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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Tuesday, 08 January 2019 12:56    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Gone But Hopefully Not Forgotten
(6 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)

This column appeared the August/September 1998 issue of International Gymnast.

Hey, remember me? Haven’t been around much lately. Been twiddling my thumbs watching them try to throw a party without me. Didn’t work, though. I’ve always been the main course, you see, and you can’t have a banquet with only salads and desserts. You need something to sink your teeth into, to relish and talk about later.

Oh, sorry … it has been awhile. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the once-coveted all-around competition. Didn’t realize people forgot so soon.

Seems I’ve been given a vacation I didn’t ask for. Knew it was coming, though. Ever since the New Life rule started back at the 1989 Stuttgart Worlds, I’ve been losing my pull. I used to be worthy of the greatest gymnasts in the world. To win me, it took a nerve-racking set of compulsories and another two nights of risky optionals, not to mention a week of sleepless nights. And every score counted!

Then the powers that be decided to give everybody a break. They figured the judging games in prelims were affecting the individual medals later. So they decided to start from scratch to claim me. Heck, they even allowed replacements on the big night. At the 1985 Montreal Worlds I was a tag-team event!

I was forced to swallow my pride. Then they trimmed me even further when compulsories disappeared after the 1996 Atlanta Games. I used to love to weed out the impostors during compulsories. Sometimes it was hard to keep a straight face!

But I managed, even though the world arena had been reduced to little more than an American Cup title. Suddenly people were proclaimed World and Olympic champs between meals. Preposterous! I figured that was the last straw.

I figured wrong.

Get this: (Are you sitting?) Now, some of the coaches and gymnasts have complained that it’s too strenuous to compete on all the events the same day. They’ve actually been having meets for a few years now without asking me to come. Nobody asks who won anymore, because nobody really does.

I was relieved when I heard the World Cup was back this year. I used to enjoy having the top 36 men and women duke it out for yours truly. No team event to distract or, heaven forbid, exhaust the poor souls. Me in my finest hour.

Then I learned via the grapevine that the World Cup didn’t think it needed me. Change that; they flat out didn’t want me! In an effort to encourage more participation among the waning international elite, the brains behind this farce figured I would scare away more of the big names. Can you believe it?!

The big show in Sabae, Japan, where the ’98 World Cup champions were finally crowned (yawn), featured 10 different women (not counting Japan, who made it by default). I don’t mean 10 women on each event; 10 women total! That’s what I call an elite field.

And can you believe Svetlana Khorkina was entered on all four events and won nothing. That’s quite and accomplishment. But hey, at least she didn’t have to compete the all-around, right?

I’m going to take off now. And if I’m not shown a little more respect soon, I may not come back at all. And if I don’t, just remember this: nobody keeps winning.

To subscribe to the print and/or digital edition, or to order back issues of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

Written by dwight normile    Monday, 30 July 2018 15:06    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Trouble With Women's Floor Exercise
(8 votes, average 4.50 out of 5)

There are certain skills on women’s floor exercise that are about as artistic as a toddler’s finger painting. We can blame it on the open-ended Code of Points, which encourages gymnasts to throw their eight hardest tricks. There are times when they shouldn’t have the right to chuck these skills, but they do anyway.

Few gymnasts do a glorious split leap nowadays because it’s only an A-skill. It would be a disastrous strategy to sacrifice the sacred D-score. Why the difficulty score is immune to deduction remains a mystery, but the execution score is capped at 10.0. Nobody can actually earn a 10.0, and it’s hard to receive even a 9.0.

Let’s begin with the double (or triple) wolf turn, which often peters out whenever it chooses. The gymnast performing it really has little control. The push-off usually starts with a bent leg—the one that’s supposed to be straight as the turn wobbles along. How many of these wolf turns finish after 360 degrees? Very few. (The wolf turns on balance beam, which tend to be more wobbly than on floor, force a gymnast to finish on a 180-degree turn. Come up short and the result is an awkward and unintentional dismount.)

It’s the same with the Memmel turn on floor. While in a needle split, holding the leg for dear life, it finishes wherever it tilts. Again, the gymnast has little control as to where it lands.

Remember the Arabian front to prone fall, better known as a belly flop? Not pretty. Why would anyone perform such a skill, regardless of its difficulty value? Thankfully, that ‘skill’ no longer appears in the Code.

