Relying on one athlete to market a small sport is not a winning strategy — Other gym news — Thoughts from Dominique Dawes via Lesley Visser

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Aug. 19, 2023

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Among the many newsletters that drop in my inbox weekly (insert many thank yous to loyal readers of The IX here!) is one called The Lap Count, written by former pro runner Kyle Merber, which covers track and field. 

I know that you came here to read about gymnastics, but I was struck by a paragraph Merber used to describe the lack of response by track and field’s governing bodies when track star Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles, withdrew from the world championships with a knee injury, stating that she needed to stay healthy for next year’s Olympic pursuit. This news came after the news that another athlete coached by McLaughlin-Levrone’s coach, Athing Mu, the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 800-meter, might not compete at worlds because she may choose to focus instead on making the Olympic team next year.

Like, I empathize with the amount of energy that is put into promoting one athlete only to have that strategy crumble before the social media team’s eyes. But bad news is news and it’s part of the sport and that drama is what makes it interesting to follow. Have we learned nothing during the post-Usain Bolt era? One athlete will not save us. But making the sport easier to follow by telling the important stories might.

Kyle Merber, The Lap Count, Aug. 16, 2023

If you didn’t know this was from a running newsletter published Wednesday, it could very well have been written about Simone Biles and the Tokyo Olympics.

I mentioned last week that Biles was the focus of NBC’s broadcast of the Core Hydration Classic, and she should have been. She had not competed at all since the Tokyo Games and her return featured as much, or more, difficulty than she likely would have competed there — she wasn’t half-assing a comeback.

But what struck me was the absence of commentary about her being the glue holding together the potential American team for the Paris Olympics next year, or speculation about how many gold medals she might win. Biles was no longer positioned as the U.S. program’s North Star, though much of the camera work at the meet focused on her (occasionally at the expense of showing other gymnasts and their work). Last quad, we were all made to believe that the U.S. team could barely function without Biles, and she was presented as our only hope for gold in Tokyo. It was not fair to the rest of the team, and it wasn’t fair to Biles…and it was not true, in the end, as the team won silver and Suni Lee, Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner (and, eventually, Biles too) all went home with additional hardware. 

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Biles spoke with GymCastic (an interview I linked to in last week’s Five at The IX) after Classic and said that she had struggled mightily with the weight of the expectations placed on her in Tokyo, and with no other distraction from those expectations at an event where athletes were kept isolated so they could not get or spread COVID-19, she ended up dwelling heavily on them and her mental health suffered as a result. 

Merber says that even though McLaughlin-Levrone will not appear at the track and field worlds, Team USA’s social media and marketing continue to focus on her, again at the expense of other athletes who will head to Budapest. That is very much how Biles’s story was at the center of the coverage of Olympic gymnastics in Tokyo, and it’s why, she has said, people online continue to be angry with her for withdrawing from competition. They did not know where else to look. 

What does it mean for a sport that chooses to put this type of pressure on its stars, at the expense of developing other athletes and putting their stories out into the world? It’s hard to grow a sport that makes itself so dependent on a few marketable stars. Fans tune in because the marketing tells them to, but when they don’t see the names and faces they’ve been told to look for, they tune back out. In sports like track and gymnastics, which have few elite meets in the U.S., the pressure on those stars to perform in those rare moments of exposure grows exponentially. And when they choose not to, instead of celebrating a choice to focus on health and longer-term goals, the fans who have been told the sport rests in these women’s images get angry. And I say women’s images because, in both track and gymnastics in the U.S., it is the women’s side of things that gets more attention. That could be exciting, but the women’s side of things also tends to place greater expectations on its big names. As in life, women are doing the bulk of the emotional labor of hyping up their sports and putting butts in seats.

I’m glad Simone Biles made it clear how that burden affected her, and I’m glad that NBC, which is the primary broadcaster of elite gymnastics (and of the track worlds and the Olympics as well), appears to have learned a few lessons as well if the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month is any indication. Biles was still the main focus of the broadcast, but it was her comeback that was the news peg and not the team’s reliance on her; we did not see as many routines from up-and-coming gymnasts as I would have liked, but we heard specifically about how some would contribute to future teams and how their routines would hold up internationally.

And as Biles did, I’m glad Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Athing Mu have not faltered in their commitment to their health and Olympic goals. There are so many stories in sports, and we need to encourage those who cover them to seek them all out, not just focus on what we’re fed as the main narratives. Sports, especially women’s sports, won’t change unless we change the way we cover them and market them. 

Other gym news

The Balance Beam Situation gives a rundown of the D-scores from the Core Hydration Classic. 

The Gymternet has a look at all the athletes who have qualified for the U.S. Championships in a couple of weeks. 

College Gym News takes a look at which incoming freshmen are mostly likely to make a splash on beam. They also give us a roundtable on lineup strategy

Here’s Rebeca Andrade at podium training before the Brazilian national champs.

Suni Lee was in the NYT crossword this week. (She also made an appearance in an online trivia game I play through Learned League. It was quite a week for our little sport!)

KJ Wheeler was named the interim head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stout after Becky Beaulieu resigned after 18 years in the job.

Taylor Colwell will be the assistant coach at Central Michigan University.

A few college schedules are dropping. Here’s Auburn and Boise State.  

Amanda Cashman will do a fifth year at Georgia.

Social media post of the week.

GymCastic posted this video splicing audio from this week’s podcast about Leanne Wong with footage of Wong from Classic.

Five at The IX: Dominique Dawes on In Conversation With Lesley Visser

CW: Abuse

Dominique Dawes gave an interview on the podcast In Conversation With Lesley Visser, in which she talks to Visser about the emotional abuse her former coach, Kelli Hill, inflicted upon her. It’s a really raw interview but is very much worth a listen. 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Lela Moore