Disclaimer: While I do fault certain factions of the media in their coverage of gymnastics, there is a lengthy list of journalists/commentators who do a fantastic job covering the sport and the crux of the problem comes down to issues beyond the control of individual media members.
In a recent clip for Yahoo Sports, Shawn Johnson discussed the possibility of a rivalry between Simone Biles and Konnor McClain. This article is not a criticism of Shawn. I am thrilled to see former Olympians working for large media outlets and promoting the sport. It was only a matter of time before someone would invite this comparison.
Note: I wrote a second article based on the above clip which can be found here.
What makes a Konnon-Simone rivalry troublesome is its pegs a young gymnast against Simone Biles which is just asking for that gymnast to fail.
Simone is great, we all know that. Watching her highlight reels has been a privilege. Witnessing unprecedented dominance has been a treat. Seeing her navigate the most difficult and turbulent scandal in gymnastics history without faltering has been inspiring. For gymnastics fans, Simone Biles is the gift that keeps on giving. But one final gift that Simone has given us, she got the media to change its behavior.
Simone came and Simone conquered. She took over the sport from her debut at the 2013 World Championships and hasn’t let her foot off the gas pedal since. Suddenly, gymnastics had an athlete that was so good, the media couldn’t use its traditional bag of tricks.
Simone was so talented that she became second to none and there was no gymnast to pin her against. There was no way for the media to overhype her, Simone could exceed any amount of hype she was given. Simone was so amazing that television producers didn’t need a fluff piece if they wanted to sell her to the masses. All they needed to generate popularity was to point the camera in her direction and let the mesmerizing routines steal the show. Or at the very least, let the medals she won do the talking.
They didn’t need to exaggerate the historical significance of what was happening, everything about Simone truly was historic. For six years the narrative wasn’t about pinning teenage girls against each other, but admiring the courage and strength of a lone female athlete. It wasn’t Team Nastia or Team Shawn. It was about the child who overcame numerous difficulties in her early life including foster care and a parent struggling with drug addiction.
It was about a young adult blossoming out of all of that who then went on to be a powerful advocate fighting against sexual assault and abuse within her sport. Doing that while standing up to sports administrators who were three times her age and tell them they were in the wrong. But did it with a sense of wholesomeness as Biles would never forget to give credit to the family and coaches who helped make her the person she is today.
Before Biles the media had played things fast and loose when it came to covering women’s gymnastics. Trying to build a narrative that was based more upon appealing to large audiences rather than truth. Creating false perceptions that often hurt the very athletes they are trying to prop up.
Gymnasts such as Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas were perceived as failures by the general public in spite of performances worthy of praise because the expectations placed on them had become unreasonable. Jordyn Wieber could have won the 2012 Olympic All-Around (AA) title while being the reigning World Champion. But if she failed, it wouldn’t be because Jordyn was a bad gymnast. It hadn’t happened in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) since 1996 and before that, 1972.
From 2003-2011 there were nine AA titles up for grabs and those titles went to nine different gymnasts. If more time had been spent emphasizing that figure rather than building Jordyn into the runaway favorite, her failure to win the 2012 AA could have been perceived far differently.
Note: This is not to say the media was wrong in declaring Jordyn the favorite. Only that the media had not done enough to point out that Jordyn was the gymnast with the single best chance and the odds of “the field” or everyone else combined were far greater.
In 2016 Gabby Douglas made her second Olympic team. Fans questioned why the top gymnast of 2012 was now an afterthought at the next Olympics. The narrative became “what had Gabby done wrong?” Gabby had done everything right. Olympic AA Champions almost always undergo a rapid decline after winning their title. Gabby was not the same gymnast she had been in 2012, but she was still good enough to make a second Olympic team.
In doing so Gabby became the first gymnast to return to another Olympic Games after winning the Olympic AA title in 36 years. The last gymnast to do it was the legendary Nadia Comaneci back in 1980. Gabby did it while having to compete for a spot on the 2016 American team, which was arguably the hardest team to make in all of WAG history. But Gabby certainly wasn’t an afterthought at Rio. Gabby finished third in the AA qualifications but was eliminated on country limits.
If not for a rule that has only existed since 2004, there is a reasonable possibility that Gabby would have become only the ninth gymnast in WAG history who has multiple AA medals at the Olympics. Furthermore she could have become the sixth* Olympic AA gold medalist with multiple AA medals. Gabby’s Rio Olympics should have been a story of her remarkable determination. Instead it became a story of Gabby being cyberbullied on social media.
*Only Nadia Comaneci, Vera Caslavska, Larissa Latynina, Ludmilla Turischeva, and Simona Amanar have done it. WAG fans may dispute Amanar’s inclusion since her gold medal originally belonged to Andreea Raducan.