Consider the jump tucked-double turn, which has all the aesthetics of an eggbeater. But it’s worth a C-value in the Code of Points. Same with the cat leap double turn.

Romanian Celestina Popa can be blamed for her eponymous straddle jump with a full turn (C-value). I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Any jump or leap with a full turn is bound to be disastrous.

Not sure I’ve ever seen a double-twisting tuck or layout to a prone fall (C), and not sure I’d really want to. But I have seen a half-twisting tour jeté (the tour jeté itself includes a half turn). Too many moving parts for my taste.

So many gymnasts cheat on these twisting jumps, anyway. They start nearly a quarter way around before they jump. So you wonder how many get full credit by the judges. I’m guessing fewer than half, unless you’ve got the spring of Simone Biles.

It would be prudent for the FIG to require a variety of skills instead of the eight most difficult. Give these gymnasts a breather, for goodness sake.

To subscribe to the print and/or digital edition or to order back issues of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

Written by dwight normile    Wednesday, 30 May 2018 07:09    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Future Musings
(8 votes, average 2.25 out of 5)

It is time, once again, to take a peek into the future to see how gymnastics has evolved. So let’s fast-forward to 2056, when sunny La Paz, Bolivia—the “heart of South America”—plays host to the Summer Olympics. It’s August 5, and the teams are about to march into the Jim Holt Memorial Coliseum. A family of four from Colorado has made the trip.

Ricky: Mom, Dad, thanks for bringing us to the Olympics! I can’t wait to see how KU3 does!

Mom: Who is KU3?

Ashley: That’s Kohei Uchimura’s grandson, Mom. He’s won 10 straight world all-around titles. His grandfather only won six in a row. Like every other annoying 14-year-old boy at our gym, Ricky is obsessed with him.

Ricky: Am not.

Ashley: Then why is your bedspread a Japanese flag and your YahGoogle!book password RicKU3?

Ricky: That’s not my password anymore. And why are your walls covered with pictures of that creepy Jason Cyrus-Bieber?

Dad: Kids, enough bickering!

Mom: Hey, I just read in the official program that the oxygen level in this arena is controlled.

Dad: That’s because La Paz is at 12,000 feet, more than twice as high as what we’re used to in Denver. That makes this the highest Olympics in history. The Wi-Fi sure is good!

Ricky: In geography we learned that the Andes mountains are, like, 10,000 feet higher than the Rockies. This is the coolest summer vacation ever!

Ashley: Technically, it’s a winter vacation, you egghead. We’re below the equator.

Mom: Ashley, ever since you turned 16 you’ve developed quite an attitude! Can’t you try to be a little nicer to your brother?

Ashley: You’re kidding, right?

Dad: Hey, the teams are marching in now.

Ricky: And the U.S. is starting on pommel horse. That can’t be good. Look, they’re all praying!

Mom: The Koreans are on vault, and it says here in the program that each of the four team members has a vault named after him. Impressive.

Ricky: I know, they’re cosmic vaulters. They all kick out of their triple Dragulescus!

Dad: Draga-what?

Ricky: It’s named after some Romanian dude who did it, like, 50 years ago. But he only did two flips with a half turn.

Mom: What’s that in the middle of the arena? It looks like a giant playground.

Ashley: It’s called freestyle exercise, Mom. It replaced men’s floor exercise in 2049. First, they changed the mat from square to round, because nobody did corner moves anymore. But that didn’t improve things, so they added walls and stuff to give it a parkour feel. Now it’s a cool event!

Ricky: Whoa … that’s Jordan Jovtchev over at the swinging rings. He’s a dinosaur!

Dad: Oh, he’s mentioned here in the program. He’s been receiving a Wild Card berth ever since 2020. Now he’s 83. It says here that he only practices once every four years, during podium training at the Olympics.

Ricky: Too bad he’s so old. Since his routine doesn’t have the required 40 skills, he’ll never make finals.

Mom: I heard Oksana Chusovitina is here too.

Ashley: She actually got in via the Continental Representation rule. She’s representing Anarctica. Four years ago she competed for Nepal. I love her. She just had two hip replacements, so now she can vault again!

Ricky: Wow, all four Americans absolutely nailed pommels. Three 9.4s, and a 9.7 from Jonathan Horton III! Did you see what he did on the middle pommel?! He’s got to be stoked with that set.

Ashley: The U.S. coach sure is. Even at 90, Yin Alvarez can still spin like a top! He just gave Horton a big smooch on the forehead!

