Nationals: What went right (gymnasts, gymnastics) and what went wrong (NBC) — Other gym news — Thoughts from Christina Chauvenet

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Aug. 26, 2022

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We saw history made at the 2022 OOFOS National Gymnastics Championship on Aug. 21 as three Black women comprised the podium for the first time ever. Konnor McClain, Shilese Jones and Jordan Chiles won gold, silver and bronze, respectively. We love to see it.

Chiles and Jade Carey were the first Olympians to return to elite competition after competing in the NCAA. Carey won the vault title. Leanne Wong, who was expected to compete for an all-around medal, withdrew from the first night after an ankle tweak. She returned to compete in bars and beam on night two and walked away with a shared bars title. Casual.

National Team Awards – USAG/Inside Gymnastics

The national team for the next year was named; besides McClain, Jones, and Chiles, the other five (representing the top eight all-around finishers) were Kayla DiCello, Carey, Skye Blakeley, Lexi Zeiss and Elle Mueller.

Wong was not named, despite her event title, because she did not do all-around; one would assume she will be added after the next national team camp in a few weeks.

So. The competition was incredible. The gymnastics were incredible. The gymnasts were incredible. What I am going to say next has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the actual sport that we saw last week. 

What was not incredible was the NBC commentary. It was, variously, racist, condescending and a slap in the face to the gymnasts who have endured an abuse scandal in the sport for years.

I thought getting rid of Al Trautwig after the Rio Olympics would improve the NBC broadcast team, but bringing in Terry Gannon as the clueless straight man to Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin’s supposed expertise has been yet another lead balloon.

Gannon reached Peak Trautwig when Daggett mentioned that Wong had added a Bhardwaj – a full-twisting Pak salto – to her routine, and that the move was named after 2004 Olympic silver medalist Mohini. 

“You’re just making stuff up now,” Gannon said, resulting in an awkward chuckle from Daggett, who responded, “It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?”

What it sounds like is an Asian woman’s last name. An Asian woman who worked on a very technically complex and difficult skill, perfected it and had it named for her in the Code of Points.

And as @sette_reset tweeted, what Bhardwaj did at the Olympics – stepping in to compete on beam with no warmup after a teammate’s injury – Chiles did as well. And Chiles was praised for it by the same commentators who mocked Bhardwaj’s name.

Daggett misidentified McClain as Chiles in the moments after McClain’s vault. About a minute passed before he acknowledged his error, saying “Shame on me.” Yes. Shame on you.

Daggett also consistently mispronounced Jones’ name, calling her “Shuh-LEESE” instead of “SHY-leese” and even failing to understand that Jones’ Instagram handle, @shicanfly, rhymes because that’s how the first syllable of her name is pronounced. It is inexcusable to do this to anyone, but to the ultimate silver medalist on whom you are focusing a great deal of air time is particularly noxious and veers into racist territory.

Both Daggett and Gannon spent a considerable amount of time marveling that Katelyn Jong, last year’s junior national champion who is in her first year as a senior, was capable of elite gymnastics due to her being “unassuming” and “slight.” This echoes many, many comments made on-air over the years about various East Asian gymnasts and their power, or supposed lack thereof. It is disrespectful and, frankly, mean. 

At the beginning of the first night of competition Friday night, commentator John Roethlisberger, reporting from the floor, said he was going to explain gymnastics scoring, using Liukin’s bars score from her 2008 Olympic event final routine. He then said he was going to adjust Liukin’s score so that she would finish first (instead of second, as she actually did; China’s He Kexin won gold.) Liukin laughed awkwardly at this bit, as well she should.

NBC has consistently, during and after the 2008 Olympics, mocked the Chinese team that appeared at those Games. They have alleged age-limit violations, joked about gymnasts being malnourished or lacking power (foreshadowing their commentary on Jong) and generally maintained that the U.S. should have been the winners against those gymnasts. I enjoyed Roethlisberger’s on-air pairing with Laurie Hernandez at the U.S. Classic in July and hope to see them together again, but this bit of work was not cool. 

NBC hired a producer from the SEC Network to show things like handstand angles on bars (the protractor! My heart!) and to analyze scores, so the harping on the “new” scoring system seems especially unnecessary at this point. Other sports, like diving, use similar systems, but we don’t hear about it constantly. We are not all “Math is Hard!” Barbie, we can handle some numbers.

