Women’s Artistic gymnastics may be the holy grail in mankind’s quest for ultimate sporting entertainment, bizarre physical excellence, and spellbinding cruelty. The fruits of 10 years of training, the sacrifice of your whole childhood life and future mental health all rests on a couple of minutes of edgy performance.
The same thought crosses every one of our minds on first switching on the coverage: “Hey look, that 8 year-old girl looks a bit weird.” And so would you if you had been taken out of nursery school by a medal-hungry, blood-thirsty national gymnastics organisation and made to jump headfirst onto a block of wood thirty times a day when you should be bullying someone on Bebo.
The Viewing Experience
If you are fortunate enough to see the Artistic Gymnastics in person, you will notice that the girls bear the grizzly scars of years of gruelling training. Bandages, tape, and wounds camouflaged by a sheen of thick waterproof make-up, skin-tone lycra and dazzling smiles. I knew these girls have been through the mill, I didn’t realise they would look like they have literally been through a mill.
You also see the gymnastic feats in vastly greater detail. A surprising amount of the physical detail and precision is lost in television coverage, unlike in a sport like boxing where the psychological battle which is lost over the airwaves. The more skilled gymnasts are a lot more obvious to the (untrained) naked eye than when televised, where scoring can seem a mystery, decipherable only by the remote and enigmatic assessment-mechanisms of the judges.
However, this revelation is so great that every fat bastard in bleachers suddenly thinks they are a qualified expert just because they’ve bought a £5 pint of Olympic beer. I call it the ’Strictly Come Dancing Diploma’ whereby a charlady from Salford will start to fancy herself as some kind of foxtrot connoisseur because she likes watching John Sargeant flash his knickers of a Saturday night while she slurps down her egg and chips. This malaise of self-accreditation is rife amongst first-time gymnastic spectators, who tut when a gymnast takes a step to balance herself but then scores highly, somehow. Hence the chunky bloke next to me kindly providing full and fatuous commentary to his ladyfriend, and all his neighbours: “Yeah she waz the best, look at that larvely dismount! Why’s she crying? Silly bint”
The Artistic Gymnastics Rotations
Athletes compete individually and collectively over four different rotations – the balance beam, the floor, the vault, and the uneven bars.
Overview: 5m long and just 10cm wide, perhaps the most impressive apparatus as athletes perform flips, spins, and somersaults in improbable circumstances.
Comedy Potential: While the greater athletes defy belief with their balance and artistry, lesser athletes wobble, fall off, and some even split their difference. It is absolutely forbidden for audience members to guffaw or hurl insults when an unfortunate gymnast slips and scissors the beam after 10 years of training.
Overview: Execution, difficulty, height and precision all need to be mastered to achieve maximum points.
Comedy Potential: I always secretly hope that a gymnast will try to surprise the judges by running straight into the vaulting horse or flipping straight into the audience seating areas.
Overview: Competitors are required to display a range of leaping, tumbling as well as controlled and more artistic dance moves. Unlike the men’s equivalent event, the floor routine must be performed to a cheaply produced elevator style music, which must sound particularly nasty over the Tannoy. Leaps can reach the height of high-jumpers, apparently, which begs the question of why they don’t compete in that event. Can you imagine how cool that would be if a 5ft Romanian came out and took gold on the field with a triple Arabian?
Comedy Potential: None really, making this event the least prestigious of the four.
The Assymetrical Bars
Overview: Gymnasts flip and spin between different height bars, incorporating blind catches, turns and complex dismounts.
Comedy potential: There is no greater comedy spectacle in the Olympic sport than a gymnast gracefully spinning up in the air in the splits only to miss the bar on the way down after 10 years of training. Don’t worry, there are crash mats.
Behind the scenes
The trainers and coaches are picked from ex-athletes who are particularly bitter about their own missed childhoods. I saw one unfortunate girl on the floor miss a tumble and jam her foot into the floor, probably snapping something. After taking a bow then limping, trembling, to the edge of the mat, she had to wait there for a bit while her coach just slowly ambled up to her, partly in sympathy, mostly in disappointment, to carry her off the floor. When the Russian team came second to USA in the team competition, they all were weeping. I couldn’t help but detect a smile flickering at the edge of their coach’s mouth, breaking through the face of consolation as each teardrop hit the talc-dusted floor.
I shit you not, but as the girls were in the middle of the rotations, the commentator employed to address the audience was actually criticising the routines over the Tannoy, in full earshot of the competitors. She was also an ex-gymnast, and spoke in the sweet voice of a call-centre operator who is enjoying your flailing helplessness.
Honestly though, the gymnastics is amazing, the gymnasts are amazing. What these girls achieve is quite incredible to see. When something goes wrong, it is properly cruel, and I wonder why someone would ever give up so much to be judged on so little. When it all goes right, I am filled with admiration for these girls dedication, nerve, and ambition. So, tune in, pick a random favourite, and hope they don’t break something.
Incidentally, I am going to be supporting Asuka Teramoto, randomly. She may be the smallest Olympic athlete at 4’6″, 30kg, but she is very graceful and charismatic, in my opinion. The ickle cutiepie.
All images Copyright Tom Rowland 2012
We were recording in a church steeple. Afterwards, the band and I found a nice spot in a foyer to watch England disgrace themselves against Italy while a Lynchian Italian OAP dance continued weirdly in the Church hall next door. We ate curry which arrived at Penalties. Then I discovered, in a display cabinet, the church’s sacred relic- an actual statue of God!