Why Aren’t More Black People Interested In Gymnastics?

Is there a magical reason? Or is it something else?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

“Black people do gymnastics? I thought only white people did that.”

This was a comment that I’ve gotten as a child. For a select population of males, this ignorant sentiment has also morphed into:

“Gymnastics is a girl’s sport. Only sissies and gays do that.”

These same people may also feel that way about boys doing all-star cheerleading, ballet or figure skating.I always found this sentiment hilarious because gymnastics is an extremely intense sport. The people who say that would immediately change their minds after one conditioning session and rethink what defines a “manly” sport.

The reason behind it isn’t crystal clear. Gymnastics is a sport that includes apparatuses that require strength, balance, agility, flexibility, endurance, and coordination. Things that can deeply benefit both males and females. The sport can be traced to the days of Ancient Greece and it was a training method to prepare the men for combat. When the modern Olympics began in 1896, only men did gymnastics. The women didn’t start gymnastics until the 1928 Games, so like most sports, gymnastics was intended for men.

The programs in women’s and men’s gymnastics are different. In the past, women’s gymnastics was more ballet-like and stereotypically feminine. A gymnast from the present day and a gymnast from the 1950s are two different body types due to the sport evolving over the years. In modern gymnastics, gymnasts are continually raising the bar by training more difficult skills, which has coincidentally caused them to challenge the idea of whether or not athleticism and femininity are mutually exclusive. Within the last decade, there has been a heavier focus on the gymnast’s appearance, with sponsorship deals like CoverGirl and leotards becoming more bedazzled. This shows that feminity and athleticism indeed can be compatible, and how female gymnastics is marketed.

On the men’s side, their gymnastics program hasn’t evolved much. It always consisted of events that primarily focused on strength and coordination. I believe one of the reasons male gymnastics may have lower viewership is partly due to it not being a contact sport, and the fact gymnastics doesn’t have the same level of trash talking and showboating that you see in other popular male sports. In fact, this behavior is discouraged. Generally speaking, gymnasts tend to be very humble. It’s like an unspoken rule when representing their team or country in competition. If they believe they’re above their competition or if they have negative opinions of their rivals, they’re more likely to talk about it behind closed doors versus when they’re at a televised competition.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

In Cyberspace on Planet Twitter, there’s always a reoccurring debate about black people and their lack of interest in the sport, and about how dominant they could be in the sport if they had the exposure. This topic usually arises whenever there’s a viral video of a black person (typically male) showing off amazing tumbling skills. The attack towards black people and their lack of interest in gymnastics is primarily directed towards black men since some people think the lack of interest stems from them thinking that the sport is only for gay guys. While this may be true for a select population, I don’t believe it’s the primary reason.

This debate often doesn’t extend towards black women as much because within the last decade we saw Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history (and destined to continue to break records in the sport), Gabrielle Douglas, the first black gymnast to win an Olympic All-Around title, and in the ’90s, there was Dominique Dawes, member of the historic Magnificent 7 that won gold in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. While parents aren’t necessarily enrolling their daughters into gymnastics in droves, the representation on the women’s side is crystal clear. These are the names that come to mind for those who aren’t avid fans of the sport.

So what makes black people not interested in gymnastics?

Gymnastics is not a well-known sport globally like soccer (oops, I mean football), basketball, and for my fellow Americans, NFL football. Most people watch gymnastics during the Olympics, so they miss out on the World Championships, World Cups, continental and regional championships, and other major international competitions that are contested in the other three years. Avid gym fans, known as the “Gymternet,” call these people “4-year fans” because they typically don’t know any of the medal contenders until the Olympic year. This explains why people may know who Simone Biles is but not Joe Fraser. One won gold in the Olympics and the other only won gold at the world championships. Both competitions were televised, but one had significantly more hype behind it than the other.

On social media, you’re more likely to see a viral video of a talented girl gymnast like Konnor McClain, an athlete who became popular before making it on the junior national team.

