At the Tokyo Olympics, it’s gymnasts, skateboarders and even horses turning up the volume

Like millions of fellow couchbound Olympics fans, I was filled with a great assortment of feelings last week upon beholding the dancing, prancing real-life fantasy that was Mopsie, a.k.a. Olympian dressage horse Suppenkasper — and now, thanks to the Internet, a.k.a. “Rave Horse.” Expertly steered by five-time Olympian equestrian Steffen Peters in the individual dressage competition, Mopsie’s moves, perfectly synchronized to an objectively thumping high-energy club mix compiled by producer Taylor Kade, galloped across the Internet, spreading delight and confusion (the two main elements of dressage) around the world.

a person riding a horse: Steffen Peters of Team USA, riding Suppenkasper, competes in the Dressage Individual Grand Prix Freestyle Final at the Tokyo Olympic Games. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

© Leon Neal/Getty Images
Steffen Peters of Team USA, riding Suppenkasper, competes in the Dressage Individual Grand Prix Freestyle Final at the Tokyo Olympic Games. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

But the bracing wake-up call of Enur’s “Calabria 2008” — a track usually reserved for the messiest stretch of a party — felt strangely profound. Not just in its contrast with the stiff-backed proper-seeming milieu of dressage, but in the great crack in the cultural hermetic seal of the Olympic Games that it seemed to signify. The role of music at the Olympics has long been highly limited, strictly controlled and primarily in service of national pride.

One of the minor thrills of watching the Olympics when I was growing up was the fleeting exposure they gave me to the anthems of other nations (though, musically speaking I suppose those were major thrills). I may not have teared up to the anthems of faraway lands, but I relished the opportunity to hear how other countries and cultures translated their triumph (or bombast) into music. These days, with podium time at a premium, and evermore comprehensive coverage skewing evermore comprehensively American, I barely ever get to hear the Brazilian national anthem (which, obrigado, Francisco Manuel da Silva, is pretty fabulous).

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I also have a perpetual soft spot for the assorted fanfares created for the Olympics by John Williams — the now-standard “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” (which incorporates Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream”) and “Summon the Heroes” — which themselves have attained a kind of internal canonical status of its own, complete with Pavlovian response. Their instantly recognizable horn-heavy heraldry inspires global goose bumps in an internationally understood language, and I’m as helpless against their peals and charms as I am against, say, Rave Horse.

But here and there, music seems to be making more of a presence at the Games. And not just as background, but as a means of making the ultimate athletic test of human achievement more human.

a person jumping in the air: Jagger Eaton, of the United States, competes in men's street skateboarding during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press via AP, File)

© Nathan Denette/AP
Jagger Eaton, of the United States, competes in men’s street skateboarding during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press via AP, File)

American skateboarder Jagger Eaton won his bronze medal in street skateboarding with ear buds in, bumping an appropriately genre-jumping playlist (from Playboy Carti to the Charlie Daniels Band) that he later shared with his thousands of new fans on Spotify. But outside of his AirPods, the street routines performed at Ariake Urban Sports Park were all accompanied by a rolling mix of classic rap (KRS-One and Gang Starr), indie rock (Pixies and Dinosaur Jr.) and hours worth of other songs I never expected to hear within the bounds of the five rings, let alone a skate park. (Looking squarely at you, “MMMBop.”) These all found their way onto Spotify playlists as well.

One of the reasons I, a gymnastics enthusiast for a few weeks every four years, was so bummed to see Simone Biles withdraw for mental health reasons from most of the competitions was because it meant we wouldn’t see her floor exercise, which, above and beyond its technical mastery, seems representative of an aesthetic/athletic synergy that feels brand new.

In Tokyo, Biles was to perform a floor routine she’d executed to early raves (different kind of rave) in June at the U.S. Olympic gymnastic trials, set to the driving “Tokyo Drift” from the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

It’s been an inherently sexist weirdness since women’s gymnastics first appeared at the games in 1928 that musical accompaniment is reserved — nay, required — for women but not men. According to the USA Gymnastics guidelines, a distinction exists between what’s expected from each: The men’s floor exercise demands “creative routines with a high difficulty value which have no execution errors and stuck landings.” The women’s floor exercise additionally requires “beauty, strength, power and stamina” and focuses on giving gymnasts “the chance to express their personalities through their music choice and choreography.”

