An In-Depth Analysis of the Sport of Gymnastics

U.S. gymnast Alexander Artemev performing ‘Flares’ on pommel horse.

My hopes in writing this entry are to give people that do not know a lot about the sport of artistic gymnastics, a better idea as to what gymnasts do, how the sport is competed/judged, how gymnastics has evolved over the years and what the future holds for the sport I spent fourteen years of my life in. My goal is to give someone that does not frequently follow artistic gymnastics insight in to how to watch and appreciate gymnastics. Just a quick note, there are six different types of gymnastics: men’s artistic, women’s artistic, rhythmic, trampoline, tumbling and acrobatic gymnastics. Men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics will be the focal point of this essay since they are the ones that I know the most about.

So, what are the differences between men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics you might ask? There are many. The biggest differences between both sports are the apparatus. Men compete on a total of six different apparatus while women compete only on four. The men’s events include (in Olympic order): Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse, Still Rings, Vault, Parallel Bars and Horizontal Bar. The women’s events consist of: Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam and Floor Exercise. The men and women’s floor exercise event is almost the same, however women include dancing in their routines while men’s routines are strictly tumbling. Men’s and women’s vault is also very similar, it is the same vault but the men’s vault table is two notches higher in competition. Aside from these two events the rest of the apparatus are one of a kind. Starting with the men’s events, I would like to discuss pommel horse. Pommel horse was always my favorite event to compete and train because it required precise rhythm and hand placements. The pommel horse itself is about four feet tall and is a leather rectangular prism. On top of the pommel horse are two pommels usually made of wood but sometimes plastic. Pommel horse is arguably the most difficult of the six men’s apparatus because it is non-stop and requires extreme precision. Still rings is the next event to be discussed. These are pretty self-explanatory, the still rings are just two rings that hang from the ceiling and the gymnast must keep them as still as possible throughout his routine. Still rings routines are comprised mostly of strength elements so it can be just as difficult as pommel horse, but in a different way. Skipping vault, the next apparatus are the parallel bars which are also fairly self-explanatory. The parallel bars are two bars that run parallel to each other , typically made of wood. The bars are around six feet above the ground and are supported by metal rails. The last men’s event is the horizontal bar, one of the most exciting events for spectators because of the dangerous release moves performed with ease by the gymnasts. The horizontal bar is one metal bar about nine feet off the ground and is surprisingly flexible so the gymnasts can gain height on their release moves and dismounts. The last two girls events to discuss are the uneven bars and balance beam. The uneven bars are similar to the parallel bars except farther apart and each bar is at a different height (one is around five feet and the other is eight feet tall). The uneven bars require grace, technique and power in order to succeed. The last women’s apparatus is the balance beam. The balance beam might be the scariest event to do and watch in both men’s and women’s gymnastics. The beam is only four inches wide and is almost seventeen feet long. The women have to be extremely precise when performing on the balance beam and somehow the women make flipping on a four inch beam look easy.

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas salvaging a fall on beam.

Gymnastics has been around since the Ancient Greeks, however it has transformed into something the Greeks probably would not even recognize. I like to say that the sport of gymnastics has ‘evolved’ from its primitive origins of Ancient Greece where it consisted of simple physical exercises performed in the nude. ‘Modern artistic gymnastics’ began showing its face in late 1700’s Germany where it was being taught as physical education in schools. According to an article written by Michael Strauss, “men’s gymnastics was on the schedule of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896" and “Olympic gymnastic competition for women began in 1936 with an all-around competition”. The countries that really made artistic gymnastics popular were the former Soviet Union, Romania and Japan by producing some of the greatest gymnasts of all time. Some of those names include Olga Korbut and Vitaly Scherbo of the former Soviet Union, Nadia Comaneci of Romania, and Mitsuo Tsukahara and Sawao Kato of Japan. The United States also produced some iconic gymnasts in the sixties and seventies: Kurt Thomas and Bart Conner.

