Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gymnastics and Skiing

Two of my favorite spectator sports are gymnastics and skiing. I've been watching gymnastics since 1970 and ski racing since the 1990s. When I was younger I did gymnastics and now I ski. Even though both of these sports seem quite different, they actually have a lot in common. I don't just mean that both of them require coordination, agility, balance, strength, and overall athletic ability. Here are some other ways that these two sports are alike:

Each event requires different skills: In women's gymnastics there are 4 events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. Each event is unique and takes different skills. Vaulting requires sheer power, floor exercise takes a combiniation of power, grace, and endurance, beam requires balance and precision, bars require split second timing and agility. Gymnasts tend to be grouped into either being power gymnasts who excel in vaulting and floor exercise or more artistic ones who are better on the balance beam, bars or floor exercise. Many gymnasts only specialize in one or two events. There seem to be just a few who excel in all events and are great all-arounders.

Skiing has 5 different events: downhill, Super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined. Super-combined is one run of downhill and one run of slalom. Like with gymnastics, each skiing event uses different skills. Downhill and Super-G are speed events. They require the ability to think quickly at high speeds while hurtling down an icy course, plus muscular strength and endurance. Super-G has the speed of downhill with the coordination and technical turning skills of giant slalom. Giant slalom requires some speed, but also the ability to turn around gates on a narrow course. Slalom is the slowest event, but probably the most difficult. It requires the ability to turn around gates that are spaced at different intervals while keeping a constant rate of speed and rhythm. Super-combined requires both the speed and split-second timing of downhill and the technical skill of the slalom. Like gymnasts, there tend to be two groups of skiers: speed skiers who excel in the downhill and Super-G or technical specialists who are better at the giant slalom or slalom. There are just a few skiers who are great all-arounders who can excel in all of the disciplines. They are the ones who are also best in the super-combined event.

Evolution: Both gymnastics and skiing have come a long way in the past 50 years. When I did gymnastics in the 1970s, I trained on a hard gym floor or two-inch mats. Now gymnasts train on Tumble-Traks or into foam pits to protect their bodies. The bars and beam were made of wood and were inflexible. Now the beam has springs and has a leather covering. The bars are now flexible and not simply men's parallel bars with different settings. The vaulting board was less springy than what is used now. Even competition floors now have springs in them, which allow for higher and more difficult tumbling. The newer equipment, like hand grips used for the bars, has allowed gymnasts to do much more difficult skills than they did back when I did gymnastics. The skills that were considered difficult in the 1960s and '70s are now being done by beginning and intermediate-level gymnasts now. Here are some different routines to show just how much gymnastics has changed:
Vera Caslavska (Czechoslovakia) vault 1968 Olympics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m4oXnfqRpk
Monica Rosu (Romania) vault 2004 Olympics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wELTSObqZtE
Uneven bar developments 1950s to 2005: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SV_r5UePZI
Cathy Rigby (USA) balance beam 1970: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpoORvcTbJU
Ana Porgras (Romania) balance beam 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPjlmeqNmso&playnext=1&list=PL070300B2DCA940CF
Natalia Kuchinskaya (USSR) floor exercise 1966: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGA-p-mWv4k&feature=related
Viktoria Komova (Russia) floor exercise 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljfYrzZq3xI

 Ski racing has also evolved from its early days. Back in the 1930s and into the '60s, many races were held on intermediate-level slopes. One of the fairly easy intermediate-level runs that I ski on here, called "Olympia," was the run used for the women's downhill competition in the 1936 Winter Olympics. Now racers hurtle themselves down steep expert slopes at speeds of up to 130 km/hour (about 80 mph). There was no course preparation in the early days. Racers had to ski on courses however they were. Now World Cup courses are prepared weeks in advance so that they will be fast. As speeds increased,  the safety equipment improved. Old-time racers wore beanies and regular ski clothing and used wooden skis. Now all ski racers wear helmets, back protectors, high-tech boots, bindings, and speed suits. Ski racers also wear special arm and leg guards in the giant slalom and slalom events. Their skis are made of the latest high-tech materials and waxes are specially formulated for every snow condition. In old-time World Championship or Olympic competitions there were no safety fences along the courses. Spectators could stand at every point of the course and hope that a skier didn't fall into them. Spectators also came right up to the finish line. Fortunately for them, skiers back in the day didn't go as quickly as they do now. Today's finish lines are about 200 meters from the stands and the only non-racers allowed on the courses are the officials. Here are videos from the 1958 Worlds and some of more modern skiers. Skiing starts at around 1:20 in the 1958 video. It's in German, but you don't really need to understand German to see ski racing.
More modern skiers:
Hermann Maier (Austria) super-G 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ3jgtLdU6A
Elizabeth Goergl (Austria) downhill 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biilXSmhsiE
Ted Ligety (USA) giant slalom 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qw6S-bRSSw
Marlies Schild (Austria) slalom 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wJLPqAk3io&feature=related
I included women in some of the modern videos to show that they are faster and more aggresive than men were back in the 1950s.

Dominant Teams: From 1952 to 1992 the Soviet Union was the dominant team in gymnastics. Soviet gymnasts won the most Olympic and World Championship medals in that period. Starting in the late 1970s the Romanians were the only team to challenge the Soviets' dominance. Both of these countries had an organized system for developing gymnastics talent. As senior gymnasts retired, new ones took their places on the team. Both of those teams were very deep, with many talented gymnasts who would be the #1 from any other country not being able to make a Soviet or Romanian Olympic or world championship team.

Austria is the dominant team in skiing and has been for at least the past 50 years. The Austrians have a very successful system for developing Alpine skiers. When one Austrian skier retires, there is someone who comes up from the junior ranks to take his or her place. Austria has a very deep team. There are so many great Austrian skiers in each discipline, some of the best in the world get left off of Olympic and world championship teams. Austrian skiers have also won the most medals in Olympic and world championship competitions. Switzerland also has a strong, deep ski team that always has skiers in the running for medals. If skiing was gymnastics, Austria would be the Soviet Union and Switzerland would be Romania.

As a former gymnast, I would loved to have trained and competed on the equipment that is used now. I remember doing rolls on hard wooden beams and tumbling on mats that had no spring to them. When I started skiing, it was customary for recreational skiers like myself to have long, straight skis. Now the trend is to have shorter skis that designed to turn easier. I can't imagine skiing on wooden skis, though the gymnastics equimpent that I used was almost that same vintage. It will be interesting to see how both gymnastics and ski racing evolve in the next 50 years.

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