It is an endeavor in which chiseled bodies hurl through the air at full speed, muscles pushed to their biomechanical extremes as NBC’s cameras pan the action. One event involves hanging from rings more than 8 feet above the ground while using extreme body strength to spin like a top. Another event has men darting powerfully into the air in a series of triple twists, punished should their might take them beyond the borders of the competition field.
One move, a triple vault that involves an athlete sprinting full speed, then launching into a handspring with three spins in the air before landing on two feet, is so difficult and dangerous that after it was performed in competition in 2016, it was banned. “Bonkers,” the newscaster at the time aptly stated.
What may sound like “American Ninja Warrior,” watched by millions, is the sport of men’s gymnastics, watched by … some.
Just a few more than 2,000 people attended Day 1 of the men’s program of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this August in Boston. The crowd on the first day of the women’s competition was more than double that.
“We need some kind of mass marketing plan to get more people in the seats. Throw a U.S. championships and say tickets are a dollar, I don’t care. We just need to get butts in seats,” said Jonathan Horton, a member of the men’s 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams who has since competed on multiple seasons of “American Ninja Warrior.” “We need to do something just to fill these arenas and get people seeing it. Once people can see it, make it fast-paced and fun, it will grow.”
“Magic Mike” and the “50 Shades of Grey” franchise have helped make male ogling big business in recent years. But male gymnasts have not captured the imagination of American spectators in the same way; women in gymnastics remain by far the top earners and also the top champs.
And in American gymnastics, the women have long dominated international podiums even as they have engaged in a very public, very ugly war with their governing body, USA Gymnastics, over what they describe as inept handling and enabling of prolonged sexual predation by team doctor Larry Nassar. At the last two Olympics, American men have placed fifth in the team event while their female counterparts won gold. The men have only ever topped the Olympic podium in the event at the 1904 St. Louis Games and at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Their rivals in Los Angeles, the Soviet Union, boycotted.
While the gift shop at the recent U.S. Championships here brimmed with women’s leotards for sale, none of the singlets or socks-and-stirrup pants that the male gymnasts compete in were being peddled. Sponsors have been eager to back the biggest names in women’s gymnastics, including five-time national champion Simone Biles, but the biggest American male in the sport, Sam Mikulak, also a five-time national champion, is currently sponsored by MateBros, a beverage company he co-founded.
After the disappointing finish for the American men in Rio in 2016, along with the retirement of over half of the men on that team, fans, coaches and normals who love gymnastics mused about what could be done. Should male gymnasts discard their tanks and compete shirtless? Is it a mistake to not have music in the floor routine like the women do? Or, should they take a page from the men of curling and begin marketing all-nude calendars?
Horton pointed out that men’s gymnastics has remained remarkably staid in format since its introduction in 1896. Although rope climbing and club swinging had brief appearances on the Olympic men’s gymnastics program, they have since been scuttled. Men are barred from competing in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics altogether.
Meanwhile, in powerhouses like Japan, the sport draws packed arenas, fueled by titans in the sport like seven-time Olympic medalist Kohei Uchimura and his gold medalist teammates, known worldwide for their extremely detailed execution of bogglingly difficult feats. Similar scenes can be found in China and Russia, where their men’s teams continue to push extremes and artistry to snag titles and rock-star status.
“It’s a shame,” said Allison Boyd, a market researcher in Boston who attended both the men’s and women’s competition. “Sam is so talented. The other guys too. They don’t get the attention that they deserve.”
“It’s hard when there are no medals,” said Cesar Jesena, who flew in from San Francisco to watch the competition. “It’s like, ‘You’re not Simone? Bye!'”
Jacob Moore, of the University of Michigan’s team, was competing at the U.S. Championships. “I think we’re pushed a little bit out of the spotlight,” Moore said.
A generation or two ago, gymnastics was seen as a more viable athletic endeavor for young men. But in today’s varied youth sports tapestry, which includes lacrosse, basketball, martial arts and soccer, it has garnered less interest.
Consider Fuzzy Benas, 15, who finished in a rare three-way tie for the gold in the juniors 15-16 competition. He said that many people do not understand that in men’s gymnastics, careers peak later than for girls, meaning that competitive gymnastics for boys could complement full-time enrollment in school or having a collegiate career.
“People see the general flipping around, but they need to show more of the friends, how close you get with your teammates,” he said, “How the sport of gymnastics is really a big family.” (For Benas, that’s literal. Both of his parents were collegiate gymnasts and he started training at 8 months old.)
Yet the future of men’s gymnastics might be bleaker than we think. In 1983, there were 215 colleges that included women’s gymnastics programs and 111 programs for men, said Paul Ziert, the former gymnastics coach at the University of Oklahoma and the publisher of International Gymnast Magazine. Today, he said, there are 82 for women and 21 for men (including five club teams). While the number of women USA Gymnastics members has increased to 155,925 in 2018, up from 140,653 three years earlier, the increases for men have been slim. USA Gymnastics had only 19,681 male members, a number that has remained relatively flat. “Emotion is what brings people in, and I don’t see people coming to the meet with much emotion,” Ziert said.
“It’s tough,” Dennis McIntyre, vice president of the men’s program, said of the current climate, pointing to the sexual assault scandals as one of many looming challenges. “We’re working through it with the guys, and they’re troupers.”
USA Gymnastics has embarked on a new strategy that included hiring Brett McClure, a two-time silver medalist from the Athens Games and coach at the University of California, Berkeley, to be the high-performance director, based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Mikulak and three other national team members train. McClure is empathetic to the challenges. “Most people want to know if you can ‘Do the T thing on the Fruit Loops,'” he said, referencing the brutal standing rings event.
Mikulak, the great American hope for a medal at the forthcoming World Championships in Doha, Qatar, this October, is optimistic.
“This might not be the greatest year,” he said. “But if we can come together — and the fact that we may be a bit of an underdog? That means we have nothing to lose.”