Monday, 21 November 2011

The (all a-) round up: how much has the top-billed cast changed in a year?

"And now is the winter of our discontent."

Perhaps when Shakespeare wrote these lines he was inspired by an emotional response to the end of the gymnastics year in terms of major competitions. Probably not, but for those die hard fans among us, the slow march into December can be a bitter pill to swallow. In many ways, the very second the last event final medal is draped across a gymnasts’ shoulders at a World Championships, the same dreary anticlimactic misery descends over you in a manner reminiscent of childhood boxing days: you had a great time, and may even have got everything you wanted, but despite any good feelings you know that you are now the furthest you can be from Christmas day.

Luckily, this isn’t one of those years. It is already impossible to say “2012” without a thousand adverts and exaggerated promotional slogans bursting into your head. Yes, we are about to embark upon an Olympic year. And personally, I have never been more excited. I know more about the sport than I ever have, am much happier with the state of the sport than I was in 2007, and it is in my home country. What more could a guy ask for?

London 2012: anticipated in the media with the same urgency as a coming apocalypse. But its hard not to share in the excitement.

But enough of that. Stretching ahead of us is a barren tundra of time filled with boring Olympics speculation, so the time for hysterical anticipation is not now. Now is the time to look back over a year in gymnastics and appreciate the good moments, note what has changed and ponder upon the validity of our former expectations. Below is an incredibly brief summary of how 2011 panned out for last year’s big WAG names.

2011 IN BRIEF.

We left 2010 in awe of Aliya Mustafina. Whether we hated, loved or couldn’t make our minds up about her, she was without a shadow of a doubt the gymnast to watch coming into the 2011 gymnastics year. She absolutely smashed the 2010 all around, putting up incredibly solid performances on each of the four apparatus (of which she had no real noticeable weakness, somewhat uncommon in modern gymnastics). Aliya was the reigning queen, and Rebecca Bross her vanquished opponent. Fading away slightly following her disappointing bronze medal finish in the 2010 worlds AA, we heard very little form Rebecca following this competition. But her fantastic performance on floor left a lasting memory.

Killed. It.

For me, the first big competition of the new season was the American Cup. Although dogged with judging fiascos, this event is usually a long awaited relief from competition wilderness and we usually get a good look at how the American’s are doing. Rarely do we get a look at the reigning gymnastics top dog slogging it out against her bushy tailed new kid on the block rival: yes, this year’s American cup was all about Wieber vs Mustafina. There is nothing quite like a good old Russian/American rivalry and this competition was no exception. Mustafina showed she was even more formidable than before, with an upgraded bars set that was quite simply incredible (inbar 1/1 - tkatchev - pak - stalder ½: NOW THAT’S a combination). However, Wieber managed to edge her out with better consistency on beam, a nicer vault and less floor mistakes. The two had proven they were a match for one another. Aly continued her quieter but super impressive consistency (on all but bars).

Just great.

By the time Europeans rolled around we were all well and truly ready for Aliya to be European champion. It seemed inevitable. But disaster struck: the vault that execution sticklers the world over had been bemoaning for the best part of a year caused Mustafina to tear her ACL. And just like that, she was gone.  Fan favourite Anna Dementeyva took the AA gold in her teammate’s absence. Europeans provided us with our first good look at world champion uneven bars worker Beth Tweddle, who showed up with an even harder bars routine filled with insane connections (most of which she missed in finals, causing her to win gold by the narrowest of margins against the assault of Tatiana Nabieva, Russia’s famous skill chucker).

Meanwhile in Australia, Aussie superstar Lauren Mitchell was showing some cool new connections on beam, but looking like she was slowing down a bit. Similarly, over in China, the annual nationals showed former world champion Deng Linlin fail to make the beam podium even within her own country (and even with a new super hard combination under her belt). Bars superpower He Kexin was also showing some signs of growing pains, with increasingly laboured work and a worsening pak. Despite this, there were hints of the potential debut of a new double pirouette skill.

