How Mary Lou Retton Tries to Rewrite Gymnastics History

Words Matter

In an era where powerful marketing teams are a staple of nearly every major institution in the country, that simple phrase is more important than ever. With just a couple of carefully orchestrated words, an institution can respond to a scandal by whitewashing its own misdeeds, skewing perceptions, twisting the version of events, and masking its true intentions.

Often times it involves a public relations team making small word changes to their statements that may appear trivial at face value, but significantly alter the context of what is being said. Other times they craft alternative explanations in an attempt to explain away scandalous behavior. Framing it as if nothing scandalous had ever occurred in the first place and their intentions had always been pure.

USA Gymnastics during the Nassar scandal is a perfect example of this. As Mary Lou Retton, Steve Penny, and other members of the organization tried to spin it, they didn’t meet with members of Congress in an attempt to block a bill aimed at trying to curb sexual abuse in sports, but rather, they just wanted to highlight how solid the federation’s existing policies were. As if the implication clearly wasn’t “the current rules are fine, we don’t need more rules.”

Mary Lou Retton isn’t just a perpetrator of this tactic, she is a master of it. She appeared to do it again in an interview that was published in late June of 2020. This time it had nothing to do with the topic of sexual abuse within gymnastics, but the 1984 victory that made her famous. During the interview she said the following:

For those who don’t want to watch the YouTube video, the quote is below:

“And before he left he trained Ecaterina Szabo who was the World Champion going into my 1984 Olympic Games. She was supposed to win.”

So what exactly is wrong with this quote? The problem is that while it is correct to assert that Szabo was the favorite to win the 1984 Olympic All-Around (AA), it comes with the caveat that Szabo was the favorite only among gymnasts who didn’t boycott. Women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) was hit rather hard by the 1984 Olympic boycott. Boycotting nations accounted for roughly 66% of the WAG medals won at the 1983 and 1985 World Championships.

Amongst the casualties was the famed Soviet WAG team which is arguably the most successful dynasty in Olympic history, having won the team gold medal in all ten of its Olympic appearances. Not even in the current era where they are allowed to use NBA players has USA basketball matched the Soviet WAG feat of ten consecutive gold medals.

Mary Lou Retton asserts that Szabo was “the” World Champion. While it is true that Szabo was the World Champion on floor, Retton was clearly stating it in regards to the AA, the most prestigious event in gymnastics. It wouldn’t make sense for Retton to say this in regard to floor-exercise as Szabo was the gold medalist on floor in both 1983 and 1984.

By calling Szabo “the World Champion” Retton is asserting that Szabo won the AA gold medal at the 1983 World Championships and as a result, was considered the top ranked gymnast in the world. But that wasn’t the case as Szabo finished third. So who finished first and second?

Two Soviet gymnasts.

Perhaps Retton misspoke, but she most likely didn’t. During the 2016 American Cup Retton gave an interview with NBC where she said virtually the exact same thing:

“Ecaterina Szabo was World champion, and she was supposed to win that [Olympic] title.”

It isn’t so much a mistake, but a repeat pattern where Mary Lou Retton has rewritten gymnastics history so she can tell the story of how she beat the #1 ranked gymnast of the era. It is hard to believe a high-level gymnast could ever get through her career without knowing who two of the top gymnasts of her era were. Retton almost certainly remembers, she just doesn’t care. For Mary Lou Retton, it wasn’t enough that Olga Mostepanova and Natalia Yurchenko had 1984 taken away from them, she wants to take 1983 away from them as well.

What Mary Lou Retton had done was a brilliant crafting of a narrative to suit her agenda. The statements “Szabo was the favorite” and “Szabo was the defending World Champion” sound so similar that if one were to mix them up, it could be chalked up as an innocent mistake. It was such a minor difference that even NBC Sports would publish the comment without realizing the significance of the change in words.

But it almost certainly was an intentional choice of words as one is a truthful statement whereas the other represents the total erasure of the 1984 boycott that was vital to her win. Retton mixes truth and lie while omitting key context to produce a deceitful version of events that makes her 1984 win look far better than it actually was. Going beyond downplaying the possibility Yurchenko and Mostepanova could have won medals in Los Angeles, but acting as if the 1984 boycott erased their non-Olympic accomplishments as well.

It is classless behavior and poor sportsmanship, but it wasn’t even the most outrageous part of the interview. In this exact same interview Retton fielded a question where the interviewer incorrectly introduced her as an advocate of the very same bill she is alleged to have actively tried to block from passage.

Retton simply went along with the question and in doing so helped spread the message that she and her USAG associates never worked to block a bill aimed at protecting children from sexual predators. In an interview featuring lies that were used to rewrite gymnastics history, what was one more?

Note: The full interview can be found here.

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