Today, as I try to avoid spoilers and prepare to watch the finals of the women’s gymnastics individual all-around on NBC tonight, I’ll be thinking of the “Night of the Notables,” an elementary-school curriculum that flourished in the nineteen-eighties as a way to boost student’s self-esteem through mimicry of the famous and accomplished. After weeks of studying a chosen historical figure, a child stands onstage in costume, offering clues to the audience about who they might be. In my case—that of a bouncy, diminutive third-grader in a spangled leotard screaming “Perfect 10! Wheaties box!”—it was an easy guess. That was the closest I would ever get to being Mary Lou Retton, and the moment still strikes the chord reserved in my brain for high glories. And it did do wonders for my self-esteem.
Seeing the “Fab Five” from the U.S. women’s gymnastics team take team gold in London, it struck me that raw self-esteem, laid bare for the world to watch, may be the very thing that keeps all of us so tied to the event. Women’s gymnastics dominates prime-time ratings during the Olympics because the idea seems so improbable at its core: teen-age girls, full of confidence and bombast, puffing their chests at jetpack speed, when most of their contemporaries are busy bolstering themselves against the day-to-day blows of the media, mean girls, puberty, and peer pressure.