Vahe Gregorian

Dominant U.S. gymnastics team sets an example — and not just in sports

The victorious U.S. women’s gymnasts are (from left) Lauren Hernandez, Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles. The reasons to celebrate their Olympic triumph in Rio are many.
The victorious U.S. women’s gymnasts are (from left) Lauren Hernandez, Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles. The reasons to celebrate their Olympic triumph in Rio are many. deulitt@kcstar.com

As “The Star-Spangled Banner” resounded through the Rio Olympic Arena on Tuesday night, tears fell from the eyes of the ethnic Hungarian woman from Transylvania, Romania, who defected to the United States in 1981.

On the podium basked the self-described “Final Five” proteges of the immigrant U.S. gymnastics national team coordinator coach, Marta Karolyi — an exuberant, close-knit group that further reflected the tapestry that makes America what it is.

In a sport once as homogenized as milk, the top tier belonged to two African-Americans, a Latina, a Jewish woman and a Catholic.

That might sound like the setup to some old joke, racist or otherwise, but now it’s only about this:

Led by the mesmerizing Simone Biles, it’s the diverse elements that make up a women’s team that Karolyi considers the best in history and that made emphatic claim to that with the most lopsided victory in the event since the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Team USA finished with a score of 184.897, with Russia claiming silver with a cumulative tally of 176.688.

It was a galvanizing, stirring performance at a time when race-baiting and the politics of exclusion are bubbling back home.

It’s only sports, sure, but it’s a fine testimonial to the notion of stronger together over a contrived campaign to make America great again.

If there were some sort of mercy rule in the sport, it would have been invoked well before the end.

“No drama, and I don’t think it should be drama, you know?” Karolyi said. “We’re not in the theater. This is sports.”

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Not that it was anticlimactic, but Biles could have clinched it by mustering a 7.7 score in her competition-ending floor exercise.

Instead, she uncorked a dazzling, athletic 15.8, befitting a three-time world champion who is expected to compete for four more gold medals and is thought to be revolutionizing the sport.

In a corridor of the arena long after the competition, Karolyi was asked who the greatest she ever coached was.

The long list, including many she tutored with husband Bela, includes the likes of Mary Lou Retton.

“I would probably say that it’s Nadia (Comaneci) and Simone,” she said, smiling and adding, “The beginning and the end.”

Back at that beginning, young women of diverse ethnicities in the United States had to look hard to see visions of themselves in one of the most visible of Olympic sports.

Then came Atlanta 1996, when the U.S. women’s team seized its first Olympic team medal.

“The Magnificent Seven,” they called them, and one of them was Dominique Dawes, widely referred to as the first black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.

She would become a role model for Gabby Douglas, who flung open the door of imagination to the future all the more in the 2012 London Games when she became the first African-American to win an individual all-around championship in the Olympics.

The charismatic Douglas would become a household name and face, as Biles now is, and who knows how many little girls will later say they were influenced by seeing someone who looked like them in the sport?

The multicultural medley also extends to Aly Raisman, who was Douglas’ “Fierce Five” teammate in London where the team won gold for the first time since 1996.

Among other ways she expresses her Jewish heritage, Raisman won gold in the floor exercise in London performed to the Hebrew folk song “Hava Nagila” and later paid homage to the 11 Israeli Olympians who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.

Then there’s Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent but also known as a “human emoji.”

Another way the team is representative of us all:

It also is as much about handling adversity as it is about diversity, whether in overcoming awful injuries or episodes of racism or just navigating the misfortunes of life.

When Biles’ mother became unable to care for her because of a drug and alcohol addiction, she was adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife, who became her parents.

And now she has become one of the greatest athletes on the planet, someone to emulate and celebrate.

“It is the hardest sport in the world, and we make it look so easy,” she said, pausing to smile and add, “At least that’s what people tell us.”

Especially after a performance that reinforces everything that’s good about America at a time when the reminding is imperative.

Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star spoke with Kevin Hall of the McClatchy DC bureau on Tuesday for an update on the Rio Summer Olympics. They look at the perspective of the Games from outside the sporting events.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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