Since the topic is about black people and gymnastics primarily consisted of Americans, let’s focus on the state of USA Gymnastics. On the men’s side, their last individual World and Olympic title were achieved by Paul Hamm in 2003 and 2004. The men’s team never won gold at the Olympics. The lack of success and publicity results in a lower interest in gymnastics for the American men since the sport is primarily dominated by the Russians, Japanese and Chinese. Much credit is owed to British gymnast Nile Wilson for showcasing men’s gymnastics on his YouTube channel, especially with his Ultimate Gymnastics Challenge videos that showcase the fun and competitiveness amongst his training group. His success on YouTube has inspired some of his fellow British teammates to create YouTube channels like Courtney Tulloch.

On the US women’s side, they’ve had a lot of success in the sport. On their resume, they can boast 3 golden Olympic teams (1996, 2012, and 2016), 5 individual All-Around Olympic titles (Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabrielle Douglas in 2012, and Simone Biles in 2016), 7 golden Worlds teams (2003, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019), and 7 gymnasts who gold in the All-Around competition at worlds (Kim Zmeskal in 1991, Chellsie Memmel in 2005, Shawn Johnson in 2007, Bridget Sloan in 2009, Jordyn Wieber in 2011, Simone Biles from 2013–15, and from 2018–19, Morgan Hurd in 2017). American women have had enough success to inspire young girls to do gymnastics.

Most neighborhood parks have a basketball court, an open field to play soccer or football, and paths or hills for running and sprinting. All one needs is a ball, some friends, and a makeshift goal for a recreational game on a sunny afternoon.

It’s not every day you come across a park with still rings (not the children’s version on playgrounds), parallel bars, a balance beam or a vaulting table. While it’s true that you can practice tumbling on the grass, gymnastics more than doing cartwheels, handsprings, and flips.

The lack of followers and lack of recreational access leads to the next point:

People don’t need to be an avid fan of soccer, basketball, or football to understand the basics of the sport. The objective is very simple: put the ball in the goal/hoop/end zone and do it more than the opposing team. It’s possible to understand the sport without understanding the purpose of a midfielder, shooting guard, or a wide receiver.

Understanding gymnastics is not so simple. Gymnasts are judged based on difficulty, execution, how well they meet the composition requirements. These requirements stem from a book called the “Code of Points” that changes every four years after an Olympic cycle. The codebook looks like a foreign language to someone who doesn’t deeply follow the sport.

In the eyes of a casual viewer, they will watch two gymnasts that can do a full-twisting backflip that look the same. One gymnast will score higher than the other because an untrained eye won’t see the errors of the lower scoring gymnast. They just see someone doing an abnormal movement and landing without taking a step. To them, that alone deserves a high score.

I’ve heard a man say that he doesn’t want to do gymnastics because he doesn’t want to flip on a balance beam. Male gymnasts don’t compete on the balance beam!

Baseball and softball have the same objective but different rules (e.g. ball size, pitching style). In men’s basketball, they can dunk. Women cannot do this. Also, their ball is smaller and the hoop is lower. In track and field, the men run the 110-meter hurdles while the women run the 100-meter hurdles. The hurdles are also higher for men.

Men and women sports have subtle differences. Sometimes, these differences are made to tailor to the biology of the male and female bodies. The same applies to gymnastics.

Events in the women’s artistic gymnastics program: vault, uneven parallel bars, balance beam, floor exercise.

Events in the men’s artistic gymnastics program: vault, floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars, horizontal bars.

For female gymnasts, their program is designed to highlight their flexibility more as well as their ballet-influence dance skills. For male gymnasts, their program is designed to highlight more of their strength. Both are advantages for each sex.

Countries with established gymnastics programs have one thing in common: money. Quality gymnastics equipment is not cheap. A tumble track can cost around 1,000 USD. A gymnastics gym needs various types of mats, foam pits, trampolines, tumble tracks, a spring floor, ropes, pullup bars, a harness, on top of the actual apparatus equipment they would use for competition. The top gymnastics programs are in North America (mainly the USA and Canada), Europe (mainly Russia, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands), and East Asia (mainly China, Japan, and South Korea). None of these nations have large black populations. A nation with less money wouldn’t have the capital to invest in these sports, hence why it’s less common there. Cuban, Annia Hatch qualified to the 1996 Olympics but the federation didn’t have money to send her there. After meeting her husband and moving to the United States to coach gymnastics with him, she then became inspired to continue her Olympic dream.

