Friday, 30 December 2011

New Years Resolutions

Gymnasts are busy people. This year I thought I would do their NY resolutions for them.


Should resolve to.....


Aly is great and has really shown how much she is worth to the USA. She is the kind of performer you just watch: you never expect her to fall, step out or even wobble (most of the time). 2011 has been a good year for her. She has solidified her status as a reliable team performer, particularly given Alicia’s unfortunate departure from Tokyo leaving Aly as last minute team captain. Plenty of people thought the USA were toast with Alicia gone, and without Anna Li’s bars, but the whole team smashed QFs and finals and that can only look good for young captain Raisman.

However, Aly is not without her problems. Artistry and graceful expression really are her downfalls. Sadly, these problems show up the most on her best apparatus: floor and the beam. Her beam acro skills are great, but her general presentation leaves a lot to be desired. A key example of this is her paltry, perfunctory low to beam work: the most pathetic of nods to the requirement in a clunking, awkward and ugly fall to the horizontal.

So the general resolution could be a more general “pay more attention to artistry”, but that is a very broad ask. I really think that a simple, classic toe point would make all the difference. Particularly on bars, where her feet would actually look more appropriate on a cartoon duck.


2 years. 2 botches.

I don’t even mean good. I just mean simply: learn to stay on there when it counts. To be honest (as I have mentioned in a previous post) I am dubious of the likelihood of Aly actually landing the second AA spot at the Olympics, with the potential of a back up to scratch Bross (amongst others). However, if she does, and misses bars, it would be the 3rd time in a row that her AA hopes were botched by a bad bars set. Even if she doesn’t have the need for a bars set beyond QFs at the Olympics, and carries on her career beyond them, she could be a real hope for an AA shot in the depleted field of the fresh quad, a la Sloan in 2009. So learn to stay on!


Should resolve to.....


In my extremely biased opinion, I think Beth’s current routine is by far the best in the world at this moment. It is clean (not on the level of Komova, admittedly) but extraordinarily difficult, with difficultly built up by not just a series of big tricks, but a series of big tricks smoothly connected. I think her performance in the team finals of this year’s worlds was the best of her career by far - something very exciting to see at this point in her career with the prospect of a home turf Olympics looming.

But this is not 2008. The new code will not let her qualify to finals with a fall, or even a mistake. Beth needs to have those connections ready to do in any circumstance.


Over the years, various American competitors have proven that a gymnast doesn’t have to be from a balletic background with classic long lines, or even a particularly good dancer, to put together a bloody good floor routine.

Look at Jordyn Wieber. Although her current floor routine does to some degree split opinion, I think it is one of the most expressive and original floor routines around at the moment. Wieber (like Beth) is a tumbler, not a dancer. But her current choreography shows excellent detail to the music and plays to her strengths rather than exposing her weaknesses. Similarly, the show stopper at the 2008 VISA championships was totally Chellsie Memmel’s floor routine on night two. Again, definitely a tumbler and not a dancer, but that routine was perfect for Chellsie and it brought the house down.

I have no real idea why Beth’s coaches don’t try for something similar. It would be so easy! Go for more modern music with a stronger beat, get some expressive but not balletic moves that Beth isn’t visibly cringed-out by and get confident with it! I am still (perhaps naively) hoping for her to have trained up that Arabian full out by the time of London. That, with some choreography that matches her, would be fantastic.
 If she wants any chance of factoring in on the floor again, something has to change.


Should resolve to......


Jordyn was the star of 2011. She saw of challenged for Mustafina early on, Komova later on, and will now forever be able to say that she was the best gymnast in the world.

But it isn’t going to get any easier. She had a lot of help from Komova at this year’s worlds: no amanar, car crash beam, steps on floor. Jordyn cannot count on such luck in the coming year. She is going to need to raise her game wherever she possibly can (I am thinking at least something on everything except vault). I think some real progress could be made on bars, considering how far she came in a relatively short amount of time on this apparatus. Not long ago she was labouring through staggered toe-ons and now she has some pretty impressive combination work at the top of her routine (which she did mess up at worlds, but it is there nonetheless).

I think Jordyn is a great gymnast and deserving of this year’s accolades. But it is going to take a lot of work indeed to break the curse of the world champion going into the Olympics.


Should resolve to....


She was once quoted as saying that she would “keep going until she won a medal”, but has been showing signs of slowing down a bit recently. Not that I blame her, constant exhaustion and little reward and recognition has got to be disheartening. This is especially true when the judges slam her as much as they did at this worlds (as was brought to my attention by a recent thread on intlgymnast). The below routine was qualifications received a score lower than that of Alexandra Raisman. There are no words.