Aside from the actual gymnastics skills becoming more difficult, the scoring system has also changed quite a bit over the years. For a long time gymnastics was known for being on the ‘10.00’ scale, but after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece the scoring system changed completely. The current gymnastics scoring system is based on an open-ended difficulty score, meaning that gymnasts are rewarded more for performing more challenging tricks. Most people are confused when they see a ‘15.40’ score posted at the Olympic Games and are not sure whether that score is good or bad, they do not know what to make of it. I am going to try my best to break down the current scoring system for artistic gymnastics, in order for people to better grasp the numbers that they are seeing. I am going to use a theoretical horizontal bar routine in order to explain what goes on through a judges head while he judges a routine. Every routine on every event, men’s and women’s, has two parts to it: execution score and difficulty score. At the conclusion of the gymnast’s routine both of these scores are added together to give the judge their final score. The execution score starts at 10.00, just like the old days, and every time a gymnast ‘breaks form’ they are deducted a certain amount from that score. The deductions come from bent arms/legs, not pointing toes, split legs, wrong body position, stopping, falling, etc. The amount they are deducted depends upon how severe the form break was: -0.1 0 for a small deduction up to -0.80 for falling. The difficulty score comes from adding up the ten most difficult skills that the gymnast performed in the routine. Skill values range from easy ‘A’ value skills (0.10) to extremely difficult ‘H’ value skills (0.80), this is the case for every event except for vault in which each vaulting skill has its own difficulty score. Each apparatus, again except for vault, also has five specific requirements that the gymnast must meet. Continuing with our example of horizontal bar, the gymnast must perform a skill from each one of these element groups: Long hang swings with and without turns, flight elements, in-bar elements, el-grip and dorsal hang elements, and dismounts. The gymnast will be rewarded 2.50 points just for fulfilling each of the element groups, 0.50 for each group. Gymnasts can also obtain connection bonuses for connecting one skill to another, this adds 0.10 to their score every time they connect two tricks. One other rule is that gymnasts cannot repeat the same skill twice in any given routine. Ready to judge a routine? Our theoretical gymnast fulfills every one of his element groups on horizontal bar, automatically giving him 2.50. The gymnast performed three ‘B’s’, four ‘C’s’ and three ‘D’s’, giving him a difficulty score of 3.00. He also had three connections giving him 0.20 a piece for a total of 0.60. Our gymnast’s difficulty score comes out to 6.10. Now we add the difficulty score to the execution score and we are given a ‘start value’ of 16.10. Unfortunately the gymnast was deducted 2.10 from his execution score for various form breaks leaving him at a final score of 14.00. Just to put it in perspective, the gold medalist on the horizontal bar at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil scored a 15.766. Second and third place in the horizontal bar final received a 15.500 and 15.466 respectively. So a 14.00 is not a bad score but it most likely would not qualify to event finals. It is safe to say that a ‘good score’ is 15.00 or above, there are start values upwards of 17.00 in the Olympics.

Here is a glimpse of the gold medal routine on the horizontal bar at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England.

“Watching Olympic gymnastics is like watching the TV show Planet Earth”, a friend of mine put it perfectly when describing what it is like to watch artistic gymnastics. Despite being such a beautiful and artistic sport, artistic gymnastics is failing at some levels. According to USAgymnastics.org, there are only fifteen men’s gymnastics teams remaining at the Division 1 level, this number is outstanding. At the stage we are currently at with our sport it seems like everything has been done and there is no where else to go from here. So where does gymnastics go from here? How do we make artistic gymnastics more popular? Well, honestly I do not know where artistic gymnastics can go from here, besides continuing at the level that it is at. Gymnasts are going to have to get really gutsy and creative at this point if they want to introduce new skills, but that is always how it goes I guess. As for making gymnastics popular again like it was in the 70’s, one thing that is going well is that gymnastics is one of the most anticipated and watched Olympic sports. This is a great way for the sport to gain notoriety and convince kids to sign up for classes at their local club. A few things that I believe need to be improved in order for this sport to stay alive is to start airing gymnastics on TV, not just during the Olympic cycle. There are always competitions going on (collegiate, American Cup, national championships, World championships) so it should not be an issue for TV stations to find coverage. Lastly, in order to improve gymnastics I would like to see it become more relevant at the collegiate level. I have seen the number of collegiate men’s gymnastics teams drop over the past years from over twenty teams to only FIFTEEN. If people understand the sport more and can be educated on its rules then the hope is that more people will want to watch it and be involved.

Kohei Uchimura, regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time performing a ‘Maltese’ on still rings.

Ethan S.