Why Olympic Gymnasts Don’t Have to Be Super Skinny Anymore

Why is the American women’s gymnastics team crushing the rest of the world? It comes down to muscles, and lingering notions of femininity.

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Aug 16 2016, 5:35pm

Photo by Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman will compete in the floor exercise final at the Rio Olympic Games. It is this event where the Americans stand the farthest apart from the competition, and where the American revolution in gymnastics is most obvious. And the reason for that is their muscles.

Why is the American women's gymnastics team crushing the rest of the world? Part of it is that the U.S. is rich, and the team has access to the best equipment, and that many of the Eastern European training systems have crumbled since the fall of communism. But that doesn't explain why the other teams don't have strong muscles—it doesn't cost a lot of money to do squats. The answer, I think, has something to do with lingering ideas about femininity.

For a long time, the ideal gymnast looked like a delicate bird, like in this classic floor routine from Oksana Omelianchik, in 1985.

Gymnastics is all about strength-to-weight ratio. You must be strong enough to throw your body around, or light enough that it's not that hard to do so. For a long time, the favored route to success in gymnastics was the latter, mirroring larger social pressures on women to be thin and delicate and innocent and young. Everything about gymnastics played to this image, from the ribbons in girls' hair to the music for floor routines, which was either classical or cutesy.

Read More: Should Gabby Douglas Have Been in the All-Around Final?

In the early 90s, when gymnastics first started getting big in America, was when Olympic gymnasts were at their smallest. Russian Tatiana Gutsu and American Shannon Miller, the gold and silver medalists in the all-around at the 1992 Games, both weighed less than 75 pounds.

Kim Kelly, meanwhile, earned a spot on the 1992 U.S. team at Olympic Trials only to have it taken away from her before the Barcelona Games; Kelly heard it was because she had boobs and hips. "Bela didn't like my body type, that was it," she said, referring to Bela Karolyi, the US head coach at the time. At the time, Knight Ridder reported that "Karolyi says the ideal size for a gymnast today is 4-foot-7 to 4-foot-10, 75 to 85 pounds. 'You look at the parents, especially the mamas, and you can tell who will be small.'"

A profile of Bela Karolyi in Texas Monthly the year before condemned gymnastics' cruelty to girls (while still indulging in its own sexism, noting one gymnast doesn't have time to "find a boyfriend" because she's so busy with the sport):

"While any other teenage girl prays for a fully developed figure, gymnasts see puberty as their enemy. At this level of competition, some girls say a bust line and a protruding pelvis are the very things that can physically slow them down and ruin their careers. They are on a race against time, to reach their peak before their bodies betray them. ... The best gymnasts start hitting their stride by fourteen; then abruptly, they announce their 'retirement' at the wizened old age of seventeen or eighteen."

It is hard to do gymnastics if puberty suddenly makes you tall. Russian Svetlana Boginskaya, who competed in three Olympics, grew 4.5 inches in a year and a half, starting when she was about 14. "I had to take a year off and just relearn the whole gymnastics and the way I moved and the way I do skills, and I had to wait a little bit longer in order for the floor to push me, because I'm longer and I'm not as fast anymore," she said on GymCastic. She won most of her medals after her growth spurt.

But the preference for the prepubescent look was about more than the ability to do flips. You can hear it in old broadcasts. Certain gymnasts are praised for having an "international look" that would help them score well with international judges. The "international look" was supposedly about crisp, clean form, but it was usually code for "skinny." Judges look for "lines"—like the perfect straight line of the legs during a split leap, or the smooth line of an impossibly flexible spine arching backwards. Curves make lines less smooth.

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Americans rarely had the international look—the last all-around champion to have it was Nastia Liukin in 2008—but with women's gymnastics adopting an open-ended scoring system in the past decade, this is no longer a disadvantage. The new code gives more points for harder stuff, which has accelerated how difficult the very top routines have become. The new rules reward the incredible strength it takes not only to soar high in the air while doing two flips and two twists but to do it again and again in the gym without destroying your body. They're also more objective, with less room for judges score on aesthetics unrelated to how skills are supposed to be performed.

