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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 22 January 2008 12:27    PDF Print
Skills and Combinations I'd Rather Not See (Anymore)
My last column, "Skills and Combinations I'd Love to See," created some lively discussion, as well as some really great new combinations I hadn't thought of. And after all, that was the whole point. As a follow-up, I hereby offer a list of elements (or trends) that can disappear as far as I'm concerned.

Women's Floor Exercise

• Any full-, 1.5- or double-twisting jumps (with no somersault involved). These elements just don't seem to require any true gymnastics ability, and it's too difficult for judges to see if they are complete.


• Any twisting somersault that finishes in a forward landing, unless it is followed by a skill which completes the pass aesthetically. In other words, no more roundoff, flip-flop, 2.5 twist dismounts, since they are virtually impossible to stick.

Uneven Bars

• Any skill in which the feet are touching the bar but the hands are not. So no more sole circles on the low bar where the gymnast merely stands up and reaches for the high bar.

• A Shaposhnikova or Maloney that leads to nothing on the backswing. On men's parallel bars this would be an intermediate swing and incur a deduction. I am not sure why these elements get a free pass on uneven bars.

Balance Beam

Kristina Vaculik (Canada) doing a side somi
• Linking acro elements that go forward to ones that go backward. A punch front salto followed by a flip-flop, layout, for example, does little for me since the gymnast can pause after the front while keeping her arms moving. Yes, it takes some degree of continuity to do this sequence, but the flip-flop, layout is not dependent on the front salto at all.

• Rulfova. It's difficult, sure, but it's just not very pretty.

• Any skill that lands on the beam with a thud. What comes to mind immediately is Daria Joura's Shushunova.

• Kochetkova. This full-twisting back handspring rarely looks fluid.

• Side somi. This skill is just plain ugly on beam. It's better suited for the circus, where an acrobat does about 10 of them in a row as he circles the ring.

• Mounts that really aren't mounts.

Parallel Bars

• Any skill in the tucked position, unless it's the dismount or a giant swing. That should solve most of the problem concerning the mushrooming trend of doubles that crash land on the upper arms. Parallel bars offers far too much variety via other skills for gymnasts to focus so much on these release skills.

• Front uprise-L and front uprise-reverse straddle cut. Neither combination really looks like it should go together.

Horizontal Bar

• High bar is a great event, so there's not much I would change other than to limit skills that are simply variations of themselves in the same routine. I'd rather see just a Kolman in a routine instead of a Kovacs, layout Kovacs AND Kolman. Same goes for the full- and 1.5 pirouettes that all finish in different grips. I realize the Code is partly to blame here, because the gymnasts have to come up with 10 skills.

• No more giants that go over the top without doing SOMETHING, unless it's before the dismount. Linking elements is what makes high bar unique, so swinging over the top with no grip change, or whatever, just doesn't help the routine at all.

Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 14 January 2008 12:25    PDF Print
Skills I'd Like to See
The Code of Points has a way of dictating which skills and combinations appear in routines, but that doesn't mean we can't dream. Following is a list of elements, some borrowed from the past, that I would love to see.

Floor Exercise

• Full-twisting Arabian dive roll. I don't think I would ever tire of seeing this breathtaking skill. Remember, it was the exclamation point that completed that memorable back-to-back pass by 1985 world champion Oksana Omelianchik. And refuting the notion that more is always better in gymnastics, I don't think I'd like to see a double-twisting Arabian dive roll. Ever.

• Morgan Hamm's Airflare is really cool, even if it's been done already by B-Boys. However, to incorporate it in a floor routine could bring new fans to the sport.

Uneven Bars

• In the 1970s the sole circle-1.5 twist was a rare skill because it was difficult. It's no longer performed since routines are based on the giant swing now. But with the bars farther apart today, it would be interesting to see the sole circle-1.5 twist to a Pak Salto.

• Nastia Liukin (among others) performs an Ono turn (which unwinds a gymnast from an elgrip to undergrip) immediate half pirouette. How about an Ono turn immediate full pirouette back to elgrip? That's a double pirouette. The current rule that requires pirouettes to finish near a handstand might preclude this combination, but maybe not for long.

• During her lengthy career, Svetlana Khorkina performed several different elements that took her from the low bar to the high bar, but my favorite was the Stalder-hecht she used only briefly. From a handstand on the low (back facing high), she dropped into a Stalder. But just when you thought she would complete her ascent to a handstand, she simply let go and caught the high bar. It was beautiful and unexpected. I can only guess that it also was inconsistent, because she didn't keep it for long. Or perhaps her coach, Boris Pilkin, had already invented that crazy, whirling Shaposhnikova she used for years.

Balance Beam

• More gainers in combination: cartwheel, layout gainer; flip-flop step-out, layout gainer; flip-flop step-out, gainer back handspring; layout step-out, gainer back handspring. The list goes on.

• No-handed forward roll.

Men's Vault

• Roundoff onto the board, half turn-on, handspring-double front. It's worth 6.8, which isn't too shabby.

