At this point, the Summer Olympics should just be renamed “women’s gymnastics, and a bunch of other sports.”
That’s how popular the sport has become during the summer games in the United States as only Michael Phelps swimming events can compete, TV-ratings-wise with the girls of the mat, bars, beam and vault.
Leading the way for this year’s women’s gymnastics team is, of course, Needham’s own, Aly Raisman. One could argue that Raisman is already one of the most recognizable Olympic athletes of all-time – given that this is her second go-round in what is the most-watched Olympic sport. The 22-year-old Raisman has grown up in front of America at the height of the popularity of social media, and it shows. You think Mary Lou Retton had nearly half a million Twitter followers in her day? (Yeah, unfair … but for the record Retton has 24K followers today compared to Raisman’s 467K).
For sure, some of the popularity of women’s gymnastics is due to the fact that many men are attracted to the athletes. An unreal 38.7 million viewers (especially in today’s online streaming culture) tuned in to watch the final night of gymnastics in London in 2012, and this past Sunday’s women’s gymnastics competitions provided a hint that we’re in for the same type of TV numbers.
Meanwhile, male gymnast Olympic competitions are watched by millions less people and the men on the current team are far from household names. On Monday, a story ran in the Wall Street Journal, titled, “U.S. Male Gymnasts Want to Be Objectified,” with the sub-hed of, “Even when they medal, they stand in the shadow of female gymnasts. Might the answer be disrobing?”
Brainstorming ways to make men’s gymnastics more marketable, U.S. gymnast Sam Mikulak suggested that they be allowed to compete without their shirts on.
“People make fun of us for wearing tights,” Mikulak told the Journal. “But if they saw how yoked we are maybe that would make a difference.”
In 2015, Raisman posed mostly nude for ESPN’ The Magazine’s Body Issue. There were plenty of social media comments directed at her during the 2012 games taking aim at her “jacked” body tone and Raisman addressed that topic with ESPN.
“I think imperfection is beauty,” she said. “Instead of being insecure about my muscles, I’ve learned to love them. I don’t even think of it as a flaw anymore because it’s made me into the athlete that I am.
“As a gymnast you use every single part of your body. Everything from your wrist, your shoulders, your abs … I mean even your pinky toe is important. Every part of your body has to be really, really strong.”
All eyes will again be on the ever-popular Raisman and the U.S. women’s team Tuesday in Rio, with the women’s team all-around competition (7:30 p.m., NBC).