muscular vs skinny gymnasts

DVORA MEYERS has another good article on Deadspin, explaining to the general public the issue of body type in women’s Artistic Gymnastics. Shawn and Nastia are used as examples.

… “In America, we’ll score the stocky, athletic builds normally,” 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes said, in response to Johnson’s comments. “Internationally, there still remains a stigma to that type of body type.”

Given Johnson’s success, it’s hard to make the case that she has suffered much under-scoring internationally—she won nearly every senior meet she entered in 2007 and 2008—and many similarly built gymnasts have also fared well in competition, including Mary Lou Retton and 1991 World Champion Kim Zmeskal. …

“Athletic” Shawn Johnson Retires: How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies In Code

Do you need the “international look” (rail thin) to be competitive in London?

In 2012 there’s less stigma than ever before. It’s far more advantageous to be built like Shawn than Nastia in an open-ended Code. Ask the Chinese coaches.

Highest difficulty score will usually beat highest execution score. Regardless of body type. Good leg and foot form has never been less rewarded than in this cycle.

related – response on Rewriting Russian Gymnastics‘The Artistry Fallacy’

18 comments ↓

#1 Ono No Komachi on 06.07.12 at 8:42 am

Both of those articles are more reflections of the anxieties of the authors’ than of anything in the real world.

Seriously, as was pointed out, Johnson was a World Champion and won Olympic medals. How much bias did she encounter from judges for not being stick thin? Does not look like all that much.

There are elements of truth included (well, at least in Dvora Meyers’ article, the other one..not so much)…

As far as “Artistry, its importance to the sport and its place in the sport’s history”…

Lets talk history….

Gymnastics originated in the ARMY. The German army. Men did it so they would be able to kill more people in wars. A couple of the sports founders spent some time in jail because they were considered dangerous to society. Some people would like to put Marta and Grandi in jail, I admit….

In the beginning, gymnastics wasn’t a women’s sport, period.

#2 Cee on 06.07.12 at 8:42 am

All you have to do is check out videos of current international elites on YouTube (especially Komova or Wieber)–the comments alone reveal the nastiness some other cultures feel toward the more muscular gymnasts, which seem to be seen as an especially American “flaw.” It’s like they forgot Shoushenova or Boguinskaya even existed, much less had incredible success.

#3 Ono No Komachi on 06.07.12 at 9:13 am

You don’t have to look for comments from countries outside the USA to see nastiness towards female gymnasts who are not stick thin.

It’s not so much jugdes who are biased against muscular body types, it’s a subset of gymfans.

American culture is obsessed with female beauty and body weight (although we far from alone in that respect), and those obsessions spill over into women’s sports in a way that is sometimes negative and destructive.

#4 Julia on 06.07.12 at 9:17 am

I have to admit, I like Dvora’s work most of the time, but this missed the mark for me. There are fewer and fewer “artistic” gymnasts in the USA by her definition, and they are the heavy favorites for Team Gold in London. How is being more muscularly built a liability again?

Those gymnasts who defy the hyper-slender and balletic physique stereotype and still manage to be artistic in their work AND have international success are many, including Catalina Ponor, Elena Prudonova, Ksenia Afanasyeva, Aliya Mustafina, Sandra Izbasa, Vanessa Ferrari…I could go on.

It’s simply not as cut and dry as she’s trying to present it. Raisman, for instance, is not artistic because of her body type, it has to do with her flexed feet, sloppy form on bars, and robotic dance moves, rather than her powerful and muscular body type.

#5 Cee on 06.07.12 at 9:19 am

That is certainly true, although the comments I read were clearly from non-Americans who bashed that look as an American thing. But it’s definitely endemic within the US gymnastics community as well.

#6 anthony on 06.07.12 at 10:18 am

All those comments are from Americans who love to criticize American gymnastics. Some people are so dumb to even comment. Saying Jordyn doesn’t have good jumps. She hits 180 and goes high… that’s a good jump. Sure she is not in a oversplit but you do not have to be. Plus it kills me when people bring up lack of artistry but don’t talk about other gymnast form. I am a hardcore American gymnastics fan who loves Aliya Mustafina but truly, Komova represents what gymnastics should be (minus her inconsistency) , even though I don’t like her. Americans(usually) have good form with bad artistry and Aliya has good artistry but she has several leg deductions. Yes, artistry is great but no, it should not always win and because there is no big reward for artistry, it wont. I think there should be a 1-5 score on artistry sort of like in rhythmic gymnastics. I think in the next quad the Americans will be more artistic so they will have less criticism.

#7 Ono No Komachi on 06.07.12 at 10:34 am

Julia really hit the nail on the head…(exept for Ferrari being artistic…).

Not every criticism of Shawn (or any other “muscular” gymnast can simply be dismissed as due to bias against her body type. Not saying what Meyers is describing does not happen at times, but it’s not the whole story.

#8 Cee on 06.07.12 at 12:07 pm

“All those comments are from Americans who love to criticize American gymnastics. ”

Uh, no. You have no idea what I’m referencing, nor did you read them–please don’t try to characterize it.

#9 Marcus on 06.07.12 at 1:27 pm

I think “international look” is more about having good lines than being thin. Courtney McCool comes to mind. She was more muscular, but she had great lines and was praised by everyone for her look. Mustafina hasn’t been super thin in years, but people still praise her lines and nice carriage. Same with Anna Li.