By the time of the VISA nationals, people were poised for the long awaited return of Rebecca Bross and her campaign for a third shot at the world AA title. What they got instead was very hard to watch indeed. After an incredibly messy two days of competition (with the notable exception of floor which was good as ever), Bross took a terrible landing on her DTY and dislocated her kneecap. And thus the top two AAers of the previous year were out for the count.

Worlds happened, and we know what happened there. It was a win for the new blood, with the notable exception of Ksenia Afanasyeva, the long time Russian underdog who finally struck gold with a fantastic showing on floor.

So, looking to the huge event that is next year, how are our old timers doing? (and inspired by a recent intlgymnast thread)Whose stock is up and whose is down? In my opinion this goes broadly as follows


Ksenia Afanasyeva - showed she is not only a team player but capable of success in her own right
Tatiana Nabieva - a gymnast who was previously famous mainly for doing high level skills to a very poor standard showed that she could tone it down, clean it up and win a medal
Catalina Ponor - showed that despite missing pretty much a whole quad, she can still pull out some cracking performances and make an event final on her signature apparatus
Alexandra Raisman - She scooped her first individual medal on the floor, and put in her usual super solid appearances in the team final. She would be an even better position, however, had she finally managed to hit bars in the AA. She didn’t.
Sandra Izbasa - A strange one given that she didn’t compete at these worlds, but the poor team performance of the Romanians showed that they need her next year


Yoana Dufournet - A medal was hers if she hit. But she didn’t. Seems like she is running out of chances to prove herself
Beth Tweddle - in terms of her floor. I am a huge Beth fan and I have to admit that it was AWFUL at worlds. BUT her bars routine in TFs was the best and most difficult I have ever seen her do, so she is up in that respect
Lauren Mitchell - No EFs from original qualifications. Then a shoe in. Then no medal.
Jiang Yuyuan - no all around for the previous silver medallist. Outshone by the young ones and unlikely she will be up there again
He Kexin - Inconsistency, growing pains and being removed from the team lineup by a country that isn’t hard on headcases all equal a plummeting stock. This might spell the end of the road for this former Olympic champion.
Alicia Sacramone - it pains me to say it, but her injury at worlds had more than just a physical impact. The US proved that they can win without her, and who knows how far she will be set back by this injury in terms of her upgrades (in particular her handspring 2/1 twist).

So in conclusion, has much changed? We have seen plenty of the old cast members fade away in the shadow of many bright young things. But in terms of the All Around, the potential returns of Bross and Mustafina are still a big threat in the AA. The coming year is shaping up to be one of the best of its kind: I can’t wait. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Favourite routines: Elena Grudneva UB

A largely uncelebrated member of the fantastic assembly of talent that the crumbling Soviet union had to offer in 1992 she may be (she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page), but Elena had my favourite bars set of them all.

Her jaeger is so high and shows such amazing flexibility in her hips, but mainly I love this routine for the final combination which striked me as being incredibly difficult and original both in the context of its time and the present day. A stalder to immediate endo straight into a double front half out dismount of a quality that puts others who perform it then and now to shame. It really does make for a fantastic end.

It is routines like this that represent what I often think of as the "randomness" of some scoring in the 10 system. I have no idea when I look back at certain routines why they were not front runners and this is one of them. 

It’s a real shame Elena never seemed to get the recognition she deserved for the quality of this routine. Personally I would set its quality far higher than Gutsu’s. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

DTB cup. Did Huang Qiushang win the battle but lose the war?

Two days ago, in the heart of Stuttgart, the unthinkable happened: Huang Qiushang went 4 for 4. This was a moment so unexpected and memorable that it will likely take off as an urban phenomenon (“where were you when Huang hit 4?” - that kind of thing).

OK so this is unlikely. But to the people that know, this was actually quite a nice surprise. But with the good came the frustration: why could she never do this before? And even worse: is it already too late for her?
For those that may not yet have seen the footage from the DTB cup this weekend, see the videos below. Do not be taken in too much by my hyperbolas introduction: her floor was very watered down and this field was basically nonexistent. It was even a field at all. It was a lawn. An un-watered lawn (and all thanks to these ridiculous new world cup rules sucking all the life and intrigue out of these world cup events).

