The Olympics may be over, but your gymnastics obsession doesn’t have to be. Admittedly, I am only an every-four-years watcher of women’s gymnastics, so my obsession is limited to a short time frame, but when the time does roll around, I voraciously follow the women’s gymnastics coverage. I do the same for figure skating during the Winter Olympics. During the 2014 Sochi Games, I came across Dvora Meyers’ writing on the technical and cultural aspects of these female-dominated sports, and I’ve had a writer’s crush on her ever since.
Meyers mostly covers gymnastics, but it’s easy to draw comparisons between gymnastics, figure skating, and even the world of dance (which her book does). All three require an athletic skill and talent that very few people ever achieve, and the romanticism surrounding these athletic activities makes them complex sites for representations of gender. Cue, my writer’s crush on Meyers.
As a former gymnast, Meyers brings a technical knowledge to her research on the history and culture of the sport. The End of the Perfect 10 covers approximately 40 years of gymnastics history, since a 14-year old Nadia Comaneci won three gold medals and earned a perfect 10 in gymnastics at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
The “Perfect 10,” was the gymnastics scoring system, technically called the Code of Points, since 1949. The system was created for men’s gymnastics specifically, but applied to women’s gymnastics, too. In this Code of Points, the maximum score a gymnast could receive was a 10, but that was believed to be impossible until Nadia broke the system in 1976 with this performance.
After watching the likes of any of the elite female gymnasts at Rio, this may look pretty basic, but here’s a video for a little context for how bar routines have changed across the years:
Though labeled the “Perfect 10,” it didn’t mean a routine was in fact perfect. What it meant was that the gymnast who received the score was better than anyone who had come before her.
Figure skating, a sport I am more knowledgeable about, had a similar Code of Points based on the “Perfect 6.0.” In both these kinds of systems, ranking was more a matter of the best of the majority than an exacting evaluation of overall skill and talent. In these systems, something as seemingly innocuous as the position you drew could impact your overall scoring.
For example, no one wants to draw the first position in a system like this because judges often end up “saving” their higher scores for later performances. Or if the first performance is undeniably spectacular, then the judges may give lower scores to following routines, though these scores do not reflect the actual skill level of the following performances. Despite these shortcomings, these kinds of scoring systems have a distinct advantage; they are easily comprehensible systems for the every-four-years fans.
At the 2002 Winter Games, two gold medals were awarded in pairs figure skating due to a judging scandal. Besides conflicting statements and accusations, the vagueness of the 6.0 scoring system was a large contribution to the overall confusion. By 2004, a new scoring system would replace the 6.0 system. This new Code of Points is designed to be more technically accurate, but is also a lot harder for the layperson to interpret. There’s no longer a perfect score, thus what makes for a great performance is more complicated than these skaters fell and this one did not. As figure skating viewership began to decline post “the whack heard around the world” and American women’s dominance in the event began to decline, the new Code of Points made for an easy scapegoat.
At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, gymnastics experienced its own judging scandal that put the 10.0 system at the center of the controversy. Similar to the figure skating scandal in 2002, the objectivity of the system was called into question, and the ultimate result would be a revamped system that eradicated the perfect score. Despite the potential for greater objectivity, the new system caused significant issues in the sport for fear it would impact audience engagement and viewership. This tension between the integrity of the sport of gymnastics and the business of gymnastics is the main focus of the book.
I read this book in the midst of the Summer Olympics in Rio, and it enriched my understanding of the sport, particularly when it came to understanding exactly why Simone Biles is the best gymnast of all time. By reading The Perfect 10, I could see how Biles fits within the overall history of the sport. It also helps that Meyers never loses her own voice and focus throughout this well-researched and written book. Her writing style is engaging with a smattering of pop culture quips that add pizazz and mostly land on their feet (oh, yeah, that pun was intended).