Parallel Bars

• I must admit, when I first saw Shinji Morisue chuck a tucked double back to upper arms at the 1984 Olympics, something inside me said it wasn't good gymnastics. Not that it wasn't difficult, mind you. I just didn't think it belonged on the event. I had a hard enough time accepting bent legs on giant swings, but throwing a skill on p-bars in the tucked position seemed to show complete disregard for tradition.

Well, these doubles have overtaken what was once a beautiful event. So if they're here to stay, how about following them with something other than a front uprise? And let's be honest, some of the front uprises we see after Morisues are skidding, arm-scraping, reverse push-ups. Still others employ a small kipping action to reach a full support. Why not do a simple back shoulder roll? Or better yet, one of those interesting slip-kips, where the gymnast reaches back from the upper arms, catches in a piked inverted swing, then kips to a support. And if you're really strong, maybe a Streuli? Or back shoulder roll to Streuli! See, the combinations are endless!

• Back uprise, straddle cut, peach. Some gymnasts used to do a straddle cut immediate cast to upper arms. They didn't catch the straddle cut in a support, but instead reached in front for the regrasp. It was eye-catching and flowing. Perhaps this could also be done to a peach-handstand. Perhaps not. (Combinations always seem possible while dreaming, but prove impossible rather quickly when attempted for real.)

Horizontal Bar

• More dismounts in combination with release elements. A Tkatchev seems the best candidate to link directly to a dismount, since the gymnast usually has plenty of swing and has time to tap after regrasping.

• With Takemotos on the rise again, how about a Takemoto to double undergrip immediate half pirouette (or full pirouette to elgrip)?

Written by Dwight Normile    Sunday, 06 January 2008 11:03    PDF Print
Nellie Kim - Another gem of the '70s
(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

So there I was last May, sharing a table with and eating the same Grilled Boston Bibb salad with Roasted Grape Tomatoes and Blue Cheese Drizzle as Nellie Kim. Well, I wasn't the only one seated at the table with the 1979 world all-around champion and five-time Olympic gold medalist, and all eight of us had our own salads. But this was company I simply could not ignore at the 2007 International Gymnastics Hall of Fame induction dinner in Oklahoma City. Kim, a member of the 1999 induction class and now president of the FIG Women's Technical Committee, had come along to enjoy the evening. I was there to work, although this particular annual gig never feels as such.

I had followed Kim's brilliant career prior to joining IG in 1982. I knew she was gymnastics royalty. I also knew I needed to say something other than "please pass the butter" to break the ice. I chose a compliment.

"Nellie," I began confidently, "I remember you at the 1976 Olympics. You did a double back on floor, and you kept your knees together and your toes pointed."

Nellie melted in gratitude. She thanked me — ME! — for noticing and remembering. This led to further discussion of her greatness. At those Montreal Games, she also introduced the full-twisting Tsukahara, using an inferior board to the contraptions used today. And hers was the real deal; she did the whole 540 degrees. It wasn't the Kasamatsu-kind, where you can cartwheel on, cut the corner and get away with a lot less twist. Again, her form was impeccable.

Nellie Kim
Then I brought up the fact that Nellie was the only gymnast other than Romania's Nadia Comaneci to score a 10.0 at those Olympics. While Nadia racked up seven 10.0s on bars and beam, Nellie was perfect twice, on vault and floor. I think I made her blush, so I stopped. (Plus, Nadia was sitting at the next table.)

Born in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, to a Tartar mother and Korean father, Kim was the complete gymnastics package. She just happened to come along when Nadia was stunning the world with her own spectacular brand of magic. Though Nellie placed second all-around to Nadia in Montreal, the two gymnasts split the apparatus titles evenly: Nadia won bars and beam; Nellie vault and floor. In the team competition, Nellie won a gold with the Soviet Union, while Romania took the silver.

Though vault and floor were Kim's best events, her other events were no less impressive, and spiced with just the right amount of acrobatics. All the "tricks" were seamlessly woven into the exercise. Everything flowed. Gymnastics just doesn't look like that anymore. Too many toppings simply hide the ice cream.

I recently spoke with Kim for our "10 Questions With" interview in ChalkTalk.... She spoke candidly about a variety of topics, from her Montreal 10.0s to the new Code of Points to her primary goal as WTC President. You can read it in the next issue of IG (January/February), which is scheduled to mail soon.

Until then, I encourage everyone to visit YouTube and check out Kim's routines from 1976 (and after). After you do, I think you'll agree that I was pretty fortunate to have shared a table with her last spring.

Written by Dwight Normile    Thursday, 03 January 2008 10:58    PDF Print
A Wish List for 2008
Another year has ended, a new one starting. For gymnasts, 2008 marks the final year of another Olympic cycle. So as we forge ahead, it is also a time for reflection.

With that in mind, I offer the following wishes for a more perfect world of gymnastics in the year to come...

