The term “golden age” or “golden era” is something I have a love/hate relationship with. The history side of me hates it because it lacks neutrality and states that one particular era is superior to another era. Most historians would reject such a loaded term being applied in a historical context. There are better ways to celebrate a particular era of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) without marginalizing other eras in the process. And then there is the other side of me. The side of me that gives in to the term because it is in such common usage and has its benefits.
Sports history diverges from traditional history in one crucial way, success can be measured in things as simple as wins, medals, and points. It is very easy (and appropriate) to say a particular nation, franchise, or team is in its “golden era” when it incurs a winning streak as is the case with American WAG. The Americans have won every All-Around (AA) and team title since 2011 counting both the World Championships and Olympics. America’s winning streak goes back all the way back to 2004 as the country has captured every Olympic AA title since then.
The term only works when talking strictly about one country. From the perspective of the Romanians, the 2010s were anything but a golden era. American WAG is certainly in its golden era when looking at the number of medals won. But even then it’s difficult to invoke the term “golden era” when it is now known that the gymnasts who won those medals for the United States were subjected to endemic psychological and sexual abuse in the process. To define “golden era” in the context of wins feels misguided as success is defined only in terms of medals while discarding more important concepts such as “athlete safety” in the process.
Yet even outside the context of the Nassar scandal and measuring success in a way that marginalizes athlete safety, there was a dilemma when it came to invoking the term “golden age” on the current generation of athletes. American WAG is experiencing a “golden age,” but WAG as a whole is not. How do you balance these two trajectories?
Gymnastics has by no means been unsuccessful in the last few decades, quite the opposite. Gymnastics is one of the most widely covered Olympic sports in the United States. But it all comes with the caveat that things today aren’t quite the same as they had been in the past.
Even before the 1990s the four major American sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) gobbled up the lion’s share of media attention. When the 1990s came and consumer habits shifted, it shifted even more in the favor of the four major sports. While established sports were surging in popularity at the cost of all the other sports, gymnastics found itself being handicapped.
The 1990s were the beginning of the end for print media. As newspapers shrunk in staff and size, cuts had to be made. For any editor the choice was obvious when choosing between gymnastics and football as the various sports competed with each other for increasingly limited space. The world fell in love with Olga Korbut because a gymnast doing something that looked so daring (and so dangerous) was an entirely new concept. But as time passed “Korbut style” gymnastics became normalized and its initial luster waned. The exact same thing happened with Nadia Comaneci and the perfect 10. The more perfect 10s scored in high level competition, the less prestigious each one became. And if things looked bad at the top, NCAA gymnastics was facing its own crisis as schools started dropping both their men’s and women’s gymnastics programs en masse.
Then came a series of changes that were vital to improving WAG for the better, could even be classified as “reforms,” and were invaluable to improving athlete safety. But all of them came at a cost of hurting WAG’s marketability. The World Championships started being held more frequently making each individual World Championships less important/significant as far as the media was concerned. The sport pivoted away from child athletes which as Nadia can attest to, are extremely popular. And then WAG stopped awarding the perfect 10 after the 1992 Olympics and scrapped the 10-point scoring system entirely after the 2005 World Championships. In 2019 Katelyn Ohashi would give everyone a reminder of how “this routine scored a perfect 10” spreads like wildfire among casual sports fans.
In the past the media approached WAG with a magnifying glass sifting through the sport waiting to jump on the next young prospect as soon as there were indications she had potential to be a star. By the time Simone Biles came around things had changed. Now the burden is on the gymnasts to rack up enough accomplishments that the media will be forced to cover them.
