The legitimacy of women-owned gymnastics media — Other gym news — Thoughts from Chellsie Memmel

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Oct. 29, 2022

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The big news this week is that worlds are happening. The women’s qualifications start today in Liverpool.

Unfortunately for this newsletter, that means I can’t give you any results, because I’m turning this in before competition starts. That’s why there is so little in the “Other gym news” section below. Next week, I’ll do the full worlds recap. 

Fortunately for this newsletter, that means I can step back on a soapbox I briefly ascended last week. That is the legitimacy of gym media, particularly those podcasts and blogs run by women (which is a lot of them). 

We live in a world where journalism is constantly questioned, where sources on nearly every topic are viewed with skepticism and people talk constantly about the need to hear “both sides.” 

I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years; my first byline in my local paper went up in 1993, when I was a high school junior. I very clearly remember the first time I heard a “joke” about how my job must consist of sitting around making things up. It was in 2017, just after a certain very dramatic election won by a man who spent a lot of his time deriding, threatening and casting doubt upon journalists, especially female journalists. An acquaintance — a man — sent me a supposedly joking message about 86’ing a coworker of mine — a woman — because of the way she covered the aforementioned election winner. 

My point is, I’ve seen some things, and I’ve seen journalism change from being a fairly respectable career to being the source of everything from ridiculous jokes to outright threats. I’ve also seen the shift from daily print papers to a vibrant multimedia industry where news is broken online, in videos and on podcasts. 

OK, Gen X, what does this have to do with gymnastics? I’m getting there. 

In the last decade, I’ve watched a movement in gymnastics journalism in particular where the people doing the best coverage of the sport started off writing and podcasting as fans, until the insider knowledge they had gained became the currency they needed to break the news of the Larry Nassar scandal, of #gymnastalliance, of abusive coaches. Suddenly, the fans were in charge. I wrote an article about the shift for FanSided in 2021. 

I’m part of this movement. I got this job at The IX because I began writing about gymnastics as a fan, and then it became part of my career. 

But I think there remains a skepticism among seasoned journalists and readers alike about the legitimacy of blogs and podcasts as news outlets. I have observed that this skepticism only grows when women are in charge of those blogs and podcasts. In the gymnastics world, women are in charge of much of the media. Two women — Jessica O’Beirne, who began GymCastic as a side hustle in 2012 and now is a full-time podcaster, and Lauren Hopkins, who founded The Gymternet in 2014 — became the names and faces of this for-fans, by-fans movement. I have interviewed O’Beirne and Hopkins for my own work about the sport and chatted with both of them offline about their work (and also that one time that I misspelled GymCastic in an article, which I will never do again). 

By their own admission, both O’Beirne’s podcast and Hopkins’ blog started off with snarkier, more gossipy tones than they have now. O’Beirne, in GymCastic’s 10th anniversary episode that dropped last week, said her original vision for the show was an audio version of the gymnastics message boards of the early aughts, which, IYKYK. 

Then came scandal, and suddenly we were getting most of the Nassar story not from the mainstream media but from podcasts and blogs. Gymnasts read and listened to them and trusted them with their stories. 

If a snarky comment or 20 back in the day excluded someone from legitimacy as a journalist, there would be no journalists. The condemnation of O’Beirne and Hopkins in particular that I see online seems rooted in their gossipy pasts. And yeah, the condemnation is specific to women. I know several male journalists who began their careers blogging (including for so-called gossip blogs) and now make millions for major news outlets. But when it’s women writing about one of the few sports in which women are more prominent, are more famous, and make more money than men? They’re just making it up, people say. They just want clicks, people say. 

When O’Beirne broke the news last week that Gabby Douglas was back training, the online ridicule was loud and proud. When Hopkins said on Twitter that she may have been O’Beirne’s source for the news, she, too, was criticized for “spreading rumors.” Both ended up needing to explain the process by which they verified what was, yes, a rumor. This is a truly exhausting part of being a journalist. Behind the scenes, we are showing our notes, offering up our transcripts, and proving our points to our editors, but once it is published, it’s all free game again. 

This week, O’Beirne is under fire from her internet critics for saying on the podcast that Konnor McClain “has left elite gymnastics for now, as far as we know.” McClain herself responded via TikTok and said she did not quit elite and will return next season and asking that people refrain from speculation about her career. Fair enough, but O’Beirne qualified her words enough that it comes off as speculation (which she acknowledged) and not gossip. 

You’ll hear plenty of sexist remarks about O’Beirne’s on-air delivery — her voice, but especially her laugh. Talk to any female podcaster about the top complaint she gets about her work, and it is almost always her voice. Online critics often say that O’Beirne’s male co-host, Spencer Barnes (who also writes The Balance Beam Situation as one of the few male voices covering women’s gymnastics), legitimizes her work because he is more serious than she. No shade to Barnes, who does great work on and off GymCastic, but he is not any more or less legitimate than O’Beirne. He does have a deeper voice, though. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find any topic that unites the gymnastics community more than hating on NBC’s coverage of major elite meets. What we want is knowledgeable commentary about the gymnasts, about skills, and about the way teams are selected and routines are judged! Show people the work of O’Beirne and Hopkins, and they say, “Oh, no, we can’t trust them. We want real coverage.” So we end up listening to Tim Daggett praising the old Karolyi system, overlooking the fact that there are now two women in charge of USAG strategy and team-building, mocking women’s last names, and criticizing their bodies, and we’re wondering why we can’t get someone who understands the sport in there. Meanwhile, outlets such as GymCastic and The Gymternet are live in Liverpool, updating their content daily, in the mixed zone interviewing gymnasts, and doing the work on the ground.

So when you’re looking for coverage of Worlds this week and upset that the FIG did not provide a stream of qualifications, try looking to GymCastic’s daily live podcasts or The Gymternet’s extensive coverage of athletes from around the world or Hopkins’ live blogs every day of competition (and, while you’re at it, Barnes’s live blogs, too). I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. 

Other gym news

The United States delegation to this week’s World Championships in Liverpool, England.

The Gymternet gives us a comprehensive overview of Worlds competition and how to see it. 

Shallon Olsen’s mother died, and Olsen will not compete in Liverpool. The Canadian federation had previously announced Olsen would be the team’s alternate after initially naming her to the team; now we may know why that decision was made. We are sorry for Olsen’s loss. 

Utah gymnasts designed their own leos:

NCAA commitments

Joscelyn Roberson to Arkansas:

Top recruit Avery Neff has not announced her commitment and continues to toy with us. I am here for it:

Five at The IX: Chellsie Memmel

GymCastic posted a mixed zone session with everyone’s favorite world champion-turned-elite comeback-turned-USAG technical director, Chellsie Memmel, in Liverpool. The interview features questions from GymCastic’s Jessica O’Beirne and other media. 

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Written by Lela Moore