This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
While Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova was competing on the balance beam in the women’s Olympic all-around final, her name rang out across the arena, but its pronunciation was decidedly American. The U.S. gymnasts sitting in the stands were cheering her on as she went through her leaps and jumps. And as she set up for her flight series, a very Simone Biles-like voice rang out in support. After Melnikova stuck her double pike dismount, she was greeted with a high-five by Sunisa Lee, who was next up on beam, and then with another by Jade Carey.
After the medal ceremony for the women’s all-around was over — Melnikova earned the bronze, Lee the gold and Rebeca Andrade a historic silver for Brazil — the three gymnasts, carrying their bouquets, wearing their masks and medals, took selfies together for their Instagram accounts.
In the medalists’ press conference that followed, Melnikova, 21, made a point to offer up her support to 2016 Olympic champion Biles, who withdrew from the all-around competition with mental health struggles after a near-disastrous vault in the team finals brought on by the twisties, a common phenomenon in which a gymnast loses control of their body in the air. In an interview, Melnikova noted that she could distinctly hear Biles cheering for her when she went up on the uneven bars and said, “I hope she’ll recover fast because the whole world admires her gymnastics and everyone is waiting for her to come back to the competition floor.” Even Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian gymnastics legend whose records were broken by Biles and who has repeatedly criticized the American, came to Biles’s defense on Russian TV.
This camaraderie wasn’t just reserved for the women. During the men’s team final, the Russian and American men rotated together on the basis of their qualification finishes — third and fourth, respectively — and after the competition, the Russian men, who won their first team gold since 1996, told the press that they were happy that they ended up competing alongside the U.S. “We wanted to rotate with the U.S. team because they’re energetic guys and they gave us energy,” David Belyavskiy said after the final. The former NCAA gymnasts on the American team are hype machines, always cheering and yelling from the sidelines, with former Sooner Yul Moldauer leading the way.
And then there was this moment between American Sam Mikulak and Russian Artur Dalaloyan on the vault rotation.
Mikulak had just stuck his vault and then proceeded to high-five the entire Russian team before hugging Dalaloyan, the 2018 world all-around champion. (I like to think that Mikulak was hugging Dalaloyan for keeping his foot attached despite vaulting on an Achilles that was repaired just three months ago after a complete rupture.)
These kids don’t have the time for baby boomers’ 20th century politics. The Cold War really is over.
Yes, the Cold War has been over for more than 30 years, but the framing and analysis of gymnastics events like the Olympics can still feel a bit stuck in the past. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: The narratives that shaped the public perception of gymnastics are deeply rooted in Cold War-era politics. The rise of Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut in 1972 and the subsequent victories of Romanian Nadia Comăneci in 1976 are tied to ideas of state-sponsored sports regimes. Mary Lou Retton’s all-around gold in 1984 at the jingoistic boycotted Games was portrayed as a triumph of capitalism over Communism. Even the Magnificent Seven’s gold medal in 1996, though it technically took place after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, was framed as an East vs. West battle, especially since the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian teams were still drawing from the pool of talent cultivated under the Soviet regime. It’s only been in the past 10 years that newer narratives — Gabby Douglas’s historic all-around gold at the 2012 London Games and Biles’s record-breaking run — have started to supplant the Cold War stories of the sport.
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These Cold War narratives are perhaps most prominent in our discussion of abuse in gymnastics. A certain self-serving narrative has emerged as the American gymnastics community has reckoned with revelations of widespread abuse — sexual, physical and psychological — over the past five years. It goes a little bit like this: When coaches Márta and Béla Károlyi defected from Romania, they brought their draconian Communist training methods with them, and abusive practices took root in this country. While the Károlyis are answerable for what they did, this convenient tale is not the whole story. There were abusive coaches in the sport before the Károlyis defected in 1981. Cathy Rigby was in the midst of a full-blown eating disorder when she won the Americans’ first world championship medal in 1970, a silver on beam. Marcia Frederick — the first U.S. woman to win a world title, on uneven bars in 1978 — came forward in 2018 and said that her coach had sexually abused her during her time as a gymnast. Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. national champion, has spoken about witnessing abuse prior to the arrival of the Károlyis in the U.S.
And the Cold War narratives have persisted in discussions about the age of female gymnasts, with Korbut and Comăneci seen as forces behind a teen takeover. But in reality, they were the culmination of a trend pioneered by the U.S. for reasons that have everything to do with capitalism and amateurism. “This idea that it was a trend started in the Eastern bloc is part of a wider narrative about the ruthlessness and cruelty of communist regimes,” Georgia Cervin, author of “Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell From Grace,” told me. While there was undoubtedly abuse in the Communist gymnastics sports system, it wasn’t unique to the Eastern bloc.