Vault: Decent DTY (incidentally I don't believe the amanar rumours)

UB: Nice as always

Beam: For once a performance that doesn't make you hold your breath for dangerous periods of time

Floor: Nothing to write home about tumbling wise and a big OOB, but nice choreo

But hit she did. A total of 58.032 was miles away from the rest of the field, head and shoulders above silver medallist Kim Bui. Her bars, as usual, were lovely. I am a big fan of her on this event and think that the Chinese athletes were hit way too hard by the judges at worlds. But that’s another story. Her beam was refreshingly solid.

Success is always great to see, but failure to succeed when it matters unfortunately tips the scales. In situations like Huang’s it is hard not to wonder what might have been.

In the years running up to an Olympics, as pressure builds and challengers gradually emerge from the woodwork, it is important for the less hyped athletes to hit to their greatest potential and take advantage of the competition. Looks at Jiang Yuyuan. She probably won’t factor in at all in 2012, but she can say for her whole life that she had a great day when it counted and will forever have been the second best in the world. Same goes for Koko Tsurumi (third best) and countless others in the history of the sport.

Making the most of AA opportunities: Jiang Yuyuan

Huang has shown that she can put up a decent AA challenge. But will she have the opportunity again? The ever competitive second AA spot is like a medal itself in countries with a deep field and chances don’t often stick around for long.

It is with regret that Alexandra Raisman must be drawn in at this point. Two years as second in command to two different AA big-dogs, and twice a car crash on the bars. I am a big fan of her powerful tumbling and magnetic feet on beam and vault, but with the potential of a healthy Bross and Johnson next year (not to mention the new seniors), will she ever be number 2 again?

(On an unrelated note, nice to see Kim Bui in second, but a shame that she no longer uses that 1.5 twisting jump on beam. It was a really unusual skill and I really liked it). 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Requiem for the real All Arounders?

It is commonly stated that the winner of a world or Olympic level All Around competition is the best gymnast in the world at that time. And on paper this is of course true. An AA champion is the male or female who amasses through their athletic work the greatest total number of points in the competition: they are by all accounts the winner.

But what is it that we expect of an all around champion? Has it changed?

For once, this is not merely about the end of the 10 or the start of uncapped D scores. This is about the common thread of thought amongst gymnastics fans that there was once such a thing as “true all arounders”, and that this iconic definition has, over time, slipped from our screens and scoresheets.

So what does the phrase “true all arounder” actually refer to? To me, it means someone who is not saved by the average. Someone who is great on all events and by virtue of this can truly be crowned the best in the world. To use a similar example, think of final exams. Some people come do well through well rounded success, and others achieve by smashing some papers and simply surviving on others.

It does seem to be true that gymnasts from bygone quads seemed to have a more well rounded talent. Tatiana Gutsu, for example, didn’t appear to have any real noticeable weaknesses. The same could be argued for an early Shannon Miller and Svetlana Boginskaya. Nowadays this is not always the case. People spend a lot of time talking about AAers vs specialists, but in the modern day of the open ended code is there anything except specialists with a few shortfalls? Are modern day gold medallists simply specialists in AA leotards?

One of the gymnasts most memorably referred to as a true all arounder is Ukrainian superstar Lilia Podkopayeva. At even the mention of her name I can hear Elfi Schlegel squeaking on about her being the true package gymnast from the 1996 AA coverage. It is true in a way: Lilia was really quite good on all 4 of the events. But can even she be classed as a true AAer?

My main point here is this: when one thinks hard enough about the true all arounder, the question becomes not whether it has changed, but if it ever existed at all. A “perfect” well rounded competitor would sweep competitions (which in fairness Boginskaya did at the 1990 European Championships). But we rarely ever see this, and in the modern day it is an almost laughable concept. It has become commonplace for gymnasts to make their name on one or two apparatus and put it decent performances on the others to take golds.