It all comes down to a lack of education that emerges when the media is more concerned with finding a compelling storyline rather than correcting misconceptions. It comes with devastating consequences where gymnasts are either set up to fail, or when they succeed their accomplishments aren’t appreciated in the way that they should be. And this is precisely what I don’t want to see happen with Konnor McClain.
There are many things wrong with a Konnor McClain vs Simone Biles storyline. Before Konnor can even emerge as the top rival of Simone Biles she first needs to make the transition from being a great junior to being a great senior which is no easy task. Konnor needs to fend off the other great up and coming gymnasts of the American program such as Kayla DiCello and Skye Blakely.
Then there is the amazing class of seniors the United States currently has. Gymnasts who will train hard in the gym as they try to defend their status as the best Americans after Simone Biles. Morgan Hurd, Jade Carey, and Sunsia Lee are proven winners and each of them have recorded major wins in the last six months. That’s what Konnor has to do just before she is even in a position to challenge Simone Biles.
Pegging any gymnast against Simone Biles is just asking for that gymnast to fail. Let alone doing it to a gymnast like Konnor who is young, inexperienced, and has yet to build a competitive resume for herself at the senior level. Members of the media are doing it to Konnor while prematurely assuming it is a given that she will surpass all these milestones. Each milestone representing another opportunity to set Konnor up to fail. And that is before assuming that the chief rival of Simone Biles will even be an American.
The purpose of this article is not to comment on whether the American media is justified or in the wrong by being American-centric in its coverage. Only that when the media props up American gymnasts, they often hurt the very gymnasts they are trying to help. When the competitive resumes of foreign gymnasts are undersold while the resumes of American gymnasts are oversold by commentators, it results in a situation where it isn’t realized that the right gymnast won. An American gymnast gets blamed for a historic upset when all she did was lose to a gymnast who had the better hand.
And then there is the other major consequence of taking an American-centric approach towards the Olympics, win or lose the American result is what gets covered. In a situation where the national conversation is spent on building up a particular gymnast and that gymnast doesn’t win, her heartbreak isn’t just part of the storyline. It becomes the main focus in the absence of an American victor to rally around.
Note: I expanded on this issue using the experiences of McKayla Maroney as an example.
Konnor McClain is an amazing junior prospect. But so are Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova. The Americans have an amazing program, but the media is starting to do exactly what it did in 2012, propping up a gymnast while ignoring historical trends. For all its strength the Americans have swept the AA (gold and silver) just three times in the last decade. None of those occasions came in the current Olympic quad (last three years). Konnor McClain is being hyped for an accomplishment that has happened only 30% of the time in recent WAG history.
It is not that I don’t expect Konnor McClain to live up to the hype, if anything I see no reason to doubt her future will be great. I simply want to avoid seeing her put in an untenable situation because a high standard of excellence was placed on Konnor so early in her career.
Before COVID-19 Konnor McClain was slated to slowly blossom into full form. She was going to get three years of senior competition to gain experience as both a competitor and a teenager having to deal with the media pressure of high level athletics. Only then would she be subjected to the Olympic stage where the media pressure is at its most intense.
All of that changed as a result of coronavirus, Konnor is going to be subjected to all of that media pressure in her very first year. Despite her Olympic eligibility not even being determined yet, some publications have already honed in on Konnor. And it was neither unexpected nor unsurprising that it happened within a week of Tokyo being moved to 2021. The Yahoo Sports clip is merely a sign of things to come.
I don’t write any of this with a specific culprit in mind. I don’t blame Shawn, or any gymnastics blog, or any high-profile journalist who works for a major publication. Only that the thought of “Simone vs Konnor” is concerning because it can snowball so quickly. It is concerning because it pins one of the youngest and most inexperienced gymnasts in the American program against its oldest and most experienced veteran.
It is disappointing because it gives us a glimpse of what media coverage in the post-Simone era will look like. It signals a reversal to the pre-Simone way of doing things and a rekindling of media narratives that aren’t always in the best interests of the gymnasts being covered. It will come at a time when Simone is leaving behind a void. In her absence marks a massive standard of excellence that every American gymnast will be compared to. It will only make the media pressure even more intense for the next generation of gymnasts.
It also takes away from the individuality of gymnasts like Konnor who may want to be viewed as individuals rather than an extension of another gymnast. But Konnor may also be the type who revels in the attention she is currently receiving and all this article has done is put words in her mouth. If there is one thing this sport has taught me, never underestimate the mental or physical resiliency of an elite gymnast.
At no point is it more critical for the media to get it right than in the aftermath of a legend being replaced. It is my hope that the media gets it right with Konnor and doesn’t invite that comparison to Simone Biles until McClain herself is ready. And lastly, I hope that one of the many legacies Simone leaves behind is that she has shown the media there is a better way to cover athletes and the media applies those lessons on the next generation of gymnasts.
Gymnasts such as Konnor McClain.