One of my hobbies is reading sports history. Never been an athlete myself (to say the least), but I enjoy reading about them. So, from that perspective:
Many people don’t realize just how dangerous gymnastics is, especially for women. Soviet star, Elena Mukhina, landed on her neck a few weeks before the Moscow Olympics in 1980 when her coach pushed her to include a dangerous roll-out on the floor that she knew was going to cause her serious injury. She said her first thought after breaking her neck (and spending the rest of her life as a quadriplegic) was “At least now I won’t have to go to the Olympics.”
American gymnast Christy Henrich had been having some success in elite gymnastics in the mid 1980s, until a judge told her she was too fat. She spiraled down into eating disorders that ended her career and eventually ended her life in 1994. Another American gymnast, Julissa Gomez, ended up a quadriplegic when she slammed head first into the vaulting horse while trying to master the Yurchenko entry (the round-off, back-handspring entry onto the springboard). She died in 1991.
Mukhina’s, Henrich’s, and Gomez’s deaths created major changes in gymnastics, for men and women. The roll-out on the floor exercise was eventually banned. Gymnasts’ weights are no longer posted in their stats on television. The vaulting horse was replaced with a table and the springboard must now have a U-shaped safety mat in place for Yurchenko entry vaults.
Simone Biles was once asked why she didn’t perform the Produnova vault, often called the Death Vault because of the high likelihood that women attempting it will land on their neck. She said, “Because I don’t want to die!” She didn’t need the Produnova to win, so no one blinked. But when she became disoriented during a vault in the women's team competition in Tokyo and decided to pull out rather than risk, you know, death, suddenly she’s been dragged through the court of public opinion for deciding not to risk death in pursuit of a few more golds to add to the dozens she already has.
Women gymnasts have died in pursuit of personal ambition, pleasing their coaches, and glory for their country. It took the Greatest of All Time to finally stand up and say, “Enough.” But, evidently, there are still people who would prefer to see a young woman maimed or dead than acknowledge that she was right to pull out when she realized the risk of serious injury was too high to go on.
I’m not an optimistic person by nature, but I hope Simone’s positive example will eventually bring the changes to her sport that Mukhina’s, Henrich’s, and Gomez’s tragedies did—without Simone having to suffer a similar fate to theirs.
(Image: Simone Biles, Wikimedia Commons.)