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.


  1. What about Mustafina at 2010 worlds? She didn't seem to have a significant weakness or a "standout" event -- she rocked all 4 apparatus.

  2. Yes I suppose she did actually. I always forget about her

  3. I think for me the true AAer is someone who can dominate in the AA but then also qualify for and win medals in all four apparatus finals too. The person I immediately thought of was Daniela Silivas who I 100% believed should have won the AA in Seoul in 1988 and I remembered her taking a lot of the apparatus golds but now I've looked it up she won gold on floor, bars and beam - and her medal history at World's in various years was the same, floor, bars and beam. It seems that even she had a weaker event, despite sticking in my head as a true AAer.

  4. Yeah thats a great example of what I meant. I thought of Silivas too but sadly her weakness on vault did prevent her from making a golden podium in the AA. I too am a big fan of hers. I love her stalder work on the high bar: simple by todays standards but lovely to watch. I am also a big Shushunova fan though so I always have mixed feelings about that competition.

    I totally agree with that definition and it is a shame that we don't see more AA medalists taking top spots in EFs: some may think it makes a competition less interesting but it really is a mark of excellence. Lilia is an obvious example here, and in a way Nastia because that bars EF gold was so hers. I also think of Elena Zamolodchikova: Had she not fallen on that fateful punch front she probably would be a triple individual gold medallist.

  5. Looking at this again today it made me really think of gymnasts who would have been excellent specialists in their day, had the chance been there at the time. The first one that springs to mind as the obvious choice was Vanessa Atler. Look at the international success that Alicia Sacramone has had without a bars routine - Atler could have done that as well as if not better than Sacramone I think.

    You also mentioned Kim Zmeskal above too - her bars could be shocking at times, I seem to recall her winning US Nationals one year with a dead hang on bars (not a Chinese dead hang but a dead dead hang!).

    I think looking back that we could probably go on to name lots and lots of gymnasts who would have made fantastic specialists but in an era when it was all about the AA either had to deal with their issues on their weak piece (Silivas, Zmeskal as two examples) or never really got their chance because of their weakness (Atler). It's a shame because Atler eventually let her weakness become the thing about her that everybody talked about rather than the amazing gymnastics she could do on the other pieces, and in a way let it define her and have an impact on her performance in other areas.

    All credit to those gymnasts these days that have an obvious weaker piece and still push to compete AA (Aly Raisman I'm thinking of you).

  6. Right there with you. I wrote a little thing about Atler a while ago. A real shame, her whole story.

    People definitely glorify the old AA dominated system as a bygone golden era, but one thing that has definitely got better over time is the acceptance of specialism and the real push for unbelievable routines on individual apparatus. You are so right about Atler - say she had been born to be coming of age in the current system she would have been fantastic and could have been even better than Alicia.

  7. Mustafina is definitely the most "all-rounded" gymnast this quad, for that reason I hope she win 2012. 2010 Komova (without the ankle injury) was quite the AAer too, and a very good potential AA-er as she heals and upgrades. Rebecca Bross does not have an Amanar... but is quite balanced as a gymnast. Jiang Yuyuan in 2008, she was groomed to challenge for AA gold after all but was injured during the games: Amanar, strong floor, very decent bars and beam.

    There isn't many AA gymnasts these days that are good at vault (actually no, they just don't get a 2nd vault for EFs), Musty is an exception.

    I think with the new code, it's easier to "override" your weak event by being quite a bit better in another. But what bothers me is that not all 4 events are scored equally, in this quad FX and BB score lower than UB and VT, so gymnasts like Lauren Mitchell are penalized for having "unlucky" better events. Same thing in 08, UB had the potential to reach monster D scores compared to FX (and VT then), which is a part of Nastia Liukin's victory. Its just plain unfair, no apparatus should be more important than another

  8. So spot on about the scoring imbalance. I am not expert enough to know what a solution could be but it is really biased and unfair for as you say unlucky specialists.

    Mustafina is definitely a well rounded gymnast. And I WANT to love her, but its like I have an aversion to her. I am sure I will get over it and its probably subconscious effects of how she was portrayed as not a very nice person. Gymnastics wise I hate hate hate hate her vault, LOVE her bars (her inbar 1/1, tkatchev, pak, stalder 1/2 at American Cup was such a fantastic combo), quite like her beam except the dismount and hate her floor twisting. But despite personal opinions she is undoubtedly a very solid AAer.

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  10. (oops sorry about the previous comment, the paragraphs were wonky)

    It took me a while to like her, I think there's just a cultural difference between US and Russia, Russians seem a bit more aloof and haughty, don't think they are actually arrogant pricks lol. And the NBC trio are quite over-dramatic about the next Russian diva lol.

    I like her gymnastics, very versatile, a good balance between power and grace (or at least Russian carriage and posing ability). I love that she has a nice second vault, her bars are awesome, awesome swings, handstands and combos, and a very snazzy dismount. Her beam routine is smart, a lot of room for potential connections depending on how it goes.

    But to get back on track, I think a true AAer is someone who can win the AA, and challenge for Gold on each event finals.

  11. Agreed, and I know the NBC stuff about her was probably exaggerated nothing.

    And I forgot about her bars dismount! It really is very cool

  12. The scoring imbalance is worrying, I agree. Having specialisms that happen to score well is just lucky. Some apparatus cross over so much more, too. If you are great on floor then beam is just a really narrow floor with similar skills on it - straight acro passes, dance passes, leaps, etc. If you are great on bars then those skills don't transfer as easily, so being a floor and beam person gives you a buy one get one free.

    That said, the vault is so much more of a make or break event, 5 seconds and something you can do a zillion times in warm-up you fall on your ass. If you wobble on the other apparatus you have a much stronger chance of bringing it back together.

    Mind you, there are so many places we could pick faults in it being down to luck - if you are the 3rd best in a team and you are way better than the best in another team you still cannot go forward as it's 2 per country. That's rather crazy, if the US's number 3 girl is better than Italy's number 1 then put up the American or don't pretend the competition is about having the best compete against the best.

  13. That's why I'm so excited about 2012 AA
    Aliya Mustafina: I'd say her weakest event is beam where she sometimes misses combinations but if she does her routine perfectly she could easily medal so I'd say she has no weakness
    Victoria Komova: When she gets her amanar back her only weakness will be her incosistency.
    Jordyn Wieber: her weakest event is obviously bars but I can't say that someone who qualifies in an UB final at worlds is exacly weak, not as strong as some others sure but not weak.
    Gabby Douglas: If she does what she's capably of (and gets a new floor routine) she has no weak event either
    Yao Jinnan: Yes, she doesn't have an amanar (I hope she's training one) but can we say that sb who does a perfect DTY is weak at vault? I don't think so
    Larisa Iordache: I'm sure she'll have an amanar by London, so she'll be amazing at vault, beam and floor and her bars are not as strong as some others' sure but she can do a 6.5 routine, it's not exacly weakness.
    Each and every of those girls is a true and a huge all arounder.
    And about Khorkina: the woman has at least one individual world/olympic medal in every event (sure 7 on bars and 1 on beam) and she's the only woman to have a move named after her in every event. she had qualified in 3 EF in Sydney and I believe she was the only one to do so.