In saying this I am not belittling achievements or criticizing podiums: having stand out talent is not a bad thing. But when did it start? I believe that Khorkina was the first gymnast to win major all around titles based mainly on her prowess on a single apparatus. That is not to say that she wasn’t good on the others, but it is to say that without her signature she may not have been top of the world. Let’s check some averages. In the 1997 all around, if we take away the top score before calculating the averages for the top 3 athletes (Khorkina, Amanar, Produnova) the following podium is produced.

Compare this to the 1996 podium: Podkopayeva still wins even without her mammoth floor score to boost her average. 

I also calculated this for the 2008 Olympic All Around. I was surprised to find that without Shawn’s beam and Nastia’s bars, they draw. It is interesting to see that they were only separated in the rankings by their specialisms.

To bring this ramble to a close, it is actually surprisingly difficult to think about what we actually look for in an All Around champion. On paper, the thought of a consistent performer who does clean and stable routines across four apparatus is appealing. But in practice this is often really boring (I am thinking people like Sloan and Olaru). But then again, a performer saved by one apparatus with some real low points is unconvincing as a winner.

Things certainly have changed, but I think it is the system and not the gymnasts. Perhaps we would have seen a greater degree of “AA specialism” if the old code was not there as a sort of equalizing upper limit across all four events (it seemed at times that consistency across events was produced by not encouraging the development of difficulty and hence many gymnasts who may otherwise have developed a huge routine somewhere did not have the need to). This works both ways, though: it was probably much easier, once upon a time, to get by despite being “bad” at a particular apparatus. Would Kim Zmeskal and Gina Gogean manage a decent enough bar routine if they were competing in more recent quads?

So, what happened to the All Arounders? Maybe there never were any.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Top Scores

When we consider favourites and least favourites, we generally refer to routines, skills or medals. Perhaps even entire meets. However, is there something about a particular SCORE that could make us like it more than another?

Scores are numbers, and have no meaning except in the context of the routine they grade. Therefore ones liking of a score can never be (and has no reason to ever be) considered separate from the routine it scores. I do however find it interesting that the connotations attached to a score change completely depending on the quad: Kim Zmeskal’s 9.775 on FX in the 1992 AA locked her out of the medals and was considered a disastrously low score, but the same score by Produnova at the 2000 BB EF landed her an individual Olympic medal.

So with this in mind, here are a couple of my favourite (and least favourite) scores.



The significance of this number is twofold. Two different stories, two different Olympics but two fantastic outcomes.

The first is Shannon Miller. Having made it to the Olympics a second time, she was a completely different gymnast to her former self. Having dominated the world for the two years after the Barcelona Olympics (where, in my opinion, she should have taken the all around gold, but more of that below), Shannon had experienced a rocky year prior to the Olympics, looking worn out, too tall for her skills and dogged with injury.

But, she made it to Atlanta and put in a valiant performance to help take the historic team gold. She also managed to qualify second into the AA behind favourite and eventual champ Lilia Podkopayeva. But there were problems. Her vault wasn’t up to scratch and she suffered for the whole Olympics on her floor mount: a double layout that fell out of the air every time she performed it.

The  low floor score shut the door on the AA medals for Shannon, a huge disappointment all things considered: her domination of the quad, her qualification, her success in 1992 and the home crowd disappointment (whenever I watch the Atlanta AA it always shocks me how silent and moody the crowd sounds after the third rotation).

But there was salvation: her beam. From qualifications right through to the end she was consistent and stunningly beautiful to watch. Watching the beam final today, it is as though everyone in the arena knows that medal is Shannon’s. There is a certain quiet expectation that does not sound tense, but rather waits without fear for her perfection and the fulfilment of something that is already hers. The final stamping out of that full in dismount and the roaring of the crowd: Shannon Miller wins the 1996 beam final with a 9.862, a hugely well deserved title and a fantastic end to a shining Olympic career.

The second is gymnastics superstar Svetlana Khorkina, a gymnast whose spectacular decade long career was fuelled by disappointment on multiple occasions. The 2000 Olympics were her party, and I know some people don’t like her (and I must respect that), but I think she was fantastic. Never before or since has a gymnast had that much presence, that much attitude and that much fame.