Dad: Son, I can remember back at the 2036 Denver Games when the scores were different: 14.69125312, 15.25175817 …

Ricky: What the heck are you talking about?

Dad: No, really! They actually got rid of the 10.0 a long time before that. They used open-ended scoring to eliminate ties and confuse fans.

Ashley: Dad, please, we weren’t born yesterday. We all know you’re a lousy liar.

Dad: But …

Mom: Check out the six-packs on the Ukrainians. They’re all ripped! Wait, don’t the men wear shirts anymore?

Ashley: Not since the Pro Gymnastics Challenge sold out Madison Square Garden. I saw it on the ESPN Gymnastics Channel. The FIG liked the idea.

Ricky: Did you see that? KU3 just kicked out of his quadruple flyaway from rings. Perfect toe-point and stuck, as usual! Everyone else cowboys it.

Mom: Well, I’m looking forward to the women’s compulsories this afternoon.

Ashley: Women don’t do compulsories, Mom. When the Men’s Technical Committee decided to bring them back for Los Angeles 2028, the women voted against it. They never agree on anything … sort of like Ricky and me.

Dad: Well, that session certainly went by fast. And look, the Americans are winning!

Ricky: It’s not the first time. But the men are still waiting for their first team gold since 1984. They always struggle in the Team Final, which has stricter rules. If you make a tiny mistake, like bent legs on a circle, a buzzer goes off and you’re not allowed to finish. So everyone does watered-down sets.

Dad: Sounds pretty extreme.

Ricky: It is. But TV suggested the format, and the FIG fell for it. It’s been happening for years.

Mom: Guess I’ll go get us some lunch while they set up for the women. Here’s the program, kids. Maybe you can read up on some of the teams.

Ricky: It’s summer! I don’t want to read anything.

Ashley: Give me that … Hmmm, it says here that all four Chinese girls were born Dec. 31, 2038, which means they all meet the 18-year-old age requirement by one day. How lucky is that?

Ricky: I see them over at the uneven perpendicular bars. They’re barely as tall as the low bar!

Ashley: It also says the U.S. women are going for their 12th straight Olympic title. Oh, there’s head coach Nastia Liukin. She runs WOGA-El Paso, one of her parents’ seven gyms. Love her spike heels!

Mom: I’m back! Take a saltena, everyone. It looks like they’re about to start. Perfect timing!

Ashley: I can’t believe it … all the Italian women are warming up Amanar vaults. What is this, an NCAA meet?

Ricky: How do they expect to score with an Amanar? All the Americans vault a Biles.

Dad: I see that the U.S. is on parallel beams. Is that a good event for them, Ashley?

Ashley: They’re OK. They all have standing double backs, but they need work on their back tosses.

Mom: Who is that coaching the Russian women’s team?

Ashley: That's Kelli Hill. She moved to Moscow in 2040 after the Rodionenkos fired everyone else.

Dad: What did that Australian just do on the floor exercise? It was amazing! Ricky: It was a quadriffis, Dad. Everyone’s doing one on the new Turbo-TumblTrak floor platform.

Ashley: Ever since the requirements became so severe, there’s only time for one tumbling pass now. I think the FIG needs to realize that the sport is called Artistic Gymnastics.

Ricky: I just got an IG alert on my iWatchG24. It said to keep an eye on Bolivian Maria Alicia Gonzalez de Salazar. She’s supposed to be awesome.

Mom: Did it say anything else?

Ricky: Yea … it’s the 100-year anniversary of IG magazine, available in print, digital and holograph formats. What do they mean by print, Mom?

Mom: It’s my favorite version. It’s also where the KU3 poster on your bedroom wall came from!

This column appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of International Gymnast.

To subscribe to the print and/or digital edition, or to order back issues of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

Written by dwight normile    Wednesday, 27 September 2017 09:06    PDF Print
Stretching Out: What's Happened to Men's Floor?
(17 votes, average 2.76 out of 5)

The level of men's tumbling has never been more impressive. So why is men's floor exercise so hard to watch? Perhaps it's because the routines have become predictable, with seven passes and a cursory wide-arm press handstand inserted somewhere to give the guy a breather. In between passes are repetitive hop-turns that allow the gymnast to step conveniently into the corner. With a 70-second time limit, there is no time to waste with any semblance of creativity.

