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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

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.

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 02 August 2005 14:01    PDF Print
The All-Around: Gone, but Hopefully Not Forgotten

Ever since the FIG held the first apparatus-only world championships in 1992, more and more international events have followed suit and eliminated the all-around competition. The ripple effect has meant fewer opportunities for all-around gymnasts, whose numbers continue to drop internationally. As a tribute to the all-around gymnast, once the backbone of the sport, we hereby offer the following column, which first appeared in IG in 1998.

Hey, remember me? Haven't been around much lately. Been twiddling my thumbs watching them try to throw a party without me. It won'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, to talk about later.

Oh, sorry. It has been awhile. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm the once-coveted Individual All-Around Competition. I didn't realize people forgot so soon.

Seems I've been given early retirement against my wishes. I knew it was coming, though. Ever since the new-life rule started in 1989, I've been losing my pull. I used to be worthy of only the greatest gymnasts in the world. To win me, it took a nerve-racking set of compulsories and two more 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 preliminaries were affecting the individual medals later. So they decided to start everyone from zero in the race to claim me. Heck, they even allowed replacements on the big night. The Olympic all-around is often a tag-team event now!

But I adjusted and accepted my new role, however diminished it had become. Then they trimmed me even further when compulsories disappeared in 1997. Geez, cut off an arm, why don't ya! I LOVED to weed out the impostors during compulsories. Sometimes it was hard to keep a straight face!

Somehow I managed, even though in the world arena I had been reduced to little more than a Chunichi Cup title. All of a sudden, people were being crowned world and Olympic all-around champs between meals. Preposterous! I figured that was the last straw.

I figured wrong.

Get this (are you sitting?): Apparently the sport has escalated to the point where it is now too strenuous to compete on ALL the events the same day. They've actually been having meets for several years now without inviting me at all! Nobody asks who won anymore, because nobody really does.

I was relieved when the World Cup was revived in 1998, after an eight-year break. I used to enjoy having the top men and women battle it out for yours truly. No tedious team title up for grabs. Me in my finest hour.

Then the unthinkable happened. The World Cup rules makers figured they could succeed without me! Change that. They flat out didn't want me around! In an effort to encourage more participation among the waning international elite, the brains behind this farce thought I would scare away most of the big names. Can you believe it? I welcome everybody. The more the merrier!

I'm laughing now. That ill-fated 1998 World Cup featured separate competitions for each apparatus (yawn), two of which had only six competitors. All warm-up acts, if you ask me, with no main show. Defending world all-around champion Svetlana Khorkina actually competed on all four women's events. She would have won me by default, but somehow failed to win a single gold medal. That's quite an accomplishment, don't you think? But hey, at least she didn't have to do the all-around.

I'm going to take off now. I can tell when I'm not wanted. But if I'm not shown a little more respect soon, I may not come back. And if I don't, just remember this: Nobody keeps winning.


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