Russia (and the former Soviet Union), Romania, and China were able to create successful gymnastics programs because the sport was state-funded. The government created national team training centers and hired coaches to travel to schools all over the nation to recruit the best talent. These children would leave their homes to live in the training center, where they would eat, sleep, and breathe gymnastics until they retire from the sport.

In the US, there are private clubs throughout the country as well as recreational clubs in the larger cities. The problem is that a big name club with coaches that have the experience of producing international elite gymnastics = big bucks. If a parent wants their child in competitive gymnasts as oppose to recreational gymnastics, they would need to choose the right club. For parents who want their children to be coached from the best of the best, there’s also a geography problem. A country like the United States is huge and the gymnastics clubs with elite-level coaches are only limited to specific locations. The 2012 Olympic Champion, Gabrielle Douglas moved from Virginia to Iowa two years before the London Games so she can train with a coach that produced world champion and Olympic silver medalist, Shawn Johnson, in the last Olympic cycle. During her time in Iowa, she lived with a host family since her parents had no interest in uprooting their lives.

Because of the price, gymnasts often come from more affluent families because they have the money to invest in their child’s gymnastics career. To be honest, I believe these things are done on purpose to keep people of lower economic classes out. While this is an upward trend in wealth and access for Black Americans, it’s still not obtainable for everyone, which I’d one change I’d love to see in USA gymnastics.

While costs may be prohibitive of one pursuing gymnastics for those who can afford it would be willing to throw big bucks if they see a return on investment. It’s not uncommon to find an overzealous parent in sports like basketball, football, and soccer. The type of people who think their child has extraordinary talent and will be better than the legends of their respective sport. These parents will definitely pay the money so their child can have the best access to high volume and high-quality training via summer camps, AAU teams, and opting for the travel team instead of the local recreational team.

The key difference between gymnastics and other sports is WHEN parents decide to make those big investments.

It is possible for a child to join a basketball team at age 10 after playing recreationally. When that child becomes a teenager they may decide to take the sport more seriously and try to get an athletic scholarship. This is when the parents start investing money in order for the child to have high-quality coaching and training. Then, the child will play at an NCAA Division 1 school. If their collegiate career is successful, they may have a chance to play professionally.

The road to becoming an elite gymnast starts very early, especially for female gymnasts since they usually try to peak in their late teens (of course there are exceptions). Since males develop later, they usually peak in their early 20s. Most high leveled gymnasts join competitive teams before they are 8 years old. From there, they may take the fast track route in their training so they can become a Level 10 (pre-elite level) gymnast in their early teens and then move onto trying to make the junior and senior national gymnastics teams. The reason for the super early development is because it’s easier to train gymnasts when they’re younger. Look at a baby or toddler. They’re fearless and it seems like their limbs are made of rubber. The level of fear and lack of flexibility will gradually increase as one gets older, which is why gymnasts start intense training at a young age when the transition is smoother.

This means that the big investments start early, which requires a lot of money, and training. Serious elite contenders may opt for homeschooling so they can train more and not worry about missing too many days of school when traveling for competitions. It’s a completely different type of commitment that many parents couldn’t handle.

So when a parent takes their 10-year-old child to a gymnastics gym thinking that they will be a star, they’ll be in for a rude awakening when the coach tells the parent that the ship most likely sailed away. Anything is possible, but the truth is that it is harder to pick up gymnastics at that age (if being elite is the end goal), which may explain why parents may opt for other recreational acrobatic activities that aren’t on a tight development schedule like cheerleading, martial arts, break dancing, or circus acrobatics.

Not necessarily. Black people may be drawn to certain sports like basketball, football, or track and field due to their popularity, accessibility, lower annual payments required by the parents, and less time-consuming training. I think most people of any racial or ethnic background are quite ignorant about how competitive gymnastics works and the expectations required by both the gymnast and the parents. It’s a sport I’ll always promote, but when it comes to competitive gymnastics (especially aspiring elites), I understand that it’s not for everyone.

Better education in the sport will be obtained by those who take the time to learn, but hopefully one day there will be a system designed to make the sport more accessible to all economic classes both recreationally and competitively, which in the end may inspire more people to consider learning more about the sport.

Self-reflections, sports, travel, and social commentary that may come with a splash of contrarianism. Twitter & IG @_nicolecoop

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