Grace under pressure, and over power

It would have been great to see Shawn Johnson's explosive athleticism win the women's gymnastics gold.

Published August 15, 2008 7:15PM (EDT)

Unlike our resident former gymnast, I was rooting for Shawn Johnson over Nastia Liukin in the women's all-around, and for the exact opposite reason that Jennifer Sey gave for backing the eventual gold medalist, "a desire to see grace count for something in this sport again."

Sey has a love-hate relationship with her former sport. For me it's loathe-loathe, and a vote for Johnson, who wound up winning silver, was a vote for athleticism over all that allegedly balletic but mostly cheesy and cutesy so-called artistry that makes women's gymnastics -- officially "artistic gymnastics" -- so loathsome.

Not that Liukin is loathsome. She's an underdog who came through in clutch situations like a true champion. Don't get me wrong, here. Yay for Liukin.

But Johnson, with her muscular legs and powerful leaps, looks like an athlete. The first time I saw her bounce -- boing! -- back into the air upon landing at the end of her first tumbling run on a floor exercise, I got a similar "I've seen lots of people do that but the way that person just did it, wow!" feeling I got the first time I saw Bo Jackson run with a football.

Gymnastics aficionado that I am, the first time I saw it was this week.

Still, I decided then and there to root for this corn-fed Iowa kid. If she was going to win, it was going to be because of those assured, powerful, athletic moves, not because of her beautiful lines or the way she interpreted the music or flowed through her routines or whatever.

For all I know, all of that is why she didn't win. NBC experts Elfi Schlegel and Tim Daggett whined about what they said were the low scores Johnson was getting and the overly generous ones the Chinese gymnasts were posting. I'll take their word for it, and I'll also take the word of the judges that Liukin was just a little better than Johnson.

I don't know, really, and neither do Schlegel and Daggett. Neither do the judges, evidently. They sure spend a lot of time scurrying around and looking at replays and consulting each other on cellphones.

During the Athens Olympics former U.S. heroine Kerri Strug wrote a column for Yahoo Sports in which she all but said that judging in gymnastics is something very like random, and that anyone who gets into gymnastics at a high level not only knows that drill, but by the time she's reached the Olympics, she's spent years benefiting from its inequities.

The scoring system has been "reformed" since Strug wrote that. And everyone who believes it's square and transparent now please signify by flying around the room.

OK, Li Ning, come down from there. Very funny.

But despite the old-school Soviet-graceful Liukin beating the Iowa teenage jock I've been idolizing for days now, the gymnastics were a little more watchable than they'd been for me in recent Olympics. There wasn't nearly as much of that whiff of pedophilia that had become so prominent lately.

A lot of that had to do with Bela Karolyi being banished from the floor to NBC's studios, a good move for him. Instead of pawing little girls every time they came off the floor, he played the eccentric uncle alongside Bob Costas, excitedly rooting for the American girls and offering analysis in a colorfully incomprehensible accent.

But the other male coaches seemed to be a lot less handsy too. Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, seemed like a downright normal fellow, treating his charge with adult-like respect. How strange.

Meanwhile the girls as a group, Liukin included, looked healthier and more athletic than in recent Olympics, with the possible exception of the allegedly underage Chinese girls the vicious American coach Martha Karolyi referred to as "little babies." They mostly looked like they could use a sandwich, a hug and a vacation.

I can't say I know that Chinese gymnastics failures are sent to work camps, and I can't say I know what expression a person wears when she knows she's about to be sent to a work camp, but right before the medal ceremony, bronze medal winner Yang Yilin was wearing an expression that made me wonder if Chinese gymnastics failures are sent to work camps.

Good times, but at long last the track and field competition has started. Friday morning American sprinter Walter Dix lined up for his first heat in the 100 meters wearing what appeared to be evening gloves.


By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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