The primary mission of the modern men's floor routine is to minimize landing deductions, since the current bonus-building combination passes are extremely difficult to stick. And with the deductions for landings streamlined into 0.1, 0.3, 0.5—or 1.0 for a fall—you can understand why these guys want to limit the damage to 0.1 whenever possible.

Let's consider the routine of Kenzo Shirai, who may be the best tumbler in the world, at least in terms of difficulty. And let's also evaluate his routine at the 2017 Melbourne World Cup, where he won the gold over Mu Jile of China, 14.700-14.466.

Shirai mounted with a triple-twisting double layout, but the ground came sooner than he expected. His clumsy stagger cost him 0.5. He followed that with a tucked triple-double, and staggered forward again, only worse. Another 0.5 off. Then he did a tucked front-full to triple-twisting front layout, with only a small hop (0.1). To his credit, he did an interesting pass down the side: cartwheel; handstand to piked press through his arms; roll-out. Next pass was a 3.5 twist to punch rudi, landed low with a hop (0.3). He came back with a back 2.5 twist to front randi, with a hop to the side (0.1 or 0.3). Then, for the fourth time, he did the exact same corner transition. He dismounted with a quadruple twist, which was under-rotated and forced another stagger to regain his balance (0.3 or 0.5). The irony here is that Shirai walked off smiling and raised his arms to the applause. Fans don't know what they're missing.

In terms of execution, it was a horrible routine, which netted him a 7.5 E-score, the second-lowest among the eight floor finalists. But his 7.2 D-score gave him the gold. Obviously, he was glad to have landed all of his passes without a fall or going out of bounds. That's what it has come to for men's floor. Survival.

When the open-ended Code of Points came out in 2006, the idea was to reward clean execution, but it backfired. Because the FIG didn't get the math right, the Code rewarded difficulty instead, which is why gymnasts are always looking for ways to increase their D-scores. And the Men's Technical Committee, or whoever makes the decisions at the FIG, can't seem to see it. It's like The Emperor's New Clothes.

The gold-medal routine of Canadian Kyle Shewfelt from the 2004 Olympics has been popping up on Facebook recently. It was a work of art and also didn't skimp on difficulty. It had it all: flow, rhythm, form, originality and, yes, stuck landings. Four brilliant passes were all he needed to entertain the crowd in Athens:

Kyle Shewfelt (Canada) and Kenzo Shirai (Japan)

Shewfelt and Shirai may share the same initials, but their similarities as gymnasts end there.

One of the problems with today's floor routines is that the FIG Men's Technical Committee has refused to lower the counting skills from 10 to eight, which the women wisely did after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When asked in 2012 why the men had not gone from 10 to eight skills, Steve Butcher, the Men's Technical Committee President at the time, gave this rather dubious reply:

"The MTC fears moving to eight skills … will create a climate where male gymnasts significantly increase the level of their individual skills. Right now they need to keep their overall skill level at a slightly lower level than what they are capable of performing in order to have the strength to properly perform their dismounts."

Oh dear. Neither of those points is even remotely true. Was Shirai's routine watered down? Of course not. (Did he really want to dismount with a quintuple twist?) Male gymnasts are definitely throwing their hardest skills right now, and certainly not saving energy for the dismount.

Meanwhile, a lack of leadership has eroded men's floor exercise into what we see today, an exhaustive tumbling race. Because of its time limit, floor is the most difficult event in which to cram 10 skills. That's why gymnasts are in such a hurry during their first three passes. There simply is no time to waste.

If the D-score is immune to deduction, why can't the E-score grow when a gymnast shows great amplitude, form and technique? It just doesn't make any sense. It's supposed to be an open-ended Code of Points, but only one component is.

As I've said in the past, the D-score should receive the same deductions as the E-score. That will at least force a gymnast to think before adding a G skill to his routine. If deductions were made to both the D- and E-scores, the top three on men's floor at the Melbourne World Cup would have changed places. Below are the original top three under the current FIG scoring system (D-score + E-score = final score), compared with the results when the deductions were subtracted from the D-score.

FIG scoring: D + E (10.00 – deductions) = Score D + deductions + 10.00 = Score
1.Kenzo Shirai7.27.50014.700Mu Jile5.91.433 13.033
2.Mu Jile5.98.56614.466Ferhat Arıcan5.71.63312.366
3.Ferhat Arıcan5.78.33314.033Kenzo Shirai7.22.50012.200

First and foremost, the FIG needs to stop rewarding sloppy execution, which was on full display in Shirai's routine. It literally needs to clean up the sport. Because of the 10 skills, true mastery has been replaced by unnecessary excess, a trend that is likely irreversible. Lowering the men's skills to eight would be a step in the right direction.