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Current gymnasts have no use for this kind of rhetoric and narrative. They’re too busy commenting on each other’s Instagram posts, liking each other’s tweets and cheering each other on from the sidelines.
And, as it turns out, the Cold War wasn’t really that cold — at least not as far as the gymnasts were concerned.
Kathy Johnson Clarke, a two-time Olympic medalist whose career spanned from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, recalled deep feelings of mutual respect and admiration between herself and the Eastern bloc competitors and coaches.
After Johnson performed in the floor routine finals at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France, she put on her sweats and packed up her things to head out of the arena when she saw Soviet stars Nellie Kim and Elena Mukhina. “Both Nellie and Elena were motioning to me to come with them. I fell into the line and looked back over my shoulder to see the scoreboard and saw I was in third place,” she wrote to me, “and I then realized that Nellie and Elena knew before I did that I had medaled and wanted me to walk with them to where they were getting ready for the award ceremony.”
Language barriers made it difficult for the American and the Eastern bloc gymnasts to forge deeper bonds or to even express mutual admiration. “I had to use body language, hand gestures and facial expression to tell the Soviet gymnasts, whom I so admired, how much I revered their gymnastics,” Johnson recalled. “The East German gymnasts Steffi Kräker and Silvia Hindorff came to my room once to exchange gifts and we did our best to communicate and ask questions of each other.”
It wasn’t until years later that Johnson learned the extent to which the Soviets respected her and her gymnastics. Years after both of their respective careers were over, after Johnson told 1980 team gold medalist Natalia Shaposhnikova how much she admired the innovative Soviet gymnast — Shaposhnikova originated a skill that is still in regular use on the uneven bars — Shaposhnikova related that Soviet coaches thought highly of Johnson’s talent. “That’s when she shared with me what their coaches told them about the American and then had them watch my floor routine,” she said. “I cried of course. It meant so much to me.”
While language barriers kept the American gymnast from understanding the depth of the Soviet respect, she had to appreciate it at the time after what happened at the 1983 world championships. Soviet legend Natalia Yurchenko, who innovated the roundoff-back handspring entry vault, was injured in the vault final and had to withdraw from the remaining three finals. Johnson was a reserve for both balance beam and floor exercise, so she warmed up to compete. But when the athletes lined up to march into the arena, Johnson realized there had been a mistake. Another Soviet gymnast ahead of her in the qualification rankings had been excluded due to two-per-country rules, and she, not Johnson, would take Yurchenko’s place.
She was sitting on the cement floor under the stands when her coach found her. “The Soviets felt so badly about my situation that they wanted me to have the floor spot.” A Soviet gymnast had given up her berth so that Johnson could compete.
That hardly fits with the popular image of the win-at-all-costs Soviets.
Johnson accepted this gift and took to the floor exercise, and it was the last time she would see the Soviet gymnasts in competition. The following year, as she was winning the team silver and an individual bronze in Los Angeles at the Olympics, they were preparing to compete in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia, at the Friendship Games, a competition created as an alternative to the 1984 Olympics since most of the Eastern bloc countries, save for Romania, had boycotted.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the kind of camaraderie that Johnson described has been more overt. Many Eastern bloc coaches and gymnasts moved to the U.S. and started training athletes while often maintaining their connections to home. (World Championships are like annual family reunions for former coaches and gymnasts of the Eastern bloc.) These American gymnasts had closer connections to gymnasts abroad as a result of their coaching relationships.
And then there’s the advent of social media. Gymnasts follow one another on these platforms, commenting on photos and training videos. At competitions, they post selfies together. They retweet each other.
“I envy the gymnasts of today because they have so much more interaction other than on the floor during competition,” Johnson said.
It’s not really surprising that gymnasts, regardless of geographic location and national origin, would feel a kinship with one another. They’re a rare breed. There aren’t many people in the world who can do the things that they do, who understand the pressure that they’re under, who know how hard this all is. Look at the way almost every current or former elite gymnast with access to social media has jumped to the defense of Biles. Though they don’t have her success, they understand better than anyone else what she is going through.
“Following each other on social media has so humanized [the] competition and made them all realize how much more alike than different they are,” Johnson Clarke said. “They develop a closeness that we were never able to.” The best that the gymnasts of her time could do is smile, nod or kiss each other on the cheek to show support and empathy. “It’s truly a different world,” she said.