I think Jessica is a great presence and fan favourite in the sport, and it would be a shame to see her give up now.


Should resolve to....


Not to slam her as much as many have, but by God does that girl need a “graceful loser face”. Someone should send her a copy of Miss Congeniality on DVD.


Should resolve to....


The biggest chucker in chucktown watered down, polished up, and won a medal. More of this please.


Should resolve to....


1.       We all understand, from the gymnasts themselves to the seasoned fans to the people that happen to turn on a gymnastics live feed for the first time in their lives
2.       Rewards in a balanced fashion the difficulty, execution, originality and artistry of the routines
3.       Doesn’t create silly loopholes that come to characterise an entire apparatus (such as the rebound jumps on floor)
4.       Doesn’t create an unfair scoring imbalance across apparatus (such as Lauren Mitchell). 

      Happy New Year everyone!
      I know this is early - but I am going away tomorrow. Would love to hear any other suggestions!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Here is Nastia Liukin reading some awkwardly written prose in a digitally altered voice. I feel I should apologize for my extremely cynical tone, but I have such an instantaneous reaction of dislike towards these things.

This clip suffers with the same chronic dishonesty as many modern day commercials.It is advertising that tries to pretend it is about more than it actually is: the pretence of having any of the truth, feelings and permanence of real art. The reminiscent music, the childlike tone of her voice, the vulnerability of being the lone figure in a lofty gym and those big sad eyes. Even the clothes she wears make a statement - she is simply in comfortable gym shorts and not a competition leotard, which removes the glitz of the performance from the sport and hints at a very non-glamorous ongoing graft.

But the product is so painfully transparent. The words are simply that: WORDS. They convey very little meaning and no passion: like everything they might of meant has been hollowed out in some shiny recording studio. You have to wonder whether Nastia was simply handed these sentences, perhaps on some thick high-quality printer paper by some advertizing exec at NBC, during a three minute window in between visits to Forever 21. "Sound emotional", he may have said.

But the thing that confuses me is that live sport is blind to all of this! Live gymnastics broadcasts cast away the misery of the grind of training and give an exciting, colourful and bright view of the sport. I am not sure that, even if the tone they were clearly trying for had succeeded, it would ever be an incentive to watch the new channel. I can see how some people might feel that it suggests Liukin is poised like a crouched tiger for competition, which would be quite exciting. To me though it just feels like I am supposed to feel sorry for her: as if by watching the channel I would be keeping her company in this lonely, grainy world of perpetual backhandsprings.

This mustn't be mistaken for a big old pop at Nastia - I am right behind her again. After all, why wouldn't she accept the money and the publicity if approached and propositioned? I probably would. This is more a stab at the entire brand of Olympics fluffing. In fairness Nastia is not the only one doing the rounds, Lauren Mitchell has her very own sepia beamy snoozefest too, complete with a gross looking front walk over.

I appreciate this is a large overreaction to what is a fairly inoffensive piece of video, but I find the whole thing I bit emotionally manipulative.

As usual I would love to hear other opinions on this topic. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Born This Way

It is Christmas Eve, and time to do what I do best: write an article about what happens to be on my mind and awkwardly shoehorn it into a relevant theme suitable for the times. Let’s have a go then.

This past week I have been thinking about luck of the draw. About the extraneous factors which hugely influence a gymnast’s chance for success on the world stage but are not directly related to their talent and are not things that can be helped. The main thread of this thought is as follows: the code changes each quad. Each new code is bound to favour a certain type of gymnast more than another (in the 05-08 and 09-12 quads, it favoured those who could do an amanar, whereas in 89-92 it favoured those who could stick an FTY, as a simple example). Whilst this gives some gymnasts a right-place-right-time advantage, it also puts some at an instant disadvantage: you could say they were born into the “wrong quad”.

Christmas is a story of a birth. SEAMLESS, right?

Below are the gymnasts that stick out most obviously to me as being born at such a time to put them in a quad which didn’t play to their strengths.


For me, this girl had one of the best flight series on beam of all time. If not THE best. It is one of the most exciting, original and difficult combinations I have ever seen (BHS-LO 2 feet-BHS-LOSO). On a side note, she also had some pretty cool little extras: it was hugely refreshing to see that mount, which I had forgotten about, as I searched for this video. As was the forgotten second acro combination: a cartwheel through to two layout stepouts. Now THESE are beam connections. Fast, flighted and difficult.