The FIG needs to take control and govern the sport before it's too late. Perhaps new FIG President Morinari Watanabe can make men's gymnastics as beautiful as it is difficult. Given the execution-first goal of the Japanese gymnasts, maybe Mr. Watanabe can make a difference. For all involved — fans, gymnasts, coaches and judges — it will be a welcome change.

Written by dwight normile    Wednesday, 08 February 2017 11:12    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Oklahoma Dominance and the 10.0
(8 votes, average 3.25 out of 5)

Now that we're five weeks into the collegiate season, the theme of our IG NCAA Preview, "Sooner Sweepstakes," is coming true. Both the Oklahoma men's and women's teams have gotten off to a hot start, which leads to some insane questions: Will Oklahoma freshman Maggie Nichols, who has averaged 39.785 (with a record high of 39.875), ever score below 9.0? (At least she gets to do the all-around, right?) And will the Sooner men ever lose another meet? Their leading average (429.950) is more than 9.0 ahead of No. 2 Stanford.

As dominant as the Oklahoma teams have been so far, the women will have a much more difficult time than the men in winning the NCAA title. That is the beauty of the 10.0, which the men eschewed years ago despite the lack of parity in their dwindling field. The Oklahoma women still have to hit well in the Super Six finals to win its third NCAA title in St. Louis this April. Any Sooner slip-up will open the door for a host of teams to grab the NCAA trophy.

It's a different story for the Sooner men, who don't really need a great meet at West Point to win its 11th NCAA title. An average effort will be enough.

In our NCAA Preview we posed this question to the coaches of the top six men's teams from 2016: Are you in favor of returning to the 10.0? Two were in favor, with caveats. Here are their answers:

Mark Williams (Oklahoma): "No! I believe we must stay with the FIG scoring system to stay relevant."

Thom Glielmi (Stanford): "Yes, but it would have to be initiated by FIG."

Rustam Sharipov (Ohio State): "No. The majority of our guys want to make the national team, they want to go to the world championships, they want to represent the U.S. The more we go away from the 10.0, we are not likely to go back. With a 10.0 it's hard to separate the best guys from the good guys. I think we have to educate our fans more to explain the scores."

Trouble is, the majority of collegiate male gymnasts will not make the national team, let alone represent the U.S. And even if that is their goal, going back to the 10.0 does not necessarily mean easier routines.

Justin Spring (Illinois): "No. The only reason the 10.0 worked, in my opinion, was because it was a score cap. Almost everyone in the competitive field had a 10.0 start value and the audience assumed that to be true for all competitors. If we go to a modified 10.0 using a scaled open-ended Code where only 5% of the competitive field is even close to a 10.0 start value, it will only confuse fans even more."

Randy Jepson (Penn State): "Yes!!! It would be very easy to have judges determine a final score using the current FIG standards and use a multiplier on that score, which would equate to a 10. It would be a huge benefit for media and fans."

Mike Burns (Minnesota): "As much as going back to a 10.0 might make our scoring easier to understand, I don't feel that deviating from the FIG Code of Points is a wise decision. Because a large chunk of the Olympic developmental pipeline runs directly through the NCAA men's program, I feel it's imperative we stay aligned with the FIG."

Should that really be the priority for men's NCAA gymnastics, where many gymnasts are specialists and some don't even make the lineup each week? Doesn't that cater only to the top tier? Do Athletic Directors really want to see their men's gymnastics teams lose by 30 points, which was the margin of victory for Oklahoma over Michigan on Jan. 28?

This weekend No. 1 Oklahoma men will face No. 12 Iowa and No. 7 Minnesota. Iowa averages 397.183 and Minnesota is at 404.950. Looks like the Sooners can rest a few guys. Where's the drama?

Meanwhile, the Sooner women will meet Auburn on Friday at the Perfect 10 Challenge in Oklahoma City. With OU averaging 197.760 and Auburn 195.717, there is at least a chance for an upset.

There are more important priorities for the NCAA men than trying to keep up with international standards. Returning to the 10.0 would give more teams a chance to win dual meets as well as the NCAA Championships. It also might help with attendance. And that's a good thing for a field that includes only 16 varsity programs.

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