Friday, August 3, 2012

R.I.P. Artistic Gymnastics

February 3, 1959 is often referred to as, "The day the music died." That was the day the popular musical pioneers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash. August 2, 2012 will be forever known to me as the day that Artistic Gymnastics died. The sport of artistic gymnastics has been dying for a long time. But yesterday's Olympic women's all-around final "pulled the plug" on the sport that I have loved for 40 years. The American gymnast Gabrielle Douglas won a close duel with Russian Viktoria Komova. Douglas is a  "new style" gymnast who does a lot of difficult tricks without necessarily paying attention to detail and form. Komova represents the Russian school of gymnastics, which emphasizes artistry and form alaong with big tricks. Her form reminds people of the former Soviets. Many people, myself included, felt that Douglas was grossly overscored on bars and beam, while Komova was underscored for her beautiful floor routine.

The sport of gymnastics had its heyday in the years between 1972, when Olga Korbut captivated the world at the Munich Olympics, and 1992. Equipment improved a lot in those years, allowing for more difficult skills. Even though gymnasts did more difficult routines, there was still room for artistry and dance. Routines were tailored to the individual gymnast to fit their body types, ages, and personalities. Dance training was required to be a great gymnast. The Soviets in particular spent a lot of time doing ballet training and it showed in their work on all four events. The Risk, Originality, Virtuosity (ROV) bonus gave gymnasts incentive to invent new moves or new combinations of moves. It was truly the golden age of gymnastics.

The first sign that artistic gymnastics was going to die was back in 1997. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) eliminated compulsory routines for high-level gymnasts. While many people felt that compulsories were boring, they were the best way that the judges could directly compare the gymnasts. Compulsories also require mastery of basic skills. Those gymnasts with great basics performed excellent compulsory routines. The Soviets and Romanians were masters of compulsories. It was no coincidence that they also had great optional routines. The form and technique required for compulsories carried over to their optional skills. Even power gymnasts in the '70s and '80s, like Yelena Mukhina or Yelena Shushunova (both from the Soviet Union), had great compulsories. Two of the all-time best compulsory routines were those performed by Daniela Silivas of Romania on floor exercise in 1988 and Olga Mostepanova of the Soviet Union on beam in 1985.

The Code of Points that came about after the 2004 Olympics hastened the death of artistic gymnastics. Instead of using the old scoring system, which had a maximum score of 10, a new open-ended system was used starting in 2006. Gymnasts received a difficulty score, based on the 10 (later reduced to 8) most difficult elements in their routines. They also received a score for execution. Both the difficulty and execution scores were added to get a total score. Because vaulting is one skill, each vault was assigned a difficulty value.

What happened after the new Code of Points was introduced was that routines started looking more and more alike. Gymnasts chose skills for their routines based on their point, and not for their aesthetic, value. Since gymnasts wanted maximum difficulty points, they used the same skills in their routines. Originality went out the window because gymnasts were packing their routines with difficulty. Bar routines all looked alike and used the same bar-to-bar transitions. Beam routines were trick, pause, trick, pause with no flow. Floor routines had a lot of difficult tumbling and very little actual choreography. Instead of working to the music, the music was more like background noise. Very few gymnasts choreographed their moves to the music, like they did in earlier times. Form also went downhill because difficulty was rewarded over how well the skills were actually performed. Gymnasts were able to get away with bent legs and unpointed toes.Those sins would have been unforgiveable in the '70s and '80s. Even as a Class 3 gymnast in the mid-'70s, I would have been yelled at by my coach if I performed skills sloppily with unpointed toes. But this is common now.

There were a few bright spots, and hopes that the artistic part of gymnastics was still alive. Anna Pavlova of Russia had the attention to detail that was lacking in most routines.  In 2009 Romanian Ana Porgras captivated the world with her beautiful floor and beam routines and was reminiscent of the former Soviets with her beautiful body line. At the current Olympics there were several gynnasts who had exquisite form and even some originality: Vasiliki Millousi of Greece on beam, Ksenia Afanasyeva of Russia on floor, Viktoria Komova of Russia on bars, beam, and floor, Sandra Izbasa of Romania on floor, Sui Lu of China on beam, and Victoria Moors of Canada on floor. But it was clear that artistic gymnastics was quickly circling the drain.

Last night's death blow to artistic gymnastics came as the judges awarded the big tricks and power gymnastics of Douglas over the form and artistry of Komova. While Komova had a mistake on vault, she was spectacular on the other three pieces of apparatus. I felt like the judges all favored power gymnastics over the artistic from the beginning of the competition and wanted a power gymnast to win. I think this sends the wrong message. It tells young gymnasts that form, extension, and perfection of a skill are not important. The way to get points is to throw difficult tricks, regardless of whether or not they look good. This was the first time I watched an Olympic all-around final and actually got upset at the result. In close competitions like Gutsu-Miller in 1992 or Shushunova-Silivas in 1988, I was cheering for the second place gymnasts (Miller and Silivas). But I also felt like the winners deserved their titles and I was not upset at the final result. Last night made me feel like there will be no more hope for real artistic gymnastics.

If I ruled the FIG, one of the things I would do would be to bring back the old ROV bonus. What makes a routine memorable is either its originality or excellent form. Two gymnasts at this Olympics stand out for their floor exercises: Sandra Izbasa of Romania and Ksenia Afanasyeva of Russia. Izbasa does a great job of interpreting her music. Afanasyeva shows some unique moves in her floor routine. Both of those gymnasts would get ROV points if I had my way. But they were outscored in preliminaries by a gymnast with big tumbling and almost zero choreography (Aly Raisman of the USA). Another thing that I would do would be to take major deductions for bent legs, incomplete leaps, sloppy skills, and unpointed toes.

It would be one of my dreans for  gymnastics to get back to how it was from 1972 to 1992 with its mix of difficulty and style. But it looks like that dream is as dead as the "artistic" in Artistic Gymnastics.

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