The bodies that excel in different sports are not randomly chosen, they are selected by the needs of the activity. One would never mistake a professional basketball player for a jockey (except maybe the highly unusual Spud Webb, and at 5’6″ even he was almost certainly too big to be a jockey).
Even within sports, there are differences. In baseball, playing first base cries out for characteristics that almost inevitably mean that those who play it are much bigger than shortstops.
I’ve been watching the women’s gymnastics competition at the Olympics. As a former dancer, I have a certain special interest in the sport, so different and yet somehow similar. Like ballet, gymnastics requires a certain body type to perform its formidable physical feats, and then the training itself shapes the body even further toward that standard. Like ballet, gymnastics dictates the need for both strength and flexibility as well as leanness. But it’s strength and flexibility of a very different type, and the bodies it calls for and then further develops are very different as well.
The two disciplines didn’t always diverge quite so much. But as the tumbling skills required in gymnastics have increased dramatically, the balletic aspects of the sport have decreased almost to the vanishing point (although here and there one sees a remnant in one athlete or another), and the bodies have changed correspondingly, especially in the hip.
One of the most basic requirements for ballet is what’s called “turn-out.” The prospective dancer must begin at a very early age to reshape the hip joint, especially the ligaments and muscles surrounding it, to achieve the ability to rotate the leg outward in a way that’s the opposite of pigeon-toed. It part of what gives ballet its open, expansive stance, and allows dancers to move freely in almost any direction. Female ballet dancers are thin—often very thin—but their hip shape is nearly always very conventionally feminine, with at least a slight outward curve, because that’s the type of hip formation that can best achieve the desired turnout, and they tend to have better turnout than male dancers, as well.
This shape can more easily be seen when the dancers perform in leotards:
Both dancers and gymnasts tend to be short, and their breasts are relatively undeveloped, although gymnasts tend to be significantly smaller, and dancers tend to look taller on stage than they really are. A more compact body is easier to handle in both endeavors, but for gymnastic tumbling it is absolutely necessary.
It wasn’t always that way. Back when I was a young, the great Russian gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva had a body that was rather ballet-like, except for the greater musculature in her shoulders and arms and across her upper back. Her style of movement was balletic, too, and she was considerably taller than today’s gymnasts, although I’ve had trouble finding her exact height. But whatever her height, she had a more conventional female body, albeit a finely-honed and exceptionally fit one:
Here’s Tourischeva doing her floor routine in 1972. It would never pass muster today, but I like her grace and flow and long stretched line. The floor was of a completely different type, by the way; nowadays it is much springier:
The passing of the guard occurred in 1976, when Tourischeva was upstaged in popularity by the far more diminutive and girlish fellow-Russian Olga Korbut. Korbut was cutesy and much tinier—with slimmer hips, the better to tumble. But note that her hips still possessed a slight feminine curve, despite her more extreme thinness:
For a while, gymnasts kept getting younger and slighter and more per-pubescent. But America’s Mary Lou Retton represented a new and different body type. Compact, chunky and solid, although not the least bit fat, she was built for strength and speed and explosive tumbling. Note that her hips are not conventionally feminine; the curve has pretty much disappeared:
In the last decades of the twentieth century, a slow revolution came to women’s gymnastics that made the Retton body more commonplace and meant that the teeny tiny pre-pubescent kidlets were far less common. The cause was a series of rule changes that made sixteen the minimum age to enter the Olympics in the sport. That reversed the trend toward lighter and younger girls and helped set up the situation as we see it today, when what one might call the Retton hip type is in the ascendance.
The five US women who won the team gold medal the other day are almost perfect exemplars of this. It is striking to see them together, not a conventional feminine hip among them, although of course they are recognizably teenage girls. But they represent five variations on a single theme: breasts almost non-existent, with shoulders far wider than hips which in turn form nearly a straight line with their waists, above powerfully muscular legs (most notably the thighs):
Here are some closeups of individual members:
These are not men; they are clearly women. But their bodies are as unusual and uncommon as their achievements. The narrow hips are not an accident; unlike ballet, gymnastics is a turned-in sport. Imagine performing insanely difficult tricks on a 4-inch-wide balance beam, and it’s obvious that hips which stick out would be an unbalancing disadvantage; the same with tumbling in floor exercises. Anything that decreases the strength-to-volume ration would detract from a gymnast’s ability to achieve the extremely high levels of difficulty now required, and the upper body and legs bear the brunt.
How high are the levels of difficulty now? This high:
I admire the strength, skill, dedication, hard work, and sheer guts of today’s astounding gymnasts. But I’d still rather watch Tourischeva.