Throughout both nights of competition, there were frequent replays of both Blakeley’s injury at the Olympic Trials last summer and Carey’s balk on her Amanar during the Olympic event finals. Why is there this need to show gymnasts getting injured and having the worst moments of their careers? Gymnastics does not need NBC to invent “storylines” for “characters.”

The competition is its own story. Even discussion of the deaths of McClain’s and Jones’ fathers in December 2021, which arguably shaped their careers this past year more than anything else, received less airtime than these injury replays. 

And finally, Daggett twice spent considerable air time praising Kayla DiCello’s personal coach, Kelli Hill, for her contributions to the sport as Hill (by her own admission) nears retirement. 

Hill was most recently in the news after she suggested on Facebook to abuse survivor Aly Raisman that conditions at the Karolyi Ranch were not as terrible as Raisman said they were. This might have been news to another of Hill’s gymnasts, Dominique Dawes, who recently spoke on a podcast about being threatened by Hill with a visit to the Karolyi Ranch if she didn’t behave as Hill wanted her to.

Dawes has said she and Hill no longer speak, and Dawes has said too that the gym she opened will not have elite gymnasts, allegedly because her own experience with Hill was so bad that she doesn’t want to be responsible for other gymnasts at that level.

Daggett also suggested that USAG hired Memmel, Sacramone and Dan Baker to lead the women’s high-performance program because a single person in that role would have a “target on their back,” insinuating that said target was the downfall of previous program leaders Martha Karolyi and Tom Forster. As opposed to, say, Karolyi’s allegedly aiding and abetting the abuse of gymnasts, or Forster’s rude treatment of the press and lack of transparency with his athletes about selection processes.

I’ve written more than 1,000 words here and I feel like I haven’t come close to capturing how repulsed I felt after listening to this broadcast. I am thrilled for the gymnasts who came out on top. But they deserve so much better than what they got on this broadcast, and so do the many gymnasts who competed whose routines we never saw (21 women competed and by my estimate, we saw a third of those routines). As do the fans.

I agree that sports commentary, on some level, must break down the sport’s rules and regulations for the uninitiated. But NBC seems to believe that no one watching follows the sport with any regularity, which is not something I see in coverage of, say, the WNBA or the NWSL to say nothing of the NFL or MLB.

They create a narrative of their own on these broadcasts, only showing select gymnasts and focusing on predetermined storylines about them, instead of letting the direction of the meet shape the coverage. They continue to focus on a scoring system that is nearly two decades old as something holding the sport back from its previous glory, as if American gymnasts have not achieved their greatest consistency of top results under the scoring changes.

They praise the old coaching regime for results, as though no one is aware that the reason USAG has been in turmoil since 2015 is that regime ran on abuse. It is insulting to gymnasts, coaches, leadership and fans alike. 

Let the sport be the story. 

Other gym news

Riley McCusker posted a statement on Instagram this week saying that she was being silenced in an attempt to speak up about abuse in gymnastics. She clarified later in a second post that she cannot speak out because she is involved in a lawsuit (against her former coach Maggie Haney) and that her Florida teammates and coaches were supportive of her.

Tasha Schwikert, 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, two-time national champion, and two-time NCAA all-around champion, spoke with host Nicole Langevin on the What Makes You Think? podcast this week. She discussed her relationship with former coach Cassie Rice, the Sydney Olympics, and her history with an eating disorder, among other topics. This is part one, and part two is forthcoming.

The FIG released the nominative roster for the Paris World Challenge Cup, which will be held September 24-25. Carey, Zeiss, Blakeley and Jones are listed as the U.S. gymnasts attending. Other top names on the roster (just remember, these aren’t set in stone!) include Rebeca Andrade and Flavia Saraiva of Brazil, Nina Derwael of Belgium, Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France, and Jennifer Gadirova of Great Britain.

Shilese Jones and Jordan Chiles participated in the Lion King cam at nationals. 

And Victoria Nguyen and Morgan Hurd also went for it in the audience! 