So why, then, does this fantastic gymnast not even have her own Wikipedia page? Stella Umeh went on to find success in the NCAA program, where she was the two time floor exercise champion (1995, 1998) for UCLA. Her elite career was no failure: at the 1994 commonwealth games she took the all around title, and followed this with a vault gold and UB silver in events finals. However, on the world stage, recognition of her talent was less forthcoming and Stella has no world level medals to her name.

I do not contest the scores that Stella received: the code at the time valued stuck landings and polished leaps over acrobatic difficulty, and sadly Stella was not great at sticking her double back cold and her leaps were less than ideal for the time. But one has to ask the question: does this not sound similar to Shawn Johnson, the current Olympic beam champion? I think so, a powerful compact gymnast who excels at acrobatics and big tricks over the finer details of leaps and stuck landings. If Stella had trained such a difficult and original flight series as her routine highlight back in 1991 before the code really required such difficulty, it is fun to imagine what she might have managed today had she been rewarded for her difficulty.

Quads competed in: 89-92; 93-96
Quads more suited to: 05-08


The beautifully uncharacteristic Romanian who had a brilliant world debut at the 2009 world championships. Ana is everything that Romania is not known for: long graceful lines, originality, artistry, nice bars; and the inconsistency that often comes with these abilities.

Many may think of Ana as a strange choice: she is certainly not lacking in the recognition department: she has plenty of fans and is a well known gymnast, and is the possessor of a world championship bronze and a world title on the balance beam. Her debut world championships in 2009 could have been far more fruitful for her had it not been for a few silly mistakes: she could have made the AA podium and been a two time balance beam champion.

So as you can see, Ana is not without her success. However, she has a big problem: the vault.
Unfortunately Ana cannot seem to upgrade from an FTY, and although there have been rumours and the odd video of her training an unsure looking DTY into a pit over the years, nothing has ever surfaced in competition. This poses a problem for her: she is fantastic elsewhere. Her beam is wonderful and her bars and floor are not half bad either (could do with quite a few bars upgrades but she is far from terrible).
Factoring into the AA in the 09-12 quad with a paltry vault is even harder than before. Nastia Liukin took the Olympic AA title in 2008 with a comparatively simple 1.5 twisting yurchenko (which also happened to be one of the most beautiful vaults of the quad in my opinion). She was able to do this because of the code of points at the time: the 10 elements rule meant that she could form monstrous D scores on other apparatus to compensate. Ana is less able to receive this luxury: 8 elements per apparatus mean that scores on bars, beam and floor are lower than they were this time 4 years ago (for example, the highest bars score of the 05-08 quad was 16.900, in this quad it currently stands at around 16.133). Sadly, the Amanar is more of a necessaity to win than ever.

Ana has qualities that match her very well to a much earlier time. Her lack of modern difficulty on vault would not have been a problem for her and she would have excelled in terms of her difficulty in other areas (in a very similar way to Tatiana Gutsu). At the very least, she would have benefitted from being one quad behind: the 05-08 rules would have at least given her more of a chance to build difficulty elsewhere to reduce the pressure on her vaulting.

Were this the case, she may have been respected as a true AA gymnast and have enjoyed success as such, as opposed to being considered a specialist with a weak vault.

Quads competed in: 09-12
Quads more suited to: 05-08


Kristen Maloney has the unfortunate pleasure of being one of the most famous American gymnasts of what was perhaps the USA’s darkest gymnastics period in the modern history of the sport. The 1997-2000 quad was not a good time for the American’s, and the magnificence of the 7 could not seem to be transferred to a new crowd.

In a home setting though, Kristen was well known and successful. A two time national AA champion is not an accolade that comes easily and is certainly one to be proud of. However, international success was never forthcoming for Kristen and hence her international medal cabinet contains only the dubious bronze awarded late due to the age falsifications of Dong Fangxiao.

One thing to be said for Kristen: she had some fantastic skills. Although her presentation was often scrappy and she seemed to never be 100% healthy throughout her entire career, she could pull some very, very impressive tricks out of the bag. Her floor routine at the 2000 Olympics was, and is, one of the most difficult ever to be performed. It included a full twisting double layout, a whip through to double layout and a pike punch through to triple full (as well as some really interesting artistry). It’s the kind of routine that makes you feel exhausted just watching it.

I cannot help but feel that Kristen would have been right at home in 05-08, the trickster quad. Then again, it could successfully be argued that Kristen’s downfall was simply inconsistency. After all, had she not stepped out of the floor area during qualifying she would have made the floor finals. Had she performed in these hypothetical finals to the same standard as her team final performance, she would have received a 9.737. This would have been enough to take the bronze over Simona Amanar = Kristen Maloney would be an OLYMPIC medallist. Crazy, right?