Sveta was already a bars gold medallist. A MULTIPLE gold medallist. She won her first world title on the bars in 1995, and by the time of the Sydney Olympics she had four world titles on the apparatus and 1 Olympic title. So you could hardly say she was the underdog.

However, the ridiculousness of the vault scandal had stripped her of an AA chance. The bars final was her last chance for gold (her last legitimate chance anyway, had Zamo fallen and Sveta taken floor gold people would have been angry and rightfully so). She pulled out what I think to be the performance of her life, and her Ricna-pak-stalder combination is one of my favourites of all time.

9.862: Khorkina repeats as the Olympic champion on bars, a salvaged win from a terrible Olympics.

Two apparatus, two golds, two women, one score.


I hated Lilia’s floor routine. I thought the music was appalling, the choreography terrible. But I thought the tumbling was incredible. Never before have I seen a better front tumbler, and that first pass, unique to this day, remained among the most impressive feats ever attempted on the floor exercise.

Lilia was one of the few true all around gymnasts, and the huge favourite for the win in Atlanta. Even in such a deep field, she was the only one who could convincingly have worn the gold medal (in my opinion).

Her floor routine, one of the last routines of the competition, was an absolute showstopper. I have already said that I hated most of its aspects, but it didn’t matter. The tumbling and her impeccable form is good enough for me.

Her score of 9.887, the highest of the night, gave her a deadlock on first place.


In the first departure from the 10 system, we have the score that currently holds the title of the highest score ever recorded in WAG at the world championship/Olympic level. It is of course the score posted for Nastia Liukin’s bar set at the 2008 Olympic WAG team final.

Nastia’s bar set was, and is, breathtaking. By far the most fluently composed and well executed bar set of the quad, Nastia really stamped herself as a legendary uneven bar worker and was hence rightfully rewarded with the highest score of the meet for her TF effort.

Sadly, things didn’t go the same way in the EF, and we all know how that ended. Still, with changes to the code it is feasible that this score may hold its record for a long time to come. Further, with Nastia back in training she may get a second shot at gold.

Least Favourites


This is an odd one to list as a least favourite, because it is a fantastic score. But I hate it at the same time. Why? Because I think instantly of Shannon Miller on vault at the 1992 Olympics AA.

The vault was one of the most perfect things I have ever seen. It was high, beautifully flighted, a nice tight twist, perfect form and an absolutely planted landing. I really think it should have been a 10.

Shannon was absolutely robbed in this final. It would potentially be more agreeable to say that Gutsu should have scored lower on vault and far lower on floor, but I hate this score because it was one of the best things Shannon ever produced and it didn’t get her the gold.


The more astute of you may notice that this has appeared on both my favourite and least favourite lists. Here it is with respect to Svetlana Boginskaya’s bars at the 1992 Olympics AA.

Yes, her bars were not as difficult as some. But the code didn’t seem to demand difficultly to the same level it does now. She performed her set the absolute best it could be performed, with not a form error in sight. I understand that those with more difficult routines should be rewarded more, but this score was way too low and prevented her from a medal that she definitely deserved. How did Kim, an appalling bar worker, outscore Bogi here? Scandal.


Poor, poor Pavlova. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Crème brûlée or Jell-O?

With all the time I have spent recently talking about execution, artistry and irredeemably ugly skills, I got to thinking about what we actually look for in gymnastics, what about it we enjoy and for what reasons we say we enjoy certain skills (this may all seem very self explanatory but bear with me - I promise I will come to something resembling a conclusion).

To begin thinking about this, I found it useful to think back to the very first gymnastics I ever saw. In the early summer of 1996 (when I was the tender age of 7), my younger brother was born and my older sister and I went to stay with my Grandmother in Wales. I spent the daytimes in the sea and the evenings watching the gymnastics coverage, and it was great.

It wasn’t until 2000 that I watched more, but at this point I was old enough to remember specifics. I vividly recall thinking Viktoria Karpenko’s vault was amazing, specifically because it was among the first pieces of gymnastics I had ever seen. When I look at this vault now, my neck hurts in empathy with the arch of her body; I notice how painfully low it is and overall have nothing particularly positive to say about it. And this is exactly my point: what we enjoy comes with experience, and what level of experience we have determines our favourites.

