To start this article, I want to discuss the “culture of silence” that exists in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). It is something that goes beyond athletes being afraid to expose abusive coaches/trainers, but a culture where gymnasts keep silent about everything that bothers them. For decades the culture of the sport has frowned upon gymnasts discussing the pain they experienced whether it be from injuries, or emotional pain stemming from how they were treated.
Until recently, it was extremely rare for gymnasts to speak on their thoughts and feelings. The success of #GymnastAlliance and before that, American gymnasts lambasting USAG for its conduct were an aberration in a WAG history where gymnasts had otherwise kept their negative feelings bottled up. This is especially true for gymnasts who competed decades ago.
The gymnastics “culture of silence” during Elena Shushunova’s era acted like a floodgate holding back a large body of water, keeping the dark side of the sport hidden away from the public eye. So when a Soviet gymnast is linked to commentary indicating negative experiences on the topic of body image, that commentary most likely reflects only a minuscule amount of the negative experiences she truly faced. The trickle of water that escaped the floodgate.
The reason I bring this up is because readers should think about the larger context behind the two examples presented in this article. And the possibility that having two publicly known instances regarding Elena Shushunova having to deal with body image, likely indicates the existence of numerous other examples that were kept away from the public eye.
The first example occurred shortly after the 1988 Olympics when the Soviet team was on a post-Olympic victory tour in the United States. The tour was held jointly with the American gymnastics team, and an American member of the delegation had been tasked with submitting a written report for a major gymnastics magazine. The report featured the following paragraph.
“Shushunova picked up extra pounds since Seoul and was very self-conscious of that fact. She would catch a glimpse of herself in a full length mirror, shake her head and mutter what were probably bad words in Russian. (Apparently, the Soviet coaches were also concerned about their women’s team gaining weight-the Soviet girls seldom appeared at the evening dinner table.)”
What makes this particular exchange so disturbing is that it wasn’t Shushunova being outspoken, but that her behavior was so noticeable, others had observed it. Provoking the question as to what else had occurred away from the public eye? But what I also want to stress, this occurred after the 1988 Olympics. By this point, Elena Shushunova was already one of the most successful gymnasts to have ever lived.
She had been formally named to two Olympic teams,* had dominated the vault in a fashion on par with McKayla Maroney, swept a World Championships by winning a medal on every event, and won an All-Around (AA) title at each of the four major competitions. This includes an Olympic AA title, the most prestigious prize there is in gymnastics. She’s one of the few WAGs to have ever won AA titles at both the beginning and the end of an Olympic quad. There was nothing left for a coach to criticize Shushunova over. It didn’t matter what type of body Shushunova had, no coach could ever tell her she was too heavy to win medals.
*Shushunova missed the 1984 Olympics due to a boycott, she won a bronze medal in the AA at the Alternate Olympics.
And yet even after all of that, there was still a heartbreaking account from a magazine describing Elena Shushunova feeling as if she had something to be ashamed of.
The second example comes from an interview Shushunova gave in 2008. Gymnovosti provided a translated version of the interview and included the following quote from Elena Shushunova:
“Wow, what a body for gymnastics she has! Well, I don’t have that, so I’ll need to find a way to win.”
The quote was made in regards to Olga mostepanova. It demonstrates Shushunova’s focus on her body being something that didn’t originate after the 1988 Olympics, but had existed in the early parts of her career. It reveals Shushunova feeling as if she couldn’t compete, as if her body put her at a disadvantage, and that she didn’t conform with Soviet norms.
But what did Shushunova do? She didn’t let it faze her or disrupt her determination. Shushunova’s immediate thought was to find a different way to win. Shushunova was made to feel out of place in the sport when she wasn’t. Gymnasts who were exactly like Shushunova would win Olympic AA titles in other quads. But that didn’t stop the sport from continuing a mindset that openly favored one body type, while stigmatizing another.
It can only be imagined how many times Shushunova dealt with commentary from Soviet coaches on the issue of food intake/body weight. Even if Shushunova had been blessed with a personal coach who didn’t subscribe to those views, gymnasts interact with a wide range of national team coaches over the course of their careers. Many who were unlikely to share the mindset that gymnasts shouldn’t be pressured over how their body looks.
Often times in WAG, the commentary from media and spectators can contribute as much to the problem as the coaches do. In Shushunova’s era is was still common for the media to make direct commentary on gymnasts gaining weight.
Then there were the thousands of fans Shushunova interacted with over the course of her career. Even if every fan had the self-awareness to be respectful and not say anything insensitive, all it takes is one innocent child saying a bit too loudly, “but she doesn’t look like a gymnast” to shatter it.
It is almost entirely speculative to think about what Shushunova did and didn’t have to deal with over the course of her career. In Shushunova’s era it was a topic that simply wasn’t commented on. And even today a majority of Eastern Bloc gymnasts who were veterans of the era are reluctant to discuss the negative aspects of their career. Keeping in line with a longstanding mentality where gymnasts are encouraged to publicize the positive aspects of their careers, while suppressing commentary that would reflect poorly on the sport.
Sadly, Elena Shushunova is no longer with us and we will likely never know her extended thoughts on having to deal with commentary regarding her physical appearance. The two examples presented in this article suggest it was a topic that came up repeatedly throughout Shushunova’s career.
The entire premise of this article is a difficult topic to navigate. To single out one particular gymnast as an example of someone who had to overcome difficulties with body image puts the spotlight on her. In the process drawing even more attention to her image and further solidifying the flawed idea that she was different. But to ignore the topic promotes a mindset where we either write this issue out of WAG history, or have a conversation on it where it doesn’t get examined in detail. Enabling a culture where this problem doesn’t get addressed in the way that it should, and future gymnasts are encouraged to endure it in silence.
But the main reason I felt there needs to be an article dedicated to Elena Shushunova, is because she deserves acknowledgment for the adversity she overcame. It couldn’t have been easy for Shushunova, and yet that didn’t stop her from winning the most prestigious prize there is in WAG. There is much to admire when it comes to Elena Shushunova. The more attention that is paid to the finer details of Shushunova’s story only serves to empower both her reputation and ability to continue inspiring young gymnasts. Proving to young gymnasts who feel uneasy about their body that you don’t need to have a particular body-type to be successful.