Australia’s Allana Slater. It was Slater who realized during warm-ups for the third rotation of four that the vault was set too low. This lowered vault contributed to some truly terrifying falls in the previous rotations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Slater’s action probably prevented a very serious injury.

At the end of an hour-long conversation, we got onto the topic of Slater’s Olympic floor routines. The Aussie was known for being an expressive performer on floor exercise throughout her career. Though this discussion wasn’t relevant to the story I was interviewing Slater for, I found it really interesting, and figured that some of you might find it so, too. I asked Slater if it would be okay with her if I published our floor music and choreography discussion in the newsletter, and she gave me her blessing. So here is the short backstory for Slater’s 2004 Olympic floor routine, edited for clarity.

In 2004, Slater performed to music from the movie Moulin Rouge. While that the soundtrack from that film is certainly ubiquitous now in the aesthetic sports, especially in figure skating—I mean, who can forget Tessa Virtue’s and Scott Moir’s iconic face sit at the 2018 Winter Games while performing to Moulin Rouge?—it certainly wasn’t back when Slater chose it for her final Olympic floor routine. The movie had only come out in 2001. I don’t know if Slater was the first to use it for a floor routine or figure skating program, but she was probably one of the first. (Feel free to let me know if I’m wrong in the comments and include links to earlier Moulin Rouge floor routines and figure skating programs.)

To even listen to the music, Slater actually had to go to a store where they sold CDs. Kids, gather around as Slater and I talk of how things were back when we were young:

Allana Slater: I remember choosing my floor music. [It had] maybe just come out and I really wanted to listen to this. This was back when you went and listened to like the soundtrack in a DVD store. 

Dvora Meyers:  We'd go to Virgin Megastore in Union Square where they had headphones and you could listen to the top CDs. [I spent a lot of time in high school doing this.]

AS: The kids don't have any concept of that these days, standing in there for like six hours listening to music.

I'd been to the choreographer’s place and she also at that time was coaching with me as well. She had an incredible collection of music with no vocals, and I didn't not love music she had, but I just didn't find the piece that resonated with me, and it had to resonate with me. So I went to this store and I really wanted the Moulin Rouge CD. And the minute I got to “El Tango de Roxanne,” the first few bars, [I knew]: This is my music. This is what I want, it's going to happen.

I picked the music, then I went and watched the movie and particularly the scene that that music's from so that I really understood what it was about so I can portray the same sort of feeling. And I just tried to make it my own.

[Because gymnastics, both then and now, doesn’t allow gymnasts to perform to music with sung lyrics, Slater and her team had to hope to be able to get it re-orchestrated, sans vocals, in time for the 2004 competition season.]

We're like, ‘Can we take the words out?’ I actually trained with a cut piece of music with vocals and words and everything in the hopes that we can re-orchestrate it.

Peggy [Liddick] sent it to the U.S. and got it re-orchestrated. First cut, I wasn't happy with it, so we did it again. I had a lot of say in how my music was cut and what I wanted it to be.

It was probably one of my favorite pieces in terms of wanting to push the boundaries and artistry. If I was doing it now, I’d probably do it more and bigger and better but I felt like I was pushing the boundaries so far with the choreography. A rhythmic coach choreographed my floor routine for that piece.

I got that leotard made, which had so much bare skin, as in, like, the skin-colored components. And so that was really pushing boundaries already…I hope I was part of artistry going in that direction because that's what I always wanted to be known for.

[I’m including another video of Slater performing to Moulin Rouge in case the IOC blocks the one I embedded above. Try your best to ignore Al Trautwig going on and on about Slater’s body and getting older when she was *only* 20 years old. Snaps to Elfi Schlegel for not responding to him or acknowledging what he was saying in any way.]

So today is a year to the day when I sent out the first newsletter, introducing this project and the whys behind it. I’ve really enjoyed writing and publishing this—whatever this is—over the past 12 months. Where else could I interview my dog, chart the evolution of Shannon Miller’s scrunchies, and interview the goddess Svetlana Boguinskaia? Nowhere. What sane editor would let me do this?

When I started this newsletter back when I was a young whippersnapper of 36, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I thought that during the spring and summer, this newsletter would be wall-to-wall Olympics coverage. Now, just 12 months after I published the first newsletter, I’m a bitter old woman of 79 but without the upside of being on Medicare or collecting Social Security.

It goes without saying that things have gotten quite dark this past year, darker than they already were. Though it’s hardly the worst outcome of the pandemic and the general political/economic instability—pretty certain that the 200,000+ U.S. deaths are the worst part—it’s been difficult to watch as gymnastics has taken a hit at the collegiate level due to the pandemic, as have many other sports. Men’s gymnastics, in particular, had long been on the decline and was down to 15 Division I programs before COVID-19; the pandemic has merely acted as an accelerant on a process that has long been underway, with Iowa, Minnesota and William & Mary ending their men’s programs. (W&M also ended their women’s program.)

Anyway, I really appreciate you guys coming along for the ride as I’ve tried to figure this whole newsletter thing out. And staying on the ride while the world started to—and continues—to burn, both literally and metaphorically. If you have any suggestions or feedback for the coming year, you know where to find me. (In the comments and at

And for all of you Yom Kippur fans out there: G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

Screenshot: YouTube

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