Viktoria Karpenko putting her spinal chord to the test

I thought further about this due to the recent comments of a non gymnastics fan: my boyfriend. Having been subjected to my perpetual youtube trawling he has (through sheer bombardment) seen his fair share of skills but obviously has no knowledge of what they are and no particular interest. This makes him an interesting candidate for opinions: he has seen enough to not be impressed by anything but doesn’t have specific knowledge and can hence judge on visuals alone.

I clocked onto this when I was sitting and randomly watching Catalina Ponor on FX from Tokyo (with BBC coverage incidentally: Mitch Fenner is just hilarious), and my impartial judge happened to look up and watch for the first two passes. Not being one to usually pass comment, I was surprised how impressed he was by a double layout. I asked him why: “because she goes around twice, thats really cool” (or something to that effect). A basic assessment, yes, but an interesting one. Here is someone who has probably seen plenty of double doubles, double Arabians, double pikes, full ins, double tucks....but it took a double layout to realise that the gymnasts are performing double somersaults. Imagine, if you will, a similar commentary to Matt Baker: you don't get the impression they really know anything but they are enthusiastic.

Ponor: Clean up a bit and I will love you forever.

(I will point out to anyone who was as horrified as I was at the thought of one’s first double layout being Catalina Ponor’s that I referred him instantly to Pav’s 08. Phew.)

I have a theory, and it goes as follows. The impartial judgment of the beauty of skills by seasoned fans like me and likely the readers of this blog is compromised by having too much knowledge. In knowing how difficult a skill is, we become biased and fail to see the real truth: that there are a few skills that transcend difficulty and are far more beautiful than their trickier counterparts. I believe one of these skills is the double layout.

To test this theory, I bored my judge for a little longer. I reasoned (based on the views of countless friends and family unfamiliar with the sport over the years) that the vault is the piece of apparatus on which the non knowledgable viewer finds it hardest to judge the difficultly of the skills performed (as they all looks pretty similar to a non experienced eye and are over very quickly indeed). So I quickly chose a selection of vaults (all in the layout position for simplicity) of varying difficulty and asked him which were his most and least favourites.

The options were:

-Shannon Miller 1992 AA Vault 1
-Yang Yun 2000 TF Vault 1 (one of the best vaults ever IMO)
-Elena Zamolodchikova Vaults 1 & 2 2000 EF
-Monica Rosu vault 2 2004 EF
-Cheng Fei Vault 2 2005 EF

My prediction was that he would not necessarily find the vaults that I knew to be the most difficult the most impressive. Indeed, he chose the best as Miller, Yun, Zamo 2 and the worst as Zamo 1 and Fei.  And I can see why. Tsukahara doubles and half on vaults are very difficult, but they don’t look particularly good. They are often messy, low and laboured and the non-knowledgeable viewer may not expect them to be difficult. It seems that simplicity and/or perfect landings won the contest.

One of the "best"

One of the "worst"

A similar thing happened when I happened to be watching some of the world champs with my mother. I kept setting her up for big skills, anticipating them with “this is so hard, watch”. But often she wasn’t bothered by them at all. She brushed off a double double with “looked a bit messy and I couldn’t tell what was happening”, only to be awestruck by a whipback.

So my conclusion, weak as it may be, is this: difficulty and beauty are not the same thing, and the perceived difficulty of a skill is not often anywhere near accurate (for the non fanatic viewers). When I think about it though, I have to agree. There is something fantastic and beautiful about a certain few well executed skills that others cannot match up to.

To use a tenuous example, lets turn to Julia Robert’s in the fantastic “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. Here she is talking about the potential relationship choices of her best friend, but just pretend for the purposes of this argument she is talking about a TTY and an FTY.

Skip to 0:42

Sometimes, we all want Jell-O. Obviously our respective jell-Os are different. After careful consideration, these are mine:

-Double layout
-A really high straddled jaeger

-A perfect piked full in
-A stuck Pod vault
-A stamped out front tuck on beam
-A switch ring

So what are yours?