There have been several great stories to come out of the gymnastics competition at these Games—the Fierce Five's dominant performance to win the team gold medal, Gabby Douglas' victory in the all around, Kohei Uchimura's coronation as greatest male gymnast of all time, the British men's historic team bronze in front of a hometown crowd. But almost as frequently remarked upon as these triumphant tales was a different one more suitable to the pages of a gossip rag than to sports commentary: the American media's insistence on the story of the Russian "divas."
Nearly every time the Russian team appeared onscreen, one member of the NBC crew of commentators hurled "diva" at them like it's an insult. Yet for all the discussion of "diva," the trio never backed it up with any examples of truly negative, un-sportswoman like behavior.
Instead we're shown images of them crying after they lose a competition they hoped to win — and they weren't depicted as snubbing their opponents. Or we were shown a lone fluff segment in which head coach Alexander Alexandrov was interrogated about how "difficult" his gymnasts are. While he admitted they possess challenging personalities, he didn't seem to mind it all that much. In fact, he indicated that he believes that it's part of what goes along with being great. And as former head coach of the Soviet program, Alexandrov has guided many of the champions. He knows what he's talking about.
The Russian practices were described as all out "wars" between the coaches and athletes, whereas American workouts were noted for almost assembly line-like efficiency. Of course, the commentators failed to observe a key difference between the American and Russian teams: the U.S. has enjoyed gloriously good health (for elite gymnasts, at least) over the last year whereas more than one Russian is on the mend from injuries, which explains why their practices had not gone as smoothly as those of their rivals.
(Also, I've had just about enough of describing gymnastics, or any other sport for that matter, in militarized language. In the past decade, this country has fought two actual wars-we should know better. As thrilling and intense as athletic competitions can be, they're not comparable to wars. Several years of hard work is on the line, not one's life. As the saying goes, "There's no glitter in foxholes." That's because they're no gymnasts in foxholes, either.)
The preferred target of NBC's diva-lanche was 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina. As the 18-year-old stood on the podium, waiting to get the green light from the judges to mount the uneven bars, Al Trautwig filled a moment of broadcast downtime by asking, "Have you seen any diva moments?" (Next time, if you've got dead air talk about the London weather instead.) This seemed particularly out of place because Mustafina, who should certainly be awarded a gold for the best eye makeup of the competition, was patiently waiting for her turn as the judges tabulated the score of previous competitor. That bitch.
Mustafina's practices have been perhaps more fraught than those of her teammates, in part due to her famously intense personality but also because she's been on the comeback trail from a torn ACL. This injury happened at the 2011 European Championships just as she was at the peak of her abilities and was looking to dominate the competitive season. Though she staged a remarkable comeback, she wasn't able to restore all of her difficulty. In 2010, she was unbeatable in the all-around. In 2012, she needed mistakes from the top gymnasts to challenge for the gold. Undoubtedly, this frustrated the uber-competitive Mustafina.
In the Cold War era, the Soviet gymnasts were unquestionable foes because of their connection to Communism. The Russian gymnasts of today, however, cannot be so easily turned into enemies. So perhaps "diva" has become misogynistic shorthand for "rival."
NBC struck "diva" gold during the all-around as Mustafina, who, after she fell from the beam during her routine, brushed Alexandrov, her coach aside as she went to compose herself alone. They showed this twice. I wouldn't put it past them to turn it into a gif.
And I can't lay the blame for this characterization solely at NBC's feat. The gymnastics media — which is about as niche as you can get — has also gotten in on the "diva" action. In response to Mustafina's brush off, International Gymnast editor Dwight Normile wrote, "Super talented and probably a perfectionist, Mustafina has a lot of gymnastics left in her—if coach Alexander Alexandrov is willing to put up with her. Brushing him off after her blown beam routine in the all-around final crossed the line in a coach-gymnast relationship. I don't care how mad you are."
While Normile doesn't use the D-word, his publication used it earlier in the week on Facebook to describe her training demeanor without any sort of explanation, which left commenters angry and wondering why she had been so maligned. Did she demand better lighting? A different spot in the line-up? Or did she merely express negative emotions instead of adorable ones? Maybe after her fall, she didn't want a shoulder to cry on or a cookie. Getting mad was probably the reason she came back so strongly on her next apparatus and took the bronze.
Russian coaches like Alexandrov have grown accustomed to having larger-than-life personalities on their competitive rosters. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we've been able to learn more about the Russian women, who have proven to be an entertaining and dramatic lot. Svetlana Khorkina was perhaps the sports greatest diva. She emerged just a couple of years after the breakup of the USSR and quickly became known for her sultry floor routines and her outspoken outside of the gym. Khorkina was unabashedly competitive and when she failed to meet her own standards, she was forthcoming with her own frustration and anger.
Khorkina fully embraced the diva mantle. "I love being a diva," she said, "being a diva is magical. You can't catch her. She always comes out a winner."
Khorkina was not singular in her willingness to openly express her feelings on the mat. As gymnastics blogger Brigid McCarthy explains, it seems that Russians, in general, are more accepting of supposedly diva behavior. She writes, "I have asked many Russians I know and they say for Russians there are no negative attachments made to the expression of emotion. To be openly disappointed, angry, frustrated (with oneself, of course) is simply emotional honesty. It is more natural to wear your heart on your sleeve, to state your successes and failures, and to name your foe."
In many interviews before the Games, Russian star Viktoria Komova identified the American women as her chief rivals and expressed the desire to beat them. By contrast, the U.S. women merely spoke in platitudes about wishing to do their best and hit all of their routines (which of course they did and defeated everyone).
Ryan Lochte was open about his desire to defeat Phelps, the greatest American swimmer, and wasn't maligned for it. This is what we expect from elite male athletes—confidence, even cockiness, and the desire to win. Phelps is the best and it was only natural that his competitors would want to take him down. These guys weren't labeled as divas.
The women at this level, regardless of their age, are the same as the men. They don't want to simply do their best. They want to win. So why aren't they permitted to openly express this? And when they fail to meet their own high standards, why can their only negative reaction be tears?
After winning a team silver, one gold, and two bronzes, Mustafina finished her competition at the Olympics as the most decorated gymnast in London. NBC might not like "divas," but the judges seem to have no problem with them. Here's hoping that at the next Games, "diva" won't be hurled as an insult against any female athlete who has the gall to exhibit anything other than sadness or joy. They should be free to smile, cry — and even get angry every once in awhile.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.