The result has been that careers don't end at 16 anymore. Simone Biles is 19, Aly Raisman is 22, Gabby Douglas is 20. Only Laurie Hernandez is 16, and she just went pro, suggesting she plans on sticking around for a while. They're all, of course, very small in real life. But they're not waifs.

The American women's team famously (at least in the gymternet world) has "Brestyan's legs," named for gymnastics coach Mihai Brestyan, whose grueling leg-conditioning system has helped champions known for their explosive power like Raisman, as well as 2008 Olympian Alicia Sacramone. The rest of the national team does the circuit during their monthly training camps in Texas. It is why Raisman, in her third tumbling pass—the point of a floor routine when most gymnasts are exhausted—does a double layout.

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Raisman at 2015 Worlds Podium Training. GIF by sparklesandchalk

Biles' first tumbling pass is that, plus one twist at the end. She looks like she's floating out of the sky while doing something many of her competitors would struggle to do on a trampoline.

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Biles in 2015.

You can see the difference. Compare the legs of Biles or Raisman against the legs of Russia's Aliya Mustafina, who won the bronze in the individual all-around.

Raisman, top, and Mustafina, bottom. Photos by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports (Raisman) and Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports (Mustafina)

Mustafina's coach from the 2012 Olympics, Alexander Alexandrov, was ousted in a political battle over control of the Russian program, and since then he's been coaching the Brazilian team. From afar, he's disappointed in the Russians' muscles. After the team final, Alexandrov explained, "Modern gymnastics is, first of all, legs, right conditioning of the leg muscles. In Russia coaches never cared about it, thinking that Russian gymnastics is, first of all, about choreography." And so, for example, Boginskaya said in a 2013 interview that part of the Russian workout schedule included vigorous walks.

"Beautiful lines—that's great," Alexandrov continued. "But if you don't have strong legs, you can't perform difficult routines. And there are more injuries."

Mustafina and teammate Maria Paseka both struggle with back pain, and you could see them grimacing on the sidelines during the competition. Two other top Russian competitors were too injured to make it to Rio. The team won silver in the all-around, but finished more than eight points behind the U.S.

In China, which took bronze in the team all-around, the strategy has been to have very thin gymnasts—before the 2012 Olympics, TV reporters showed gymnasts being made to wear plastic-lined pants to sweat off weight. They tend to specialize in bars and beam, which require more finesse and less power. In other events, though, several members of the Chinese team struggle to get much bounce off the springboard on vault. On floor, they prefer twisting over flipping—a single flip with a triple twist, instead of the Americans' double flips with one or two twists. Here's Shang Chunsong:

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GIF elisaminimeneghini.tumblr.com

The Chinese, the Russians, and a few other teams also try to make up for the lack of difficulty in their tumbling by doing very difficult turns, which require skill but less strength. Overall, however, it doesn't seem to be a sure strategy for catching up with the Americans. Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers won beam on Wednesday by doing many difficult spins—but only because Biles almost fell off during her routine.

The U.S. program's focus on strength isn't a panacea for all the sport's issues. Some gymnasts still struggle with disordered eating, for example, and earlier in the Games Mexico's Alexa Moreno was targeted by body-shaming internet trolls. This will probably always be the case when you compete in a leotard in a culture that evaluates women through the lens of their appearance. The emphasis on girliness hasn't gone away, either. As the gymnasts have gotten more muscular, their leotards have gotten more pink and sparkly. In 2016, the American leotards have an absurd 5,000 crystals, up from 1,188 in 2012 and 184 in 2008.

But most of the elite gymnastics world has figured out that it's OK for women to be strong and muscular. The British and Brazilian teams have been climbing the ranks with powerful tumbling and muscular bodies. Twenty years ago it would have been crazy to say this, but we're now waiting for the rest of society to be as progressive as elite gymnastics.

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