Back To The Beginning

A Q&A with Dr. Georgia Cervin, author of Degrees of Difficulty

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What was women’s gymnastics like in its very early days right as it became a formally recognized Olympic sport for the first time? Well, if you’ve been curious about this period in gymnastics history and have gone searching for information, you’ve probably come up mostly empty-handed. There’s been precious little writing published on the topic despite the prominence of women’s gymnastics at the Olympics. When gymnastics is written about in mainstream publications, it can appear as though the sport was invented in the 1970s with the debuts of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci.

But in Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace, Dr. Georgia Cervin goes all the way back to when women’s gymnastics was created to be a feminine appropriate sport at a time when the IOC was only grudgingly starting to admit women’s events into the Games. This period is not simply an interesting historical footnote; what happened back then impacts the sport to this very day.

I had the good fortune of meeting Cervin, who is a former elite gymnast who represented New Zealand, when we were both in Nanning, China for the 2014 world championships; I to research my own book and she to do the same, but for her dissertation.

I reached out to Cervin, whose book I have found invaluable when it’s come to working on stories for this Olympic season, including this piece about Simone Biles’ vault valuation, and asked if she’d be open to answering a few questions—well, more than a few—about the book, her scholarship, her gymnastics career, and her activism around trying to reform the sport.

Cervin graciously agreed and so here is one of the most fascinating Q&As I’ve done for the newsletter.

The following has been edited for clarity but, as you’ll see, not so much for length.

Dvora Meyers: Tell me a bit about your background in gymnastics. (When you started, how far you progressed, etc.)

Georgia Cervin: I started with kindy gym. Like every other gymnast, I was just one of those kids who jumped and swung on everything and had way too much energy. I was also really strong. My parents recall me carrying the two-liter milk cartons in from the car when I was a toddler! So they enrolled me. I was put into competitive gym when I was 5, then put on the elite development path when I was 9. I remember when I was around 8, I was very average; there was one competition where I had an asthma attack and forgot my floor routine all at once. I got three green ribbons and two blues. (Do they do that in other countries? Green and blue were the lowest two, for scores below 8 on each apparatus!) But the next year I learned how to use my brain and I started winning almost a lot. I started competing internationally when I was 11, went into junior elite at 13 and senior at 16.

I had pretty poor luck in my elite career. I injured my ankles in warmups at my first World Cup; broke my big toe—on bars of all events—the day before we were due to fly out for my first world champs so I got replaced on the team. And then at the Commonwealth Games, I had a broken ankle so I had to do light routines and couldn’t do all around. The last injury turned out to ​be quite complicated and I couldn’t run or land properly for a few years so it ended up being the end of my career. Those were really the only three injuries of my career, but they were just really poorly timed. 

[Ed. note: As you can see from this routine, Cervin actually did quite a bit of difficulty for that time.]

Looking back, that was a really turbulent time to be doing gymnastics for my cohort. We had to shift from the vaulting horse to the table in 2001, then we had the new Code introduced in 2006; I believe the [2006] Commonwealth Games were actually the first international competition to use it. As a historian now, those seem to be two of the biggest changes to our sport in only a very short space of time!

[Ed. note: The new Code that Cervin is referring to is the open-ended system that was introduced in 2006 that essentially got rid of the Perfect 10. And Cervin is correct; the first time it was put into use was at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.]

DM: When you look back at your experience in the sport, how has it changed over time? How did you regard your experience right after you retired vs. now?

GC: This is a great question. For a long time, I didn’t want to look back at my experience because I found it really painful; not because I regarded it as bad but actually because I loved the sport so much, it was heart-wrenching that I could no longer do it. I looked very fondly on my experience. And in some ways I still do: the feeling of flying, the friends you make, the travel…gymnastics gave me so many opportunities. 

I know some people are able to identify the problems with their experience in the sport pretty easily. And I’m honestly so impressed by that ability because for me, it took doing my Ph.D. and talking to these expert scholars of gymnastics from around the world to really look back on some of those experiences with a different, more critical lens. 

