Irked By Broadcast Coverage, Gymnastics Sites Aim To Raise The Bar

Jul 3, 2016
Originally published on July 5, 2016 3:52 pm

There are two types of people in this world: those who know their Stalder Shaposhnikovas from their Pak Saltos — and those who have absolutely no idea whether the first half of this sentence was even written in English.

For the group that does know, though — the hard-core gymnastics fans — a set of blogs, podcasts and resources has been emerging to fill a gap in the major broadcast coverage of women's gymnastics. It's called the "gymternet," an alternative group of sites that are shaking up the ways the sport is covered.

Specifically, these superfans are moving to correct what they see as condescension in broadcast coverage of the sport.

"It was very much focused on these 'little girls dancing on a playground.' That's a cliche you would hear on NBC over and over again," says reporter and gym fan Elspeth Reeve, who wrote about the gymternet in the New Republic. "Even at the 2012 Olympics, you had the Russian gymnasts referred to as 'divas' and 'temperamental.' It was honestly a bit sexist."

Reeve points to one example in particular, when an NBC commentator compared a gymnast's injury to getting a tear in her wedding dress right before walking down the aisle.

But starting around 2008, Reeve says, blogs began popping up to give gymnastics addicts the in-depth coverage they craved. The gymternet was born around the same time as Tumblr — the site popular for sharing animated GIFs — perhaps because watching a gymnast do a backflip works out to be a good GIF length.

Sites like The Gymternet and the site and podcast GymCastic "provide the real necessary pushback that's not about the sparkles and the girlishness," Reeve tells host Ray Suarez on All Things Considered. "It's about the crazy workouts, the incredible athletics, the injuries, coming back from injuries."

The Gymternet website covers gymnastics from all over the world, not just the U.S. You'll find results from competitions in South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, Russia and more.

But here in the U.S., the big action is the upcoming Olympic trials in San Jose on July 8 and 10, which will determine the members to represent the country in the Olympic Games in Brazil next month.

Nineteen-year-old Simone Biles leads the way and is expected to rack up gold medals in Rio de Janeiro. Last weekend she won a fourth consecutive national title at the P&G Championships in St. Louis. She's already a three-time world champion.

"If she stays mentally healthy and physically healthy, she could walk away with five golds," Reeve says.

The athletes embrace the clout of the gymternet too. Biles has almost half a million followers on Instagram and more than 57,000 on Twitter. Reeve writes that McKayla Maroney, a gold medalist, announced her retirement on the GymCastic podcast instead of a major network.

Women's gymnastics qualifying in the Olympics starts Aug. 7 — and there's a good chance the gymternet will have full coverage.

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Now it's time for our regular segment, Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories in the news by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. And this week's word is gymternet (ph). We first heard it in a New Republic article, "The Tumbler Tumblr," about how coverage of women's gymnastics is being shaken up by a revolution of female super fans who blog about the sport on a network of sites known as the gymternet. The article was written by our next guest, Elspeth Reeve. She's a self-described women's gymnastics super fan, and she's here to help us understand more about the gymternet and the people behind it. Thanks for joining us.

ELSPETH REEVE: Hi, thank you.

SUAREZ: So what is it, the gymternet? And how long has it around?

REEVE: I'd say the gymnastics Internet, or the gymternet, has been around since about the 2008 Olympics. Tumblr was launched in 2007. And that's a really great site for the animated GIF, which turns out to be the perfect length for a gymnastics backflip. You know, you can watch it over and over and over again. And it's much easier to see the little details of how these gymnasts are flipping their bodies around. And from there, the gymternet kind of spread to blogs and now a podcast and real news sites.

SUAREZ: So it's really more of a knowledgeable view rather than something that's meant for the casual fan. Is that fair?

REEVE: Yeah, absolutely. There's a huge learning curve in trying to understand gymnastics. Every skill can be called six different things. Often the skills are named after obscure Russians from the '80s. Like, it's difficult to understand why a Stalder-Shaposhnikova-half connected to a Pak Salto. It would be impossible, you know? So, like, for an outsider it's very difficult.

SUAREZ: Who's making the content? Who are the writers?

REEVE: My two favorites are Jessica O’Beirne, who launched a podcast right after the 2012 Olympics. And it started off pretty small, but at this point she's getting major Olympians on her show. She got McKayla Maroney - most people remember her unimpressed face from the 2012 Olympics. Her podcast is called "GymCastic." And then the second one that is more like The New York Times of gymnastics is It's run by Lauren Hopkins. She's a 30-year-old marketer in New York. And in her spare time, she goes to all the competitions. She went to Rio for the test event for the Olympics. And they just have all the breaking news about what's going on behind the scenes before these big events.

SUAREZ: Did coverage of the sport need a conscious alternative, a pushback to the way women's gymnastics is covered by the big sports networks?

REEVE: Absolutely. The '90s was sort of a low point. It was very much focused on these little girls dancing on a playground. That's a cliche you would hear on NBC over and over again. When a gymnast was injured before the 2008 Olympics, a commentator said it was like getting a tear in your wedding dress right before you're going to walk down the aisle. And, you know, the truth is no, it's like getting injured right before the Olympics. That in itself is a big deal to a female athlete. And so these women provide the real necessary pushback that's not about the sparkles and the girlishness. It's about the, like, crazy workouts, the incredible athletics, the injuries, coming back from injuries.

SUAREZ: Well, let's talk about the upcoming trials in San Jose. What are the bloggers in the gymternet excited about?

REEVE: We're all paying attention to Simone Biles because if she stays mentally healthy and physically healthy, she could walk away with five golds. Everyone's looking to see if Gabby Douglas can turn it up for the competition because she's sort of known for not working as hard in the gym until the last moment when she has to compete. Laurie Hernandez - she's 15 years old and from New Jersey, and she just dances like crazy. People used to call her baby Shakira. They also call her the human emoji. She makes these incredibly expressive faces on the floor, and she's an incredible entertainer.

SUAREZ: Elspeth Reeve is the author of the New Republic article, "The Tumbler Tumblr," about how female bloggers are influencing coverage of women's gymnastics. Thanks for talking to us.

REEVE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.