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:
-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?