I loved my coaches like parents but that familial reference isn’t a good thing for everyone actually. Some coaches might seem like caregivers but they don’t always have your welfare as their highest priority. (That is not a comment about my coaches who I do still think were great for me and I was lucky to have.) Gymnastics taught me how to move my body and how to fuel it. But it also taught me lighter is better and I don’t think I know any former gymnast who doesn’t have some degree of hang-ups around food. Even stuff I had previously taken for granted, like coaches spotting you, I now question in a way I didn’t before studying; like doesn’t that touch without explicit permission start to condition gymnasts with some pretty concerning messages about bodily autonomy and consent? Who has the right to touch and manipulate you? Even if it is for the purpose of shaping you for a skill, what are the long-term effects of that underlying message? What I’m saying is stuff that I thought was fine, I now question.

The other change in how I look on my experience came from the world outside gymnastics. Within the sport, I feel almost embarrassed by my meager achievements and I certainly feel that I was never able to truly show the level of my abilities in competition. But outside gymnastics, in the office or whatever, people are like “WOW!” “a real athlete,” “wow you could flip,” “Commonwealth Games? Incredible.” It’s a nice perspective that I didn’t really have when I was in the sport.

DM: You've made the sport the focus of your research and scholarship. What drew you to exploring gymnastics in an academic context?

GC: I trained as a historian in my undergrad, and I was looking for a topic for my Ph.D. My partner knew I had been involved in gymnastics and suggested I could merge my two interests [by] looking at a history of gymnastics. The more I thought about it, the more it worked. I looked into it and no one had written about the history of competitive gymnastics (people had written about PE-style gymnastics). With the Soviet Union utterly dominating the sport’s history in WAG [women’s artistic gymnastics], I thought there must be a Cold War angle there, particularly as events like Olympics are effectively part of the international relations landscape. And then as I was doing my research, I started connecting with people who study WAG from other disciplines like sociology, pedagogy, psychology. There’s not a lot of scholars out there looking at WAG so it’s a nice little community.

DM: What did you think was lacking in terms of scholarship and writing on women's gymnastics? 

GC: A history of the sport. There are certainly unpublished works about it, and pockets of the history like certain countries or time periods or even a history of the FIG, and now there’s more work like your own, Dvora. But when I started, there was hardly anything and certainly not in the academic space. And that’s so crazy given gymnastics’ popularity and length of time this sport has been around!

Secondly, and I didn’t identify this as a gap when I started out, but now it’s clear that a gender analysis has really been missing. Again, there have been pockets of it, but not been much work through that lens. That has ended up being a key theme of my book and my other work. Gymnastics was basically built around gender ideals. And on a related note, I talk about “race” too in my book; that analysis has been hugely missing from commentary on the sport and I think it’s very evident in the way the media talks about gymnastics, and even the way the sport is set up and decides things. I’d love to see more work in that space. I think the history and politics, and particularly, gender and race, are really essential for helping us to understand WAG and where to go from here.

Finally, I haven’t done this myself but I just wanted to highlight that although there is a growing body of scholarship on WAG, the other disciplines haven’t really received that same attention. I’d love to see that change. I think we could learn a lot by better understanding and comparing the cultures of each discipline. 

DM: You've done dozens of interviews for the book and jumped into archives. What are some of the most surprising things you learned during the course of researching and writing this book?

GC: This might sound naive but the score fixing was very surprising to me. I just had no idea that judges might even consider fixing scores, let alone conspire across nations to do it. I mean, I think everyone knows about bias, but the deliberate nature of score fixing was pretty shocking to me.

Looking through the archives, the influence of the IOC on gymnastics was also very clear. Things that I think we might attribute to the FIG were historically more of a result of the IOC pressuring the FIG by threatening gymnastics’ inclusion in the Olympics. The FIG is really stuck between the IOC and the gymnastics community in a lot of ways.

It was also really interesting to read how officials complained about routines with poor dance that doesn’t have any relationship with the music, and too much emphasis on difficulty. Those seem like very present problems, and fans look back on the past with this reverence for a better era, but actually at the time people weren’t so happy with what they were seeing! The criticisms are almost the same today as they were then.

