A Guide to Rhythmic Gymnastics at the Olympics

The athletes do much, much more than just twirl a ribbon.

AUGUST 6, 2012
kanaeva ribbon 2008 SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES

Maroon 5′s Adam Levine may be able to move like Jagger — but not like Evgeniya Kanaeva, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics and the favorite to win in London, too.

My favorite Olympic sport? Rhythmic gymnastics, which you, too, can watch August 9-12. Contrary to popular belief, the sport requires great skill, flexibility, and strength. Have you ever tried doing a 360-degree pirouette while your foot is tucked over your shoulder and your hand is twirling a ribbon? My rhythmic gymnast daughter provides the answers to common questions:

What exactly is rhythmic gymnastics?

An Olympic sport since 1984, rhythmic gymnastics requires athletes to perform precisely choreographed routines with leaps, pirouettes, and flexibility moves — while tossing, twirling, or rolling a hoop, a ball, a ribbon, or clubs. (But a video is worth a thousand words. Check out this ball routine by 2008 Olympic gold medalist Evgeniya Kanaeva, the reigning world champion and the favorite to win the London Games.)

What’s the difference between individual and group?

In the individual event, a single gymnast performs four 90-second routines—one with each apparatus. In the group event, five girls perform a two-and-a-half-minute routine together while dramatically tossing and exchanging equipment with each other. Groups do two routines, not four. In one, they all use the same apparatus (this year, five balls), and in the other, they use two of one and three of another (this year, two hoops, and three ribbons).

How does the judging work? I watched it before, and a girl who looked good to me and never dropped her ribbon got a low score.

Sometimes a hard-looking trick might not be worth very much (and vice versa), and there are many deductions for tiny, hard-to-spot errors. At the 2012 Olympics, the maximum score is 30. (In 2008, it was 20, and in 2016, it will be 20 again.) But you won’t see any “perfect” scores. A 28 or 29 is incredible! Difficulty, artistry, and execution are each worth 10 points. The overall difficulty score is actually the average of the body difficulty score and the equipment difficulty score (called D1 and D2). Just about all the competitors in the Olympics will have starting values of 10 for both body and apparatus elements. (The values and rules are in the sport’s Code of Points – accurately and humorously described in “Sparkle Motion” on Grantland.com.) When judges decide a gymnast failed to properly execute a move, they subtract its value from her starting difficulty score. To score artistry, they look at how well the routine matches the music and flows together. Execution deductions come from mistakes such as dropped equipment, bent knees and arms, unpointed toes, and extra steps.

Is the judging fair?

As with any sport with human judges rather than times, some people complain about subjectivity. But the sport’s international governing body tries exceedingly hard to make sure it is fair. Anyone can read the 125-page code of points. Also, Olympic judges in London are all from countries without competitors at the Games, so they can’t even unconsciously favor athletes from their home turf.

Why do rhythmic gymnasts wear such fancy costumes?

The leotards – typically covered in rhinestones and worth well over $1,000 each — are custom made to match the music and routines for world-class rhythmic gymnasts. That’s why girls switch outfits for each event. A note: they typically practice in form-fitting shorts and tank tops, not leotards.

What are those little shoes that they wear?

Rhythmic gymnasts wear flesh-colored “half shoes” that cover their toes because they are easier to turn in than bare feet. Typically they are made of soft, thin leather and are held on with elastic.

What is rhythmic gymnasts’ training like?

Elite rhythmic gymnasts may train anywhere from 25 to 48 hours per week. Practice includes ballet, conditioning (usually focusing on the core and back and stretching off chairs or blocks in “oversplits”), and many repetitions of routines and tosses.

What is the peak age for a rhythmic gymnast?

No one is trying to sneak rhythmic gymnasts who are under 16 into the Olympics because the peak age is actually late teens to mid-twenties! The average age of an individual rhythmic gymnast in the 2012 games is 21.6 years old. The sport rewards technique, which comes from years of experience.

Rhythmic gymnasts look taller than artistic gymnasts. Are they?

Yes. A long, lean body type – 5-foot-8 is not unusual — is the ideal. Rhythmic gymnasts tend to look more like ballet dancers because long, graceful lines are highly valued.

Is the rhythmic floor the same as the artistic gymnastics floor that Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber use?

No. The rhythmic floor (raised wood, with carpet on top of it) is much firmer and less springy. The harder surface is better for doing multiple pirouettes, and the springs aren’t necessary because rhythmic gymnasts don’t do flips.

So if rhythmic gymnasts don’t tumble, what makes the sport exciting?  What do rhythmic gymnasts do that neither dancers nor artistic gymnasts do?

Many turns and jumps you will see look similar to dance. But the gymnasts do more intricate and extreme spins and leaps, which require a lot of control, flexibility, and strength. Also, the apparatus work is unique to rhythmic gymnasts. Watch how fast the girls spin under their tosses before they catch their balls with their feet! The sport requires a huge amount of hand-eye coordination — especially since gymnasts receive more points for catching their equipment without using their hands.

Is the ball heavy?

The FIG-approved weight for a ball is a minimum of 400 grams (about 14 ounces). It’s a good size — light enough to be able to toss easily, but with enough mass that it doesn’t float and bounce away like a balloon.

Is that hoop just a regular hula hoop?

Rhythmic gymnastics hoops are made specifically for the sport, in different sizes. The diameter should be about the length of a girl’s legs. Rhythmic gymnasts tape their hoops in different colors to match their leotards and get them to reach the approved weight of 300 grams (about 10 ½ ounces).

What are the hoops and clubs made of? 

Plastic. Wood is permitted, but no longer used. Rubber clubs are also available, but they can bounce away if dropped.

Which equipment is the hardest to use?

Many gymnasts say the ribbon is the hardest. It is six meters long (nearly 20 feet), and if the end is ever lying on the floor while not in motion, a gymnast receives deductions. Occasionally, the ribbon can get tied in a knot, which the gymnast must undo — getting deductions the whole time for missing tricks. Clubs are tricky for coordination because often the gymnast is simultaneously doing something different with each hand. And while ball and hoop may seem a little easier to use, they can roll far away (and cause deductions) if a gymnast drops them in the competition.

How many rhythmic gymnasts qualified to compete in London 2012?

There are just 24 individual rhythmic competitors in London. The top 15 gymnasts at the 2011 World Championships last September qualified automatically. Then slots 16-20 were decided in January in a competition between the girls who placed 16-25 at Worlds. The last four spots were merit-based wildcards. Since each continent must be represented, Julie Zetlin, the best in North and South America at the 2011 World Championships, got one continental wildcard, the best rhythmic gymnast in Australia got another, and the best from Africa (representing Egypt) got a third. The final wildcard went to Great Britain’s top rhythmic gymnast since the host country gets a guaranteed spot.  In addition, 12 groups will compete in London.  Unfortunately, the talented U.S. group team just missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics.

Which countries are the best at rhythmic gymnastics? Can we expect medals from the United States?

Russia – along with some other Eastern European countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Bulgaria – dominates the sport. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are also good, and Italy’s group team is the reigning world champion in its event. Don’t expect a U.S. medal in London. No U.S. gymnast even qualified for the 2008 Olympics, so it’s great that Julie Zetlin is representing the United States at these Games. And our program is improving every year.

Why does Russia dominate?

The Europeans got a head start since the sport originated there. Also, girls there grow up idolizing rhythmic gymnastics stars. In the United States, many girls who would have interest and talent in RG are simply unaware of the sport. But that’s changing!

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