The subtext here, I suppose, is that expressiveness and grace are the women’s portion of athletic virtuosity, while the men’s domain is power, strength, stony silence and the decisive thud of a stuck landing. The result is that women, in the context of the event, seem contained by it, a form of subservience framed as the agency of artistry. Performing, excelling, yes — but also dancing for our entertainment. Why shouldn’t the men be more dancerly in their presentations? Why must the women, since a lack of music counts as a deduction? It’s a tough discrepancy to shake when the sport only seizes our collective attention once every few years.

Simone Biles, of United States, performs her floor exercise routine during the women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at the Olympics in Tokyo. (Gregory Bull/AP)

© Gregory Bull/AP
Simone Biles, of United States, performs her floor exercise routine during the women’s artistic gymnastic qualifications at the Olympics in Tokyo. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Biles — a.k.a. the greatest gymnast of all time — somehow manages to subvert this dynamic in her floor routines, using the music as a source of extra force. Her domination of the floor and the air above it (seriously, watch this routine) extends to her control of the audience watching. At times, her routine seems to be generating the music, not the other way around. Biles defies gravity, but her routines also defy what feels like an outdated paradigm intent on prioritizing grace over power.

Dutch gymnast Eythora Thorsdottir similarly pushed her accompaniment in a more personally expressive direction, performing to music that featured her own wordless vocals. According to the guidelines, “Human sounds are allowed, provided there are no words spoken or sung” — though music with whistles or animal sounds are specified as okay. (Hear that, Mopsie?)

It’s worth noting that the floor exercise as well as the rhythmic gymnastics categories (which commences action on Thursday) also double as a highly Shazam-able resource for music discovery. Watching the Rio games in 2016, I heard “Black Gold” by Armand Amar via Yana Kudryavtseva’s clubs routine, André Filho’s “Cidade Maravilhosa” during Natalia Gaudio’s ribbon performance, and Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua’s “Yellow River Piano Concerto” as part of Cheng Fei’s team gold-winning floor exercise. (The Olympics actually keeps a #MusicMonday series going on its YouTube channel for just this type of curiosity quelling.)

As intrigued as I am with all the ways music from the outside world is finding its way inside the vacuum of the five rings, I do find myself wishing I could have been a bit more tuned in to the earlier games, pre-1988, when the customary accompaniment to a stirring floor exercise was a simple mat-side piano, and a pianist who had to keep one eye the score and the other on the floor.

The Romanian Carol Stabisevski was among the greatest of this rare hybrid of gymnast and musician, and from the mid-1960s to the late-1980s accompanied the greats at their greatest, including Teodora Ungureanu, Kathy Johnson Clarke and the 14-year old Nadia Comaneci. Stabisevski would sometimes have to perform the same piece (with personalized embellishments) nearly two dozen times in a row.

Reporting on the scene of Comaneci’s legendary 10-fest at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the late Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford took note of Stabisevski’s piano playing — understandably calling “bizarre” the latter’s medley for Comaneci of “Jump in the Line” and “Yes Sir That’s My Baby”) — but he also perceived plight. In a dispatch under the admittedly virtuosically hammy headline “Nadia Awed Ya,” Deford documented with dread the looking-glass world he saw in Olympic gymnastics.

“Because of a spiteful female chauvinist rule,” he wrote, “male coaches are not allowed on the floor, and so it is like a science-fiction movie of a time when women have taken over. The judges are all women, as are the assistants, the messengers. The only men on the premises are the piano players — men being built for that sort of quiet work — who huddle together on a bench by the baby grand.”

Stabisevski, meanwhile, took far more joy in his role supporting the greatest athletes on Earth. “Playing piano for the floor exercise, you’re one on one with a gymnast and with a piano,” he recently told gymnastics journalist and author Dvora Meyers in an interview. “You try to get out of the piano whatever the gymnast needs,” he said.

And in 1988, his final year playing for the national team as fully orchestrated and recorded music became the norm in Seoul, he too saw a changing future. He saw gymnasts more and more turning to tapes and CDs, the music of their movements growing less responsive and expressive, more predictable and programmed. He was growing more concerned about his mind tiring and making mistakes (and those errors giving gymnasts a case of prototypical “twisties”); but he was also growing more keenly aware of his role alongside the floor of a champion.

“Some [gymnasts] feel more comfortable with recorded music because they practice with it all the time and with me just two days before the meet,” he said. “But I try to put a bit of flavor in their routines.”

Can somebody introduce Carol to Rave Horse?

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