The importance of gender was also not something I expected. As I said, I didn’t set out to write about it but it became very clear that the sport was completely built around it. Gender is so important to the design of gymnastics in a way that goes beyond having separate men’s and women’s disciplines. It goes right to the core of “artistry” and rules and what we expect to see from men and women, both in terms of gymnastics skills but also in terms of how those athletes engage with spectators and behave in general.

And on a related note, I found some of the ideas about race really interesting. I read this brilliant thesis by Shani Bruno-Shakur and her observations about race blew my mind. Things that I had considered relatively neutral, or perhaps hadn’t even considered at all, were basically white by default. She uses the example of the illustration of the gymnast in the Code of Points showing a straight-haired ponytail. What about hair of people of African descent? How does that fit into this ‘neutral’? Once she got me thinking about that, it changes everything—what kind of dance do you see on floor? It’s rarely traditional styles from outside Europe or styles that have been associated with certain [races and] ethnicities like hip hop. Imagine the possibilities if we began to value ways of moving that aren’t associated with European-ness? If we celebrated traditional, indigenous, or other dance cultures? We would see much more diverse and interesting routines, and they would be rewarded for different things!

DM: When we spoke and you told me that it was actually the U.S. that pioneered the use of child gymnasts, I'm pretty sure I clapped in delight like a seal cause I do love anything that goes, "And it was capitalism all along." Was that as big of a revelation to you as it was to me? Can you talk about why it was that the U.S. seemed to be favoring young female gymnasts before their counterparts in the Soviet Union really got into it?

GC: I make the argument that the US started using young female athletes much sooner than the Soviet Union did, and this is in part because there was no support for female adult gymnasts in the U.S. I think the Cold War lens I used really allowed me to see this, and I also spoke to some great interviewees who made this observation. Eastern Bloc athletes were paid and housed; it was a career. For athletes in the West, gymnastics was extra-curricular, done at school or after work. For women, sport in adulthood was seen as totally at odds with the domestic responsibilities they should focus on: Marrying and becoming mothers. Using teenage girls got around both of these financial and social problems. They were housed and supported by their parents, meaning they could focus on gymnastics and not worry about making a living. And because they were too young to have their own families, doing high-level sport wasn’t seen as unfeminine or interfering with their “womanly” (domestic and child-bearing) duties. 

DM: This being the case, why is it that the narrative about how gymnastics went from a sport of adult women to one of young girls has typically made it seem like it was the Eastern Bloc that went into this direction first, then followed by the West? And why is it important to correct the record about this history and problems and abuses it led to?

GC: I think the idea that child athletes came from the Eastern Bloc is probably to do with the prominence of foreign athletes. When the public saw Olga and then Nadia in the news, they thought they were seeing a new trend. They didn’t realize that there had been some earlier teenage athletes from the Eastern Bloc, let alone that this trend had started at home decades earlier. American (and other Western) athletes hadn’t really had as much media attention.

This idea that it was a trend started in the Eastern Bloc is part of a wider narrative about the ruthlessness and cruelty of communist regimes. That kind of “Red Scare” rhetoric was used in sport to highlight how American athletes won by talent and hard work, and communists won by being part of a large machine—both inhuman and inhumane. That discourse has been used to elevate the USA and its allies as free and meritocratic, its values and achievements better than foreigners’. It has also led to an assumption that abuse was endemic to communist sport when there’s ample historical evidence that was not the case (although it did happen there too).

We’re now seeing that same rhetoric play out in how we talk about abuse in gymnastics. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s only, or mainly, foreigners, or how they introduced these negative methods. It’s not a helpful conversation to be having, casting blame on outsiders or those who were once outsiders. Clearly, a lot of different people are implicated. This is not an East vs. West, Us vs. Them problem. It involves everyone and it has for a long time. We’re not going to begin to address abuse in gymnastics without first acknowledging that.

DM: Unlike most of the books about women's gymnastics—my own included—Degrees of Difficulty really digs into the very early years of the sport and the values it was founded upon. Why do you think these pre-WWII years and the ones in the immediate aftermath of WWII are so crucial to understanding women's gymnastics in the present?

