Siege Diaries 7/28/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Where have I been privileged–and what am I doing with it?

I have been privileged in so many ways: I had loving parents who cared about me. I have never experienced true poverty. I had an outstanding education. I do not face discrimination due to my ethnicity or the colour of my skin. I have access to information I need, and have developed good critical thinking and analytic skills that allow me to help discern which information is reliable and which is not.

It’s been relatively recently that I’ve realized that many of these things–particularly the ability to discern demonstrable fact from BS–is not something that everyone has or has been been given the opportunity to develop. I’ve developed more empathy as a result (although I also have developed frustration at those who have had access to the same things and have willingly rejected them). I’ve learned over the years that I do have some skill at explaining things in a clear manner that does not condescend, and that’s probably the most important outcome from this empathy. Knowledge alone does not make me a better person, nor does lack of knowledge mean others are less than. There are plenty of things I do not know much about, and I strive to always remain open to learning new things.

Today, I’ve been musing on the story of Elena Mukhina. Along with Kerri Strug’s famous “one-legged vault” from the 1996 Olympics, and in the wake of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the team and all-around gymnastics competitions at this years’ Games her story has been shared as a cautionary tale of what can happen when an athlete feels–or is not permitted to–withdraw from competition when injured or simply feeling “off.” and I wanted to find out more. Mukhina was the 1978 all-around world champion, and leading up to the 1980 Olympics, she was the USSR’s greatest hope for regaining for the Soviets the top of the gymnastics podium, which Nadia Comaneci had taken away in 1976. Mukhina, however, suffered several injuries in 1979, including a broken leg. It is now known that her coaches pushed doctors to remove her cast early, leading to a significant reinjury as the leg had not healed properly. Again, after surgery, she was pushed to start training nearly immediately, including pushing her incorporate a difficult move, the Thomas salto, into her floor routine. She was also pushed to lose weight gained while she was attempting to recover from her injuries. Between the weakness in her leg and exhaustion from the dieting, she was having problems getting enough speed and height to do the move properly, and had suffered a number of minor injuries. But her coaches continued to push her, with the implication that she was just a complainer, weak, and overly sensitive, and she responded by doing her duty and continuing to practice. On July 3, 1980, just two weeks before the Olympics, she under-rotated the salto in practice, landed on her chin, and broke her spine.

The response of her coaches and Soviet national team officials was appalling: at first, they hid the injury (conflicting stories of which apparatus she had been training on circulated). Then, as word began to circulate as to how severe the injury was, they tried to put the blame on her for “trying to do a move that was too difficult for her in order to try to make the team.” They also implied that, despite impressions given previously, Mukhina was never a star and was, in fact, on the verge of retirement and easily replaced. You can even find this story about Mukhina’s injury parroted in a story in the Washington Post. IOC officials, on the other hand, seemed to have realized that this spin was inaccurate, and awarded her the Gold Medal of the Olympic Order. Mukhina was left a quadraplegic from her accident and became largely reclusive, rarely leaving her apartment.

After hearing right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson seemingly echo many of these sentiments about Simone Biles — particularly the implication that this highly-decorated gymnast whose moves have continually pushed the envelope of what was possible was somehow weak, and that there were “plenty of young women” who would gladly step in for Biles–I was struck not only by how much a supposed American “patriot” seemed to be echoing the language of the Soviets, but how much he seemed to think that athletes “owed” something to people like him–and it’s clear that what he feels he’s owed is performance regardless of injury or danger. And that, indeed, used to be the way the American women’s gymnastic program worked — Kerri Strug’s vault is a perfect example (she was encouraged to complete it even though the team didn’t need her score to win the gold medal, and the pain on her face is obvious.) But things are changing. Part of it is related to the downfall of the program itself, in the wake of the allegations about Larry Nasser’s years-long sexual assaults on team members–but part of it is also Biles herself. I suspect she may be the only current team member that could have done what she did–but the fact that the acknowledged greatest active female gymnast (if not the greatest of all time, certainly up there) was able to step away and say, “no, it’s dangerous for me right now to compete” is real progress. Apparently she was suffering from what’s called “the twisties“, where a gymnast loses orientation and a sense of where their body is during difficult vaults or tumbling moves. And the number of gymnasts who have spoken up and said that Biles did exactly the right thing has helped counter the (luckily smaller) number of people who seemed convinced that she was somehow a quitter. She has not withdrawn from next week’s individual events yet, but whatever she does, I’m glad she’s put her own health and safety first.

This evening was spent proofreading the DSCH Journal, which arrived at just about the perfect time. I was originally going to get going on a couple of SCA scroll assignments and possibly get logged in to start taking a look at Toastmasters’ Speechcraft program (which I will be leading in September, but those were no great rush, so I instead proofread 72 pages of copy. I also got out to CWH to get my membership card replaced, and picked up the Rolls Royce Merlin t-shirt I’ve been eyeing for months. While I was waiting, I got a shot of VeRA. Never gets old.