Uneven/Bars, Or The Uncertain Future Of American Men's Gymnastics

The U.S. Men's Gymnastics team ended an uneven trip to Rio with a handful of medals. But a combination of economic and cultural factors, and the rise of less-structured alternatives, have made the sport's future in the U.S. increasingly uncertain.
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Last Monday, the men's Olympic gymnastics team repeated their fifth-place finish from London in 2012. Through a series of small mistakes—Alexander Naddour falling on his final tumbling pass, Sam Mikulak stepping out of bounds, Dannel Leyva missing a high bar release—the U.S., who was hoping to stand on the podium, left the stadium, hoping to fare better in the individual competition. The best they finished there was Sam Mikulak's seventh place. They fared better in the event finals, with Alex Naddour winning a bronze in pommel horse and Danell Leyva taking silver on both the high bar and parallel bar, which is good news, considering that this Games may have been the U.S.'s last, best opportunity to take home medals in men's gymnastics.

At the collegiate level, men's gymnastics has been disappearing for decades. After Title IX was passed in 1972, administrators redirected funds to more popular and lucrative men's sports, and programs, even powerhouse programs, were cut. In 1994, UCLA dropped the axe, despite having sent three gold medal athletes to the Los Angeles Olympics a decade earlier. When Michigan State followed suit in 2001, the team was ranked third in the nation. Typically, college has been less important for women, who peak at a younger age, but as Ron Galimore, the chief operating officer for USA Gymnastics, told the New York Times, "When a guy gets to college, his international career is just starting because it takes that long for him to develop muscles and coordination." Three decades ago, 79 universities had men's varsity programs. Today, there are 16.

At the high school level, the situation is even bleaker. Only nine states sanction boys' gymnastics, and since 2000, the number of participants has dropped from 3,495 to 2,079, a little more than one-tenth the number of girls. The number of school teams has halved. Granted, it's always been private clubs, rather than high schools, that have consistently produced the highest caliber gymnasts, but those elite clubs, and the entire culture of men's gymnastics, are on the verge of extinction.

In 1998, when Leon Williams opened Five Star Sports and Entertainment Academy in East Rockaway, New York, he had the same proportion of boys and girls. Year after year, though, the balance shifted, and he rearranged the schedule to accommodate. Of the original 14 boys' classes a week, just one remained by 2010, and the parents of the four boys begged Leon to keep coaching them. Leon, a former competitor himself, wanted to comply, but the math was against it. Men's gymnastics entails six events (floor, vault, rings, parallel bars, high bar, and pommel horse), which "take up more space than anything else," Leon told me. He eliminated the boys program altogether and, later that year, decided to try something new.

He had heard rumors of something else—not quite a sport exactly, but closer to gymnastics than anything else—that was gaining popularity; none of the other gyms in the area seemed to be paying attention. So Leon hosted a free open house and invited anyone who might be interested, and was met that night by about 100 people who showed up to do parkour. The high turnout convinced Leon, although there was an unexpected problem. "At the time," Leon told me, "it was taboo. No one would insure it." Underwriters had seen videos — teenagers jumping over cars and onto railings and off of rooftops — and wouldn't get anywhere near it. With the help of the World Freerunning and Parkour Federation, Leon eventually found an insurance plan, and the trajectory of the gym solidified. "It brought the boys back, so I kept doing it."

An equal number of boys and girls train at Five Star again, but the boys are now practicing kongs and precisions instead of Yurchenkos and Iron Crosses. Leon offers 37 parkour classes a week for everyone from "pre-runners" (three and four-year-olds) to adults, and he estimates that 90% of the participants are male. Three or four times a year, a mother will approach and him say that no, her son would prefer to take gymnastics. He'll refer her to one of the few gyms left on Long Island that still offer boys classes, "but I tell her that with gymnastics, there's nowhere to go."

The more acrobatically inclined boys can drift toward parkour and freerunning, which emphasize flipping, jumping, and rolling, but those are certainly not their only options. For boys who want apparatuses, "American Ninja Warrior" has reinvented obstacle training, which shares a similar skillset with gymnastics. In fact, during the series' last season, two-time Olympic gymnast Jonathan Horton became the shortest man ever to summit the Warped Wall at 5' 1''. For those who gravitate toward intense conditioning, CrossFit offers its own kids program, which is available at over 1,800 gyms and kid-scales CrossFit’s adult workouts, which include handstands, muscle-ups, and rope climbs. If these alternatives have so much in common with gymnastics, why have they succeeded where gymnastics failed? Leon gives me two reasons.

The first is the paradox of men's gymnastics in the United States. Even though it prizes upper-body strength, even though its athletes embody the traditionally masculine ideal of broad shoulders, massive arms, and skinny waists, even though sports like CrossFit have adopted some of the its fundamental training techniques, men's gymnastics is not considered masculine. "We have all these weird rules," says Paul Ruggeri, an eleven-time medalist at the U.S. National Championships and twice Olympic hopeful. "During a floor routine, every step we take has to include at least a half turn. You can't bend your legs or your arms or flex your feet. It still has all these traditional ballet values." As part of their training, many boys have to take a dance component—Paul had a rhythmic gymnastics coach—and all must wear a leotard when they compete. According to Victor Bevine, co-founder of the World Freerunning and Parkour Federation, "It's been a real challenge to keep boys past the age of 11 and 12."

The other reason speaks either to the Millennial temperament or gymnastics’ antique strictures, or both. Though they promote similar movements, gymnastics and parkour come with opposing ideologies. As Leon puts it, "Gymnastics is based on deduction. You're making mistakes. With parkour, it's not a matter of whether you do something with the right or wrong technique. However you do it is cool." According to Victor Bevine, that "perfect 10" mentality discourages kids who "have been raised to express themselves and be individuals." There's also the issue of accessibility. Gymnastics is highly regimented, expensive, and confined to a gym. "You can't learn gymnastics on YouTube," Leon says. "But parkour? You can watch a video and then go in your backyard and do it." Parkour easily absorbs disparate ages, body types, and skill levels, and with its focus on creativity and spontaneity, it's the closest thing gymnastics offers to a pickup game.  

Insiders have long feared the demise of men's gymnastics. In a 2001 NPR interview, Peter Kormann, a former Olympic coach, lamented that, "When there's no interest in gymnastics because there's no opportunities for gymnastics, people just forget about your sport. And that affects everything at all levels, from beginning right through to the Olympics, and we're close to that now."

At the elite level, the men continue to perform. Though the team took fifth this year, the international men's scene is the most competitive it's ever been. Paul Ruggeri also told me that, as an athlete and a coach, he hasn't seen any decline in boys' interest, yet it's impossible to deny the rise of alternatives that offer the same conditioning, body control, and agility—without the straight legs and half-turns. That challenge, more than any other, may be the biggest facing the program in years to come.


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