So whether it was the coding climate that held back Kristen, or indeed herself, is a matter of opinion. Yet I still believe she would have found greater success in the quad of the code overhaul. As would a fellow Sydney competitor below....

Quad competed in: 97-00
Quad more suited to: 05-08


I know virtually nothing about this gymnast. I stumbled upon her beam work whilst absent mindedly half-watching the sub divisions of the 2000 Olympics WAG qualifications last year. Out of knowhere came this statuesque and hugely talented gymnast I has never heard of before. It is very rare that I watch something and am genuinely surprised by what I see: usually when we watch footage we know a lot about the competitors and have most often seen the routines several times before. But this was something entirely different. An unknown Korean gymnast at the Sydney Olympics competing a routine containing a BHS-BHS-LO2F connection AND a roundoff layout full?! Insanity.

It is times like this when you realise why the code needed to change. I am usually such a modern code hater, and totally unforgiving of wobbles, but the fact is that this routine obviously did not receive the recognition it deserved. The guidelines of the time were blind to its huge difficulty. And yes I am well aware that a lot of it was messy and wobbly and not as fluent to watch as many others, but even so, it’s very impressive. With everything that is wrong with the sport today, at least we can say that gymnasts, most of the time, are rewarded adequately for the hard skills they learn.

There are undoubtedly many more names that will come to me post writing, but time constrains me. I always love to hear feedback and differing opinions particularly on something as abstract and speculative as this.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Back to reality?

Two years ago, most gymnastics fans were already aware of Viktoria Komova. Her beautiful presentation alongside super hard skills set her apart from the crowd: she was a trickster, but she carried it off like a soviet. She was, and is, beautiful to watch.

But what would the same fans say about her now? I am willing to bet that a significant proportion of the dedicated gymnastics audience has gone off the boil with regards to Komova.

Why do I think this? The reason has absolutely nothing to do with her skills. Nothing to do with her presentation. Nothing to do with, in fact, anything at all about her gymnastics. I am referring to the fact that at the Tokyo World Championships All Around competition, Viktoria Komova allowed her personal emotion to be broadcast to the world, which many will see as a window into the young girl’s personality.

We live in a culture that has become obsessed with celebrity, and it didn’t happen overnight. There was a time when the fame of the famous could be attributed to a vocation: a talent for acting, a powerful singing voice. Of course people still find fame based on these reasons, but more and more common is the obsession with what goes on behind closed doors. The last decade has ushered in a new age of journalism, celebrity and media obsession where the failings and mistakes of those in the spotlight command more attention and accolade than any of their more significant achievements.

The arrival of TV series Big Brother at the turn of the millennium could be easily argued to be the touch paper that started this reality blaze. On the wake of this new brand of entertainment came a whole host of repackaged broadcasts, and almost before we knew what happened we were spending our evenings watching Tyra Banks go through a mid life crisis via a host of vulnerable teenagers followed by hours of Heidi Montag bitching about Lauren Conrad. It is times like this when you stop and think “if I died right now, I would forever have passed away watching Whitney Port deciding whether or not to quit fashion school”. And it ain’t a good feeling.

Whitney Port and Lauren Conrad discussing the Eurozone crisis.

But that is another story. My basic point is that the world became obsessed with the failings of the individual leaving talent to languish in its shadow. Not to put too much of a Carrie Bradshaw spin on it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: has the same happened with gymnasts?

I was sent down this thought path by a thread on intlgymnast. So it turns out that some people make fake facebook profiles for their favourite gymnasts and sort of live vicariously through these fake personas. This gave me two instant thoughts: how someone can manage to live vicariously when the REAL version of their persona has to train dawn till dusk and eat like 1 leaf a day is beyond me. But secondly, a simple question: why do they care?

Personally, I don’t care if a gymnast gave a million dollars to charity nor embezzled 2 million from one. I don’t care how nice, how mean, how bitchy, how boring, as long as they are good at what they do. Yet despite this I cannot pretend that I too, at times, find myself slightly jaded by the caricatures that are painted for some top athletes.

It seems to me that most are Russian, and most are painted by the American commentary team. Aliya Mustafina is the most recent recipient of a bitch branding. “She said, don’t worry dad, I can’t lose” - how about you stop feeding me mistranslations and start talking a little about the sport? It gets so exaggerated and ridiculous at times (with Mustafina, and others, notably Khorkina) that the picture painted resembles some kind of James Bond villain. You can imagine Elfi saying “in her spare time Aliya likes to ominously