1. For Shawn Johnson: a bigger trophy case. I think she's going to need one.

2. For Nastia Liukin: an ankle that stays healthy. She deserves it.

3. For Chellsie Memmel: a clean bill of health during Olympic team selection. After 2004, she REALLY deserves it.

Jade Barbosa (Brazil)
4. For Fabian Hambüchen: that the "high-five" be officially named after him by the FIG, because nobody does it more often to so many different people.

5. For the Chinese women: that their form and amplitude be properly rewarded.

6. For Jade Barbosa: another shot at the all-around in Beijing (and maybe an extra box of tissues).

7. For Oksana Chusovitina and Jordan Jovtchev: continued health as they prepare for their FIFTH Olympic Games!

8. For Morgan Hamm: a chance to show the "Airflare" in competition.

9. For Justin Spring: complete recovery from his torn ACL.

10. For Catalina Ponor: to find peace in retirement.

11. For Yekaterina Kramarenko: to find peace in competing by making the Olympic team and sticking her vault in the team final.


Yang Wei (China)
12. For Vlasios Maras: to make the Olympic high bar final he deserved to make in 2004 at home in Athens.

13. For Elsa Garcia: the motivation to continue competing for Mexico.

14. For FIG Men's Technical Committee President Adrian Stoica: that all the numbers add up correctly at the Olympics.

15. For Paul Hamm and Yang Tae Young: to tie for the gold in any event at the Olympics.

16. For Cheng Fei: to overcome the tremendous expectations of competing at home at the Olympics.

17. For Yang Wei: see No. 16.

18. For Judges: to always score the routine and not the uniform.

19. For the Code of Points: to find a better balance between difficulty and execution.

20. For the Beijing Olympics: that sportsmanship and performance share center stage.

Written by Dwight Normile    Monday, 12 November 2007 10:50    PDF Print
A Telling Blast From the Past
"What has always made modern gymnastics unique is its emphasis on artistic acrobatics, where, in the words of the FIG Code of Points, Difficulty ... was never to be escalated at the expense of mastery. This sentiment expresses the heart and the art of gymnastics — that no matter what we do, we should always do it with the ultimate form, grace and aesthetic control at our command. Today, this isn't the case. ...Apparently, it has been decided that if someone performs a movement of higher difficulty, ugly form is fine."

The above may sound current, but it actually is an excerpt from a "Guest Opinion" in the January 1980 IG. The article, titled "Before It's Too Late," by Dan Millman, surprised me when I came across it recently, as it expresses much the same viewpoint we've been preaching in IG for years.

So the problem of difficulty drowning artistry is not new at all. It's just become more accepted.

Artistry is indeed a nebulous term. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what creates it in a gymnastics routine, but you certainly know when it's absent. And it's missing most of the time now. The soulful performances of true mastery have been replaced, at times, by efforts of sheer survival.

Case in point: Huang Xu's parallel bars routine from the 2007 World Championship apparatus finals (you can view it on YouTube). Armed — or rather, armbanded — with 7.1 of difficulty, he would have won the gold had he not taken an intermediate swing after his opening sequence. Huang was on his upper arms nine different times in the routine. He slammed onto his arms — on purpose — after six flight elements: five double backs and a front-1 1/4. Each was followed by a front uprise, swing handstand. That's six front uprise, swing handstands in one routine. How can the rules allow for that? Huang did about 25 skills, two of which were connected aesthetically. The rest looked more like a repetitive training drill: get to a handstand, throw a double...

Huang Xu

Huang's parallel bars routine is a sad joke that is blindly rewarded by the Code of Points, but nobody is laughing. What's the point of all of this difficulty if nobody really cares to watch? Though I greatly respect Huang's ability, his routine doesn't touch my soul. It's gaudy. The philosophy of gymnastics needs to be more than squeezing in the 10 hardest skills, regardless of whether they actually fit together.

Another sentence from Millman's article strikes at the crux of our dilemma in artistic gymnastics: "When world-caliber gymnasts are allowed to use movements in competition that would make a diver blush with shame, something is very wrong with the state of the art."

In diving — and also in trampoline — you can't get away with any form break or technical error without paying dearly in your execution score. Artistic gymnastics, for some reason, never embraced that notion completely. Instead, a long time ago we accepted the idea of "mitigation," which meant that judges could be more lenient on really hard tricks. In hindsight it wasn't such a great idea, because even though the term has long disappeared from the Code of Points, the idea still lives in the minds of many judges. It's only human nature.

It's been 27 years since Millman penned his warning to the sport, and look where we are today. Routines have grown in quantity but shrunk in quality. Is it finally too late, as Millman forecasted?

Following is an excerpt from the current Code of Points: "The gymnast is expected to include in his exercise only elements that he can perform with complete safety and with a high degree of aesthetic and technical mastery."

The rules still call for mastery, but the message continues to elude many judges. Until scores reflect every instance of flawed technique and each unpointed toe, the sport will continue to spin aimlessly out of control.


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