Five at The IX: Christina Chauvenet

Christina Chauvenet/Cora McAnulty for The Daily Tarheel

Christina Chauvenet is a freelance gymnastics commentator, a job she entered in a most roundabout way (which she discusses below). She covered UNC for seven seasons while living in the Tarheel State and also covered NC State beginning in 2020. Now a resident of Washington, D.C., she is in touch with several networks about expanding her work and says she hopes to be commentating as much as possible during the 2023 season. Chauvenet was herself a gymnast, who began in the sport at the age of 10. She has cerebral palsy, which she said made her journey more difficult as she was often training with gymnasts much younger than she. She considers herself an advocate for disabled gymnasts, noting the lack of infrastructure for athletes like herself through USAG. I encountered Christina on Twitter, where I would immediately read her commentary on NCAA every Monday during the season. When I saw her tweeting about some of the same topics I addressed above about the coverage of nationals, I knew I wanted to invite her here this week, and I’m thrilled that she was available and agreed to chat with me. I hope everyone who reads this follows Christina immediately because she’s truly a gem of the gymternet. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You tweeted after Nationals wrapped Sunday about NBC focusing heavily on gymnasts’ previous injuries. Can you talk about why that, in your mind, detracted from the broadcast?

CC: I think there are a few issues about airing injuries that I find problematic. Most importantly, I find it disrespectful to the gymnast. An injury is a traumatic event and is a difficult thing to go through on national TV. Of course, sometimes these things happen in real-time and you can’t avoid airing it, but it feels voyeuristic to re-air the injury.

Secondly, there is no reason to re-air the injury, and it doesn’t contribute to the analysis of the current event. It is simply serving to remind/create a dramatic narrative of that athlete for the viewers. In the instance I cited, Skye Blakely’s injury occurred a year ago, and when she did a great vault on Sunday, they felt the need to show the injury footage from the prior year. Instead, they could use that time to show a replay of her excellent performance at the Pan American Games, where she won three medals, and discuss what a great season she is having. Or better yet, they could have used that time to show other gymnasts’ routines (we missed many routines while seeing these replays or watching gymnasts drink water). That’s what I mean when I say it is not contributing to the analysis of the broadcast.

For decades, NBC has assumed that viewers are “4-year (Olympics) fans,” and that we have to dumb things down for them to understand the sport. That’s why I think they tend to overly focus on these narratives and not show too many routines. But this dumbing down would never be accepted in any other sport. We should focus on educating fans about the sport, especially in an era when the fan base is growing so rapidly. We did see some of this with NBC’s coverage, like the handstand protractor on bars and John Rothleisberger’s analysis of scoring, but too much time is spent on ‘fluff’ pieces that aren’t real analyses.

As an NCAA commentator, what are some personal boundaries for your reporting that you follow that you wish elite coverage would also follow?

CC: I would say that not all elite coverage is created equally. There have been some excellent elite broadcasts recently. I’m thinking especially of Blythe Lawrence and Olly Hogben at the European Championships.

For me personally, I always try and imagine the gymnast watching the coverage back. In my mind, it’s my true privilege to be able to talk about these athletes’ routines. If they weren’t doing gymnastics, I wouldn’t have a job! I would always want them to be able to watch it back without thinking I did them a disservice. Sure, I will point out deductions and do analysis, but it shouldn’t get personal about flaws, what a gymnast’s state of mind is, or overly focus on past failures.

But for me, related to the above, I always tell producers that if there is an injury on air, to cut away immediately. The only comment I will then make is ‘I am sending them my best’ or similar. I also tell producers never to replay the injuries.

Some other best practices I have are not making comments about a gymnast’s weight/body type, unless it is to compliment them (e.g. “It’s great to see taller gymnasts thriving in NCAA”). There was some of that happening in the NBC broadcast that didn’t sit right with me, with one of the commentators saying ‘it wouldn’t look like she could do that’ referring to a petite gymnast doing a powerful skill. Those types of comments on gymnasts’ [bodies] can be really damaging for a gymnast themselves to hear back, and for fans, it often reinforces negative stereotypes about ‘thin’ or ‘stocky’ gymnasts and how their gymnastics should look based on their body type.

Another best practice I have when covering quad meets is to not show gymnasts sitting around when gymnastics is happening. I have conversations with producers about this ahead of time. My philosophy is to maximize the number of routines that are being shown. That continues to be a real downside to NBC’s coverage, and I believe is related to their desire to dramatize a meet to make it compelling for viewers (or so they think). They want to focus on a few gymnasts, tell their decided narrative about that gymnast, and so they will follow that gymnast while they talk to their coach rather than showing other routines.