In 1978 Marcia Frederick won the first gold medal in American history at the World Championships that year. She was immediately given an 1,800 word feature in Sports Illustrated. In 2013 Simone Biles made her debut at the World Championships in a medal haul that was far superior to what Frederick had done 35 years earlier. But it would take another 11 months, and a winning streak in domestic competition (National Championships and Classics) before Simone got a comparable feature in Sports Illustrated. Written as a precursor to the 2014 World Championships, at 1,200 words Simone’s feature was 600 words shorter than Marcia’s, but it was still significant given the times. A Sports Illustrated feature on Jordyn Wieber that was written shortly before the 2011 World Championships was only 350 words in length.
This was the uphill battle Simone faced as she tried to carve her own legacy in WAG and leave a presence that was comparable to the names of the 1970s. And yet it was even harder for Simone as the success of Patterson, Memmel, Johnson, Liukin, Sloan, Wieber, and Douglas had made American AA champions a routine occurrence. Perhaps Sports Illustrated was justified when they waited until Simone had become more than just “another” American AA Champion before they started to seriously cover her.
Simone would give the media something WAG hasn’t had in 35 years, an unstoppable gymnast. There are no shortage of amazing gymnasts from 1977-2012 such as Shushunova, Miller, Podkopayeva, Khorkina, and Liukin. But there was a shortage of gymnasts like Latynina, Caslavska, and Turischeva. Gymnasts who were unbeatable and remained that way for a significant amount of time. They rose to the stop, stayed at the top, and embarrassed the rest of the field that so much time had passed since someone else had won.
Like all the other reforms mentioned previously, it can be argued this was an improvement. Gymnastics grew and became more developed. Stronger competitive fields triggered an increase in parity. The inevitable result when investment in women’s athletics improves. Even Nadia was affected by this trend as her success in 1976 and 1980 while struggling in between the Olympics was a career more in line with Liukin, Khorkina, and Shushunova than the WAG greats who came before her.
But like the other reforms, the improvements made on parity came at a cost, marketability. Cycling through a wave of short lived stars was not going to have the same impact as one well known star who remains the AA favorite through multiple Olympics. Simone’s ability to exhibit 1960s era dominance in the modern age of WAG which stronger competitive fields is a testament to just how ridiculously talented she is.
Simone is a type of gymnast that WAG has been waiting nearly four decades to make a return. It should be clear by now that I don’t like the term “golden age” and dislike calling the Cold War the “golden era” of WAG. But it is entirely accurate to label it a golden era when the term is narrowed to one specific point, the media attention. When it comes to Korbut and Nadia, the spotlight was never brighter, the moment was never bigger, and the significance was never greater than in any other era of WAG.
It was easy for gymnasts from that era to gain massive traction in the media. Olga Korbut got a Peanuts comic strip. Nadia Comaneci got a song that became a hit and reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was common for gymnasts to win Olympic Orders and be named “Athlete of the Year” by the Associated Press (AP). And that is what makes Simone winning an AP title so remarkable.
For those who don’t know, the AP has significant prestige in American sports. Up until a few years ago, an AP poll was how the NCAA determined its champion in football. The award goes all the way back to 1931 and only four other gymnasts have won it (Korbut, Nadia, Mary Lou Retton, and Gabby Douglas). Simone Biles is now the first gymnast to win it twice, and the first to do so in a non-Olympic year.
It’s further proof of Simone’s greatness and the impact she is having. She has already proven herself in the gym with unprecedented success. She has proven it outside the gym by being so articulate, so well spoken, and so mature when her own sport is in crisis. Simone isn’t just an amazing role model for current and future gymnasts, at 22 years old she is without exaggeration the most mature figure in her sport. The voice of reason and the only one saying what needs to be said as USAG administrators twice her age behave like children and routinely make decisions that result in face palms.
And now Simone has added a third major accomplishment to her resume. It goes without saying that she is one of the most visible athletes in the world right now. But to win a media award and do it in a way that not even Korbut and Nadia did is an accomplishment in itself. One that stands out among all the other notable things Simone has done. In what is supposed to be the “dead period” of gymnastics with the World Championships being over and the NCAA season not having started, Simone Biles just added another jewel to her crown.