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Irked By Broadcast Coverage, Gymnastics Sites Aim To Raise The Bar

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McKayla Maroney, unimpressed — possibly with the state of broadcast coverage of women's gymnastics.

McKayla Maroney, unimpressed — possibly with the state of broadcast coverage of women’s gymnastics.

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There are two types of people in this world: those who know their Stalder Shaposhnikovas from their Pak Saltos — and those who have absolutely no idea if the first half of this sentence was even written in English.

For the group that does know though — the hardcore gymnastics fans — a set of blogs, podcasts and resources have been emerging to fill a gap in the major broadcast coverage of women's gymnastics. Call it the "gymternet," an alternative group of sites that are shaking up the ways the sport is covered.

Specifically, these superfans are moving to correct what they see as condescension in broadcast coverage of the sport.

"It was very much focused on these 'little girls dancing on a playground.' That's a cliche you would hear on NBC over and over again," says the reporter and gym fan Elspeth Reeve, who wrote about the gymternet in the New Republic. "Even at the 2012 Olympics, you had the Russian gymnasts referred to as 'divas' and 'temperamental.' It was honestly a bit sexist."

Reeve points to one example in particular, when an NBC commentator compared a gymnast’s injury to getting a tear in her wedding dress right before walking down the aisle.

But starting around 2008, Reeve says, blogs began popping up to give gymnastics addicts the in-depth coverage they craved. The gymternet was born around the same time as Tumblr — the site popular for sharing animated GIFs — perhaps because watching a gymnast do a backflip works out to be a good GIF length.

Sites like The Gymternet and the site and podcast GymCastic "provide the real necessary pushback that's not about the sparkles and the girlishness," Reeve tells host Ray Suarez on All Things Considered. "It's about the crazy workouts, the incredible athletics, the injuries, coming back from injuries."

The Gymternet website covers gymnastics from all over the world, not just the U.S. You'll find results from competitions in South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, Russia and more.

But here in the U.S., the big action is the upcoming Olympic trials in San Jose on July 8 and 10, which will determine the members to represent the country in the Olympic Games in Brazil next month.

Nineteen-year-old Simone Biles leads the way, and is expected to rack up gold medals in Rio de Janeiro. Last weekend she won a fourth consecutive national title at the P&G Championships in St. Louis. She's already a three-time world champion.

"If she stays mentally healthy and physically healthy, she could walk away with five golds," Reeve says.

The athletes embrace the clout of the gymternet too. Biles has almost half a million followers on Instagram, and more than 57,000 on Twitter. Reeve writes that McKayla Maroney, a gold medalist, announced her retirement on the GymCastic podcast instead of a major network.

Women's gymnastics qualifying in the Olympics starts Aug. 7 — and there's a good chance the gymternet will have full coverage.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.


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