If there’s one thing I’ve previously only let my closest friends in on, it’s the fact that I am a shamelessly obsessive sports fan. Athletics, football, swimming, diving, gymnastics… I could go on! And a brilliant part of studying here in America is the incredible college sports dynamic that I don’t think you can find anywhere else in the world. That was one cultural difference I planned in advance to wholeheartedly take advantage of: attending as many sporting events, familiar and unfamiliar, as I could fit into my schedule.
The one thing I really reveled in was the opportunity to watch some fantastic gymnastics. One of my absolute favourite sports, gymnastics does not have the huge event schedule or following in the U.K. that it has in the U.S., and besides the Birmingham World Cup, which I managed to get tickets for last year, there aren’t many large accessible competitions outside the occasional lucky bid for the European Championships (last year’s were held in Scotland). NCAA gymnastics, on the other hand, has swathes of talented gymnasts of national and international quality, competing practically weekly in brilliant shows of athleticism. And with the UCLA Bruins the reigning champions, and with brilliant names such as Olympic champions Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, viral star Katelyn Ohashi and my personal favourites, former German team member Pauline Tratz and 2018 Birmingham World Cup silver medalist Margzetta Frazier on the roster, I’ve made sure to get to every home meet I can.
Today’s meet, unfortunately for me, was an away one: versus Utah, ranked 4th to our 2nd so far this season. Our biggest meet this season so far, it guaranteed a showing of brilliant gymnastics from both teams. But all of that – UCLA’s ultimate 198.025 to 197.625 victory – was overshadowed. The talking point of the afternoon, instead, was on how during UCLA’s final rotation on beam, Utah’s student section – situated next to the beam – appeared to be encouraged to make a mass showing of reading the newspaper instead of focusing on UCLA’s beam. Perhaps a distraction technique, perhaps an attempt to imply that UCLA’s beam routines were boring, perhaps – as some have tweeted in defense of it – it was a harmless joke in the name of rivalry: in my eyes, the behaviour was downright rude.
And – despite what the outrage on the gym-ternet implies – this sort of distraction or disparaging tactic is, as I have learned, not unique to Utah’s student section, nor is it rare in collegiate sports in the United States. At UCLA’s men’s basketball home meet versus the Oregon State Beavers on Thursday (an absolutely thrilling game by the way, which the Bruins won in the final minute or so by 1 point after blowing a ten-point lead) there was yet another prime example of this. The student section who were sat behind the hoop Oregon State were shooting into were handed what looked like either huge blue and gold balloons or oversized foam pool noodles to wave when the Beavers were shooting, presumably as a distraction. The ‘Yell Crew’, a team of students hired to get the crowd lively at events, were encouraging making loud monotonous droning noises whenever Oregon State had possession. These tactics are not exclusive to basketball either, although it’s worth pointing out I have seen them deployed at every basketball game – men’s and women’s – I have been to at UCLA this season.
Clearly, distraction techniques are one of the few things that transcend team colours and difference of sports in the NCAA. And I think we need to step back for a moment, and think about why sports is so brilliant. Yes, we get wrapped up in rivalry often, and we scream the loudest for our own team, often despite some pretty poor showings. But at the end of the day, athletes (regardless of whether they’re 5ft 1in gymnasts or 7ft 1in basketball players) train for hours, putting their blood, sweat and tears into being the best they can be at their passion, and put on a show for us that provides us with hours of entertainment. This is true of all, regardless of allegiance. So, when Grace Glenn got up onto the beam today – an athlete who has already overcome injury once this season, and a notoriously nasty piece of apparatus, might I add – to show us what she can do, the petulance of refusing to watch just because you study at a college that isn’t hers attempted to disparage a standard of work and ability most of us can only dream of. It reflects a special kind of petty to refuse to watch the reigning champions at the event you decided of your own free will to attend, just because you backwardly think it makes a nice show of support for your own team. Ultimately, it shows a glaring lack of sportsmanship.
Injuries in gymnastics can be horrifically cruel. We learned that last week, when Cal’s Toni-Ann Williams, fifth year and history-making Jamaican national team gymnast, had her final season of her collegiate career cut short with an unfortunate second Achilles injury. And if that incident did one thing, it reminded a lot of gymnastics fans of the great amounts of support for raw talent, as messages of love and respect flooded in for Toni from way beyond Berkeley. And so they should. When things go wrong in gymnastics, as I have seen many times myself, the stands erupt with applause regardless of who’s involved: not just because of manners, but because of the acknowledgement of that person’s emotions, their career, their passion. Why is it that when things are going the other way – when people are prevailing and defying the odds to do exceptional things – it is not only seen as acceptable, but encouraged and facilitated by fan groups and cheerleaders alike to heckle and distract and disparage?
In the midst of our competitiveness, have we forgotten what goes into putting on the show we see before us? Or is it just yet another commodity set up conveniently for our consumption? Athletes are much, much more than the team they represent, yet we appear to have let our friendly rivalries morph into blatant disrespect for anyone whose kit colours aren’t that of our own. From what I’m witnessing, sportsmanship isn’t quite dead, but we aren’t trying to resuscitate it either.
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Photo courtesy of Jim_Nastics on Twitter; taken from live stream courtesy of PAC12.