I try not to repeat the same facts over and over about a gymnast. This pattern helps prevent a given narrative about a gymnast, good, bad, or otherwise. I look at their social media and past performances and try and focus on what skills are particularly important/new and then really focus on analyzing their skills. Of course, I’ll throw in some fun facts, but I really try and maximize the analysis I’m doing. 

Finally, I drill name pronunciations. I can’t say I never make a mistake, but I found it very disrespectful, and frankly a showing of implicit bias, that Shilese Jones’ name was continually mispronounced despite her being on the national scene for several years.  

Now, some of these practices have to be implemented in concert with a good producer, and a commentator can’t control everything. I heard an interview with Tim Daggett many years ago where he said the network wants a straightforward narrative and they can’t cater to hardcore fans. However, when I have been commentating, I’ve been able to have conversations with producers who respect my expertise, and I would hope that after so many decades of coverage, Tim could talk to NBC frankly about how coverage should change if he wanted to.

Who would you love to see cover an elite broadcast?

CC: Of course, I would love to commentate elite gymnastics, but haven’t been offered any opportunities yet. To my point above, I think Olly and Blythe really set the gold standard with their coverage of Euros. Knowledgeable, funny, not talking too much, immense respect for the gymnasts, a privacy shield when a few injuries happened. It was world-class and I would love to see them cover US meets. 

Some other excellent commentators (in no particular order) are Kathy Johnson Clarke, Bart Connor, Ashley Miles Greig, Evan Heiter, Casey Magnesium, Olivia Karas, Kevin Copp, and Alisa Mowe. I also really enjoyed Laurie Hernandez and John Rothleisberger’s coverage of the U.S. Classic and would like to see them commentate more together.   

You have a great story about getting into gym coverage – can you talk a bit about how you became UNC”s gymnastics commentator?

CC: Haha! Such a random and non-traditional story. So I went to UNC for graduate school, and when we first moved to North Carolina, my husband waited tables on a then-UNC gymnast named Lexi Cappalli (this was back in the fall of 2014). My husband came home and mentioned it to me, and at that point I decided to look at UNC’s highlight reel, thinking I would just be a fan. I noticed that on some of the meets they only had one commentator, and I truly have no idea what prompted me to think ‘What if I did this?’ I randomly emailed someone in sports marketing and asked if they would like a former gymnast to help with the broadcast. Next thing you know, I’m commentating UNC’s 2015 season, and it just grew from there into covering more teams and schools. 

I was a gymnast, but my cerebral palsy kept me from competing at a high level. I had club teammates that went on to compete NCAA, but obviously, that was never an option for me, so I truly value the experience I’ve been able to have covering this sport. If you told me 10 years ago I would be commentating the 2022 EAGL championships, I would have never believed you, but I did that a few months ago. It was my first conference championships as a commentator (hopefully not my last), and I had a few pinch-me moments during that meet.

People really engage with your tweets. How do you think social media platforms amplify the conversation around gymnastics, particularly around issues like the NBC broadcast this weekend?

CC: That’s so nice of you to say. I really view myself as a fan first, commentator second, so I love engaging with fans on Twitter (and I’m branching out to Tiktok now too!). Social media gives the opportunity for lots of people involved with gymnastics-fans, athletes, coaches, media-to interact with each other and share their opinions. One of the cool things about Twitter is the ability to engage with people from around the world.

It’s also a gut check when you see others tweeting about the same event. You’ll see someone expressing a similar opinion and thinking, “Oh, it wasn’t just me that thought that.” Or you might see a differing opinion and consider something differently. So I think that’s what happened this weekend with the NBC coverage. Lots of fans, former gymnasts, and members of the media were all thinking similarly, and hopefully, the proliferation of feedback on social media made it back to NBC and they will realize they need to change some things about their coverage.

For me, I want to use my platform a few ways. One is to educate and learn from fans (it is a two-way street!). I love hearing what fans want in a broadcast. I also like to uplift diverse voices in gymnastics, like Brown Girls Do Gymnastics and the Half in Half Out podcast. I want to use my platform to call out racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, body shaming, and other types of prejudice. That’s why I stepped in to comment on the broadcast. I do try not to overly criticize other commentators because I am not perfect either, but the narrative and tone of the broadcast is not helping the sport to move forward and was disrespectful to athletes in several instances. So I am committed to calling that out when I see it.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
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Thursdays: Golf
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Fridays: Hockey
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Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Lela Moore