#10 Tracy on 06.07.12 at 3:20 pm

I’m always shocked by how thin these “athletic” gymnasts are in their outside clothes. Compared to the average teen, even the most muscular athletes appear thinner than normal. No wonder we deal with food issues in gymnastics. Very unrealistic standards.

#11 Anon on 06.07.12 at 4:16 pm

Hey Ono, Gymnastics did not begin in Germany nor by men. Romans were doing
(see this fresco: http://test.classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/333/flashcards/38333/jpg/bull_leaping_.jpg). They did not call it that however. John Cristoph Fredirch GutsMuth came up with the idea of organized actives for young people write a book titled Gymnastike fur die Jugend (Gymnastics for the Young) in 1793 but Ancient Greeks, Roman soldiers and other medival knights brought the sport to Germany (Schenk, B. 1997, out of USA gymnastics: The history of USA gymnastics the early years through 1991)

#12 fargo on 06.07.12 at 6:00 pm

I agree with Marcus. Line is what is key.

Even though I’ve read/heard many an argument that a muscular built gymnast doesn’t have the same line I am of the school of thought that line is created from the shoulder/hip/knee angles, not the “contour” or “silhouette” of a gymnast’s side profile. So, one can be muscular but still have a nice line, like McCool or one can be skinny and have a horrendous line like the up and coming British girl Tunney.

#13 William A Sands on 06.08.12 at 6:31 am

Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012 May 29. [Epub ahead of print]
Historical Trends of the Size of U.S. Olympic Female Artistic Gymnasts.
Sands WA, Slater C, McNeal JR, Murray SR, Stone MH.
SourceMonfort Family Human Performance Research Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, CO.

Abstract
The lay press, scientists, and physicians appear to believe that gymnasts are continually getting smaller and that their “smallness” is a health risk.

PURPOSE: Assess the historical changes in the size and age of the U.S. Women’s Olympic teams from 1956 to 2008.

METHODS: The official records from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, of Olympic team members were assessed at two levels: 1) individual height, mass, age, and body mass index (BMI) and 2) the team performance scores and rankings. Fourteen Olympic teams with a total of 106 team members, including the alternates, were included. Trend analyses were conducted using linear and polynomial models.

RESULTS: Simple linear correlations indicated that since 1956 height, mass, age, BMI, and team Olympic rank have been declining. However, 2nd order polynomial curve fits indicated that in the last four Olympic Games the members of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastic Teams have been getting larger.

CONCLUSION: Women’s Olympic gymnasts were getting smaller through approximately the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then the size of these gymnasts has increased. The minimum age rule modifications may have played a role in athlete size changes along with a shift from former communist Eastern Bloc near dominance.

#14 William A Sands on 06.08.12 at 6:36 am

I guess I hit submit by accident. The abstract I included is one of our newer publications where I studied the official heights and weights of U.S. Olympic teams since 1956. The punch line is that the teams got continually smaller through the 80s and early 90s and then have been getting bigger ever since. Interestingly, Olympic places and medals tends to follow the same trend. As the latter gymnasts got larger so did their medal count.

You may also want to consider this study:

Claessens AL, Lefevre J, Beunen G, Malina RM. The contribution of anthropometric characteristics to performance scores in elite female gymnasts. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 1999;39(4):355-360.

The results from a world championship showed that body size was related to score.

#15 top U.S. gymnasts getting bigger — Gymnastics Coaching.com on 06.08.12 at 8:22 am

[…] Bill Sands is always doing this — stifling perfectly entertaining online debates with the […]

#16 shergymrag on 06.08.12 at 11:25 am

“The results from a world championship showed that body size was related to score.”

The question is whether gymnasts of similar performance level will get different scores based on their body type. If this study didn’t take the performance level of the gymnasts into account, it tells us almost nothing.

“BACKGROUND: Aims of this study were: a) to identify anthropometric variables correlated with gymnastic performance, and b) to predict performance scores from a combination of anthropometric dimensions. METHODS: Experimental design: correlational analysis and a stepwise multiple regression were used. Setting: Subjects were participants at the 24th World Championships Artistic Gymnastics, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1987. Participants: A total of 168 female gymnasts (mean age: 16.5 1.8 years) were investigated. Each gymnast participated in all events. Measures: An extensive battery of anthropometric dimensions was taken on each athlete. The somatotype was estimated. Skeletal maturation of the hand-wrist was assessed. Competition scores for the four individual gymnastic events (balance beam, floor exercise, vault, uneven bars) and a composite score for each gymnast were the dependent variables. RESULTS: Moderately high, significant correlations (p < 0.01) were observed between skinfolds and endomorphy, and gymnastics performance scores, r varying from -0.38 to -0.60, for biceps skinfold and the score on balance beam, and for endomorphy and the total score, respectively. The correlations suggest that gymnasts with more subcutaneous fat and higher endomorphy have lower performance scores. About 32% to 45% of the variance in gymnastic performance scores could be explained by anthropometric dimensions and/or derived variables, but endomorphy and chronological age are the most important predictors. CONCLUSIONS: There is a relatively strong relationship between several anthropometric variables and gymnastic performance in a sample of elite female gymnasts, but the associations are not sufficiently high to predict performance scores on an individual basis."

#17 coach Rick on 06.08.12 at 11:37 pm

You should debate Dr. Bill Sands on this research.

… good luck with that.

#18 shergymrag on 06.09.12 at 4:56 pm

Rick, you are a trip. Dr. Sands put up some research comparing gymnasts scores to body size. I’m not doubting the research. I’m saying the findings probably tell us nothing about body size bias. You really can’t just take measurements and declare there was body size bias. That’s absurd.

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