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How gymnastics became a hugely popular Olympic sport


Gymnastics promoted national unity and celebrated physical perfection. But that cost the athletes a lot of money. The discipline the sport is praised for lends itself to abusive training methods, and the sport has been criticized for favoring very young participants.

Then there are the scandals. State-sanctioned doping rumors have long plagued the Soviet Union and Russia, and Russian athletes are currently banned from using their country’s name, flag, or anthem in any Olympic sport until 2022 due to documented cases of non-compliance with doping rules.

In 2016, Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, the governing body of American gymnasts, was charged with sexually assaulting a child. In the months that followed, a scandal exposed the world of gymnastics behind the scenes, revealing a culture of verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and submission. More than 150 gymnasts testified at Nassar’s conviction, and he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in 2017.


Gymnastics is no longer part of a broader political movement that advocates nationalism and social unity. But its popularity – and its role in national pride – remains. Ultimately, that’s the point of the Olympic Games, writes David Clay Large, Senior Fellow at the Center for European Studies at the University of California Berkeley, in Foreign Policy.

“These supposed celebrations of togetherness in one world are successful because they indulge exactly what they want to transcend: the world’s lowest instinct for tribalism,” he writes. “The ideological animosities of the Cold War era may have ebbed, but nationalism clearly has not.”

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