GC: My earlier research, like my Ph.D., was missing that pre-1952 period too, and a reviewer of my first book manuscript told me I needed to go there. And they were so right! I remembered one particular source I had found, which talked about the establishment of the women’s technical committee in 1933, and I worked both forward and backward from there. Why 1933? Why all women? Come to think of it, why were any of the apparatuses made at all for anyone? Looking back earlier at the sport, it was developed by and for men, and women had been excluded from it. Then they were allowed in, but only to do softer exercises because women were perceived as fragile, and they weren’t allowed to compete because that was too aggressive and masculine. But when Alice Milliat’s Women’s World Games threatened to rival the Olympics in the 1920s, the IOC realized it had to let women in, so it instructed the governing bodies, including the FIG, to create women’s disciplines. The FIG created this discipline that aimed to be feminine because at the time there was a lot of anxiety about women’s sport undermining womanhood. And that commitment to femininity has remained a key part of the sport throughout its history, only we often talk about it now as artistry. 

At the end of WWII, the Soviet Union joined the FIG and the Olympic movement. The next Olympics in 1952 was when gymnastics became known as “artistic,” which was due to the Soviet influence. Over the years, Soviet officials played a big role in ensuring teams remained part of gymnastics when the IOC was trying to remove them, and Soviet FIG members were also crucial to establishing the two per-country rule.

DM: Has your research and scholarship changed how you view your own career and experiences in the sport?

GC: Absolutely. The way I see the sport has really changed not just because of my research, but also my engagement with scholars whose job it is to be critical of gymnastics or sport more broadly. I described my views about some of the dynamics around coaching earlier, but I think the gender element is also really important. For instance, I still love glitter and scrunchies (lol) and I look back and think. ‘Oh wow, my experience in gymnastics really conditioned me to like some of the things I like to today.’ The ways I was conditioned don’t often apply to the men I trained with. It goes beyond the superficial things like hair ties, and instead to behaviors, like always expecting a correction after doing something, and normalizing the suppression of emotions, stoicism, etc. I see that now in a way I didn’t before and that’s why I would love to see some of the ways we do gymnastics change. Not just more positive coaching styles, but totally changing the expectations of how girls should behave in the sport. Girls should be able to move how they want to, whether that’s slow, strong, balletic, fast, or built on their own cultural styles. They should wear what they want; if men can wear pants and shorts, why not young girls or women? And most of all, they should be not just allowed to talk but encouraged to do so, and there’s no question that they should be listened to and taken seriously. In fact, why even organize the sport by gender at all? Why not just open it up to everyone together? I think that’s actually key to undoing some of the harm that has been built around gender in the sport.

DM: You've been involved in activism around the Gymnast Alliance, Gymnasts for Change, and pushing for investigation into abuse in New Zealand. Can you talk about the work that you and others are doing, and what you hope to see change in NZ gymnastics and in the gymnastics community worldwide?

GC: I have been doing research in this area for nearly a decade, and I really want to use what I’ve learned to make a positive impact on gymnastics worldwide. These movements share that goal of transforming gymnastics. It’s been so great to work with all these amazing women leading this change, and I feel really lucky to have met a lot of inspiring people on this journey, as well as reconnect with my former teammates.

I really love gymnastics, and that’s why I’m here doing this. But it’s been really hard, because I’m quite a private person, and I’ve had to take on quite a public position. I think some people might think I’m doing this for attention, which is ironic because, for me, that’s one of the worst parts about doing this work. Some within the sport seem to see this work as being like a smear campaign against gymnastics by people who are dissatisfied with their own careers. That is hard to hear, actually ,because it’s really the opposite. I wouldn’t spend so much time and effort and energy on trying to fix a sport I didn’t love. If our sport can’t withstand the criticism, we’re letting it decline. I’m not happy for my sport to have the reputation it does; to hurt and exclude so many people. I want more people to feel safe and included [in]  gymnastics. I want to be proud when I recommend it to people as a great sport to do. I don’t think we can get there without having difficult conversations about gymnastics’ faults and how to improve them—some corrections, if you will. So I see this work as an act of love for gymnastics that is ultimately all about enhancing the sport.

