Jonathan Horton returned from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with a silver medal in the horizontal bar event and hardly heard a peep from the world at large about his accomplishment. No endorsements or sponsorships evolved to help him continue his lifelong pursuit of gymnastics greatness, and he did not become more of a household name than he ever was.
But this summer, after he competed in the Dallas regional qualifying of NBC’s prime-time show “American Ninja Warrior,” which pits daring, fitness-crazed Americans against a whacky and unreasonable obstacle course, he suddenly felt the kind of attention that his female counterparts in women’s gymnastics get to experience every four years during and after the Olympics. Never mind that Mr. Horton wiped out on the rings — ironically — and didn’t advance to Las Vegas for the final.
“I get recognized for Ninja Warrior 10 times more than I have been recognized for gymnastics,” said Mr. Horton, 28. “I have people come up to me all the time. They’re like, ‘You’re that dude from Ninja Warrior.’”
The motivations of the male gymnasts who will perform Friday and Sunday in the P&G Gymnastics Championships at Consol Energy Center and the young women who will get this annual national championship started today are identical; they want to take one more step toward representing their country and going for gold in the 2016 Rio Games in Rio de Janeiro. But for the women who are successful, there will be more opportunities for building an actual future off of gymnastics.
Mr. Horton, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall yet chiseled like a Greek god, believes there is a perception problem driving his sport’s struggle to gain popularity in the shadow of the women.
“People think gymnastics, and they think little girls in leotards, powerful and graceful, and they forget about our side,” Mr. Horton said. “Right now, there’s this stereotype that we’re not a masculine sport. All of us are trying to change that image that it’s a sissy sport. It’s not.”
Gabby Douglas, who won the women’s all-around title at the 2012 London Olympics has reportedly racked up endorsement deals worth millions. She has nearly 800,000 followers on Twitter; Mr. Horton has competed in two Olympics and has 43,500.
A women’s event in a sport becoming more popular than the men’s is a rare occurrence. How it happened in gymnastics in the United States is a combination of many factors that none could have predicted in the 1950s and 1960s, when the men garnered most of the notoriety.
First, the introduction of Title IX in 1972 had the effect of creating more opportunities for women to compete in gymnastics at the college level while starting the slow process of athletic departments having to drop their men’s programs. At the same time, said USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, the lackluster economy in the 1970s forced many high school programs to stop supporting gymnastics. Club programs began popping up all over to fill the demand.
Then, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci burst onto the scene as a 14-year-old, winning three gold medals and becoming the first female to record a perfect 10.
“Nadia really revolutionized gymnastics,” said Marta Karolyi, who coached Nadia with her husband, Bela, before the couple left Romania to coach in the United States. “Until her time, it was more mature women really, not little girls, who were all the champions. Then here comes this pixie little girl who is overly confident, overly consistent and pretty charming. So it changed the face of gymnastics.”
In 1980, Ms. Comaneci would win two more golds, further captivating fans across the world. In 1984, then in the U.S., the Karolyis coached a 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton to the gold medal in the all-around. She was “America’s Sweetheart,” even though the men’s gymnastics team won the team gold medal that year in Los Angeles.
“More girls related to Mary Lou Retton than maybe young boys related to the men’s team,” Mr. Penny said. “There’s always been more sport opportunities for young men than there were for women. The role models for women always stand out. For men, it’s a more cluttered sports landscape.”
In 1996, Kerri Strug nailed her vault with one good leg and helped the “Magnificent Seven” win team gold. The past three Olympic all-around champions — Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin and Douglas — wore red, white and blue leotards.
“If you have a phenom moment like a Nastia Liukin or Gabby Douglas, you can carry that moment for a long, long time,” Mr. Penny said.
In most other countries where gymnastics skills are cultivated, the men are still more popular than the women. Because of that, Mr. Penny said, there is more depth among the men in international competitions, which has made it tougher for the U.S. team to bring home medals like the women’s team.
John Orozco, a 2012 Olympian, recalls going to Japan, for instance, and receiving star treatment.
“They know everybody that comes to competitions,” Mr. Orozco said. “They keep up with all the male gymnasts of almost every country, know their stats and everything. It’s really funny.”
Only six states sponsor a high school boys gymnastics championship, and only 17 Division I colleges still support men’s gymnastics programs. USA Gymnastics is making a concerted effort to reward male gymnasts who are competing in club programs at the high school and college level with recognition for their effort, Mr. Penny said.
He hopes that Pittsburghers will take the time to give the men a chance this weekend.
“I truly believe these are the world’s greatest athletes,” Mr. Penny said. “There’s absolutely nothing that matches up to it. I’d put them pound for pound against anybody. They are real men of steel.”
The male gymnasts, like reigning national champion Sam Mikulak, understand why they are playing second fiddle to the women.
“It’s always the young American girl accomplishing her dreams,” Mr. Mikulak said, “and it’s just a better story.”
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.