True or False: Bela discovered Nadia on a playground.
No, seriously, it’s false.
Contrary to what gymnastics fans have been told for decades, Nadia was not plucked off a Romanian playground by Bela Karolyi. As Nadia notes in Dvora Meyers’s book The End of the Perfect 10, “I had other coaches before them [the Karolyis]… Actually, Martha was coaching me before Bela got involved.”
Okay, let’s try another one.
True or False: The open-ended Code of Points was invented after the 2004 men’s all-around final in Athens.
This is the simplified story that many people have spewed over the years. The open-ended Code started decades sooner. No question, the 2004 Olympics provided the impetus for replacing the old scoring system, but the FIG did not invent a completely new way of judging between 2004 and 2006.
Hardy Fink, a former Canadian gymnast and coach, started noodling on the idea in the 1980s, and in 1991, he started work on the first draft of the open-ended Code. Later on, it was tested in Canada among male gymnasts.
What happened to that 1991 Code? Well, you’ll have to read Dvora’s book to find out the juicy details.
As a card-carrying member of the gymternet, Dvora is well aware of the myths that we, gymnastics fans, have clung to, as well as the simplified versions of history that we have spun. Through interviews and archival research, The End of the Perfect 10 forces us to let go of our myths, and it complicates our histories. In writing this book, Dvora will inevitably make the gymternet a smarter place.
Sure, there are gymnastics fans who already know this history, but many times, those fans have hoarded their knowledge, acting as gatekeepers and even ridiculing gymnastics fans who aren’t as knowledgeable. With the publication of this book, we have a history that doesn’t reside in people’s heads or on message boards or in archives that are difficult to access. We have a public history that gymnastics fans can read and debate.
That said, I recognize that gymnastics fans are a fussy bunch, and they are sure to find faults with this book. So, to stave off the picking of nits, a few disclaimers are needed for the hardcore gymnastics fans.
1. Be prepared for some binary thinking
At the same time that Dvora debunks myths, there are myths that she perpetuates, many of which come in the form of binaries. For example, gymnasts, Dvora submits, are either buff or flexible. You can’t be both. She writes, “In order to do the more complex acrobatic skills, the Americans have buffed up, but that has compromised the dancerlike flexibility prized by most gymnasts.”
While this is a criticism that many gymnastics fans have lodged against American gymnasts, the science behind this assertion is nonexistent. Researchers have shown that an athlete can be both buff and flexible. The size of one’s muscles has very little to do with flexibility, and when strength training is done properly, it can in fact increase flexibility.
2. Be prepared for a heavy dose of recent American history
In many ways, The End of the Perfect 10 should be split into two separate books: one volume about the history of the scoring change and another that discusses how the United States went from a nobody to a major player in the world of women’s gymnastics.
Needless to say, fans of Russian, Chinese, and Romanian gymnastics will be disappointed with Dvora’s recounting of recent gymnastics history. To be sure, Dvora dives deeply into Romanian and Soviet gymnastics in the 1970s. She recounts tales of judging bias and decries the coaching mistakes of Mikhail Klimenko, who told Yelena Mukhina that people like her don’t break their necks.
However, when it comes to recent gymnastics history, Dvora throws the spotlight on the rise of the American team, and the other countries fall into America’s shadow. To illustrate this point, one simply has to look at the structure of the book. Dvora dedicates roughly 100 pages to the rise of the American semicentralized system in the twenty-first century, while Russia’s recent accomplishments and challenges take up all of six pages.
3. Be prepared for a patchwork quilt of ideas
Most of our gymnastics books have an obvious telos. Joan Ryan sought to condemn the seedy underbelly of the gymnastics world in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Dominique Moceanu’s memoir had a clear message: The Karolyis (Martha in particular) should not be in charge of American gymnastics. Dvora’s take on gymnastics is hard to parse in this book.
Instead of looking for a thesis and a clear connective tissue between the chapters, you’ll be better served if you think of the book as a patchwork quilt. The beauty lies in taking a step back and observing the book as a collection of ideas about the last 40 years of gymnastics history.
Despite its flaws (no book is perfect), this patchwork quilt of history was a labor of love, and it belongs on every gym nerd’s bookshelf.