On Sunday, former world and Olympic champion gymnast Shawn Johnson, 20, retired from gymnastics. Citing a bum knee, she withdrew from this coming weekend’s national championships, the first competitive step towards the 2012 Olympic team.
Johnson is probably best remembered for her smiley persona and her epic all-around showdown with the willowy Nastia Liukin, the daughter of Soviet champion Valeri. Liukin beat Johnson for the gold in Beijing, 63.325 to 62.725, but the difference between them was measured in more than start values and points earned. It was a rivalry characterized in terms of darkness versus light, force versus grace, a “little ball of power,” as The New York Times put it, versus “the flexibility of a prima ballerina.” Jock versus artist.
Shawn Johnson, for all of her talents and abilities, was never considered an artist. Last month at the Olympic Media Summit in Dallas, she obliquely indicated why this might be. She was talking about weight loss and body shape, in terms usually reserved for the covers of celebrity magazines. Since Beijing, she said, she had gained and lost about 25 pounds from her 4-foot-9 frame.
At her heaviest, when she stopped full-time training and allowed herself to eat typical teenage fare like ice cream and pizza, she received brutal criticism from fans, especially on the sport’s message boards, and from the tabloids. “That whole process kind of broke me down and taught me something,” Johnson said. “People put too much emphasis on looks.”
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Body-shaming is not - and has NEVER been - about health. If people can shame an Olympic medalist, you can’t fool yourself into believing it’s about health.