In New Zealand, I’ve been working really closely with an old teammate of mine, Olivia Jöbsis, and we’ve connected with organizations like the NZ Athletes Federation, which is like a players union that advocates for athletes—it’s hard because gymnastics isn’t professional so we don’t have the resources to set up our own union at present—and the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, as well as professionals in harm prevention in sport. We’re working for cultural transformation in gymnastics. Preventing abuse is a pretty low bar to be aiming for; we’re aiming to empower everyone involved in gymnastics, including coaches and judges (who can also be treated pretty badly in this sport), but particularly those who have been marginalized in the past, which is gymnasts and women. 

Mine and Olivia’s immediate work is centered around how organizations engage with survivors and remedy abuse. In New Zealand, we were very concerned about the investigation because it was led by a man with no background in gymnastics, gender, abuse, and human rights or harm prevention, which are basically the key expertises needed to understand what’s been happening and try to fix it. They added a doctor and a former gymnast to the panel in response to our advocacy on this issue, but that doesn’t address any of the competencies I’ve just outlined, and it was a huge and hurtful battle to even get that kind of change. Gymnasts are being asked to relive their trauma as part of these processes, and that’s a huge risk to their health. Why should they do that? How can we make it safe for them to re-live and share their expertise? There are trauma-informed ways of engaging with gymnasts and others who have been harmed, but we’re rarely seeing organizations use them (with the exception, perhaps, of the Australian Human Rights Commission). The need for trauma informed survivor engagement goes beyond these reviews and investigations. 

We’ve found our engagement with organizations’ outside reviews has been deeply traumatic. Many of the harms gymnasts suffer relate to being infantilized, ignored, dismissed, silenced, belittled, and not taken seriously. We’re seeing those same behaviors play out when former gymnasts, who are now adult women, are treated in that exact same way by governing bodies and other such organizations when they raise concerns and ask for change. It shows those organizations either do not understand the depth and complexity of harm experienced in gymnastics, or they have no qualms about perpetuating those same harms now. What we really need are people who understand gymnastics, gender, what their human rights duties are, and what abuse looks like. They need to constantly be working in a trauma-informed way, and they need a plan and specialized professionals to do this. 

Fundamentally, these issues result from a huge power imbalance between gymnasts and everyone else in the sport. Restoring power to those gymnasts needs to not only be the outcome of cultural change; it needs to be embedded in the process of getting there. Gymnasts and former gymnasts need to not just be consulted about what has happened and what needs to change; they need to be empowered to drive that change. That means putting them in leadership roles and providing both financial resources as well as support from experts across a range of fields. Giving gymnasts that power back is also part of the remedy required to address past harms. Trusting them, listening to them, recognizing their expertise, and letting them lead.

DM: When you were a guest on the End of Sport podcast you said—and I'm paraphrasing a little—that you loved gymnastics but you weren't a fan of the sport. Care to unpack that for us?  

GC: The sport is so beautiful and has brought me a lot of joy. I loved being a gymnast, the feeling of flying, the identity, my friends, and I’m grateful for a lot of the lessons it taught me. I like watching the sport, too. It took a while to be able to watch again, as I found retirement really hard and it was painful to watch people be part of the sport in a way I no longer could. But after a few years, I found my way back. I don’t follow it closely, as in I don't always know the top gymnasts from each country and the specifics of each new Code. I find I still need to maintain that bit of distance from the sport. 

My spectatorship isn’t just troubled by my own experience as an athlete either. As a scholar, I have learned so much that’s problematic with gymnastics. It can be hard to watch when I know what those athletes might be going through and don’t necessarily agree with the ideals the sport promotes. I think with a lot of the news about gymnastics over the last few years, other people share those reservations too. So in that sense, I’m not a fan. I don’t ardently support certain athletes or countries or even the sport itself. 

But I think love is a good way of describing my relationship to gymnastics as it’s a feeling that’s not particularly rooted in logic. Things that you love can hurt you. Maybe because you love them you’re even more vulnerable to that hurt. Despite my complicated feelings about gymnastics as an athlete, scholar, and spectator, I’ve somehow built a career around the sport. I choose to spend most of my spare time trying to give back to gymnastics, as the sport that gave me so much. Neither my research nor my advocacy are my paid work. They’re things I do because I care deeply about the sport and the people in it. So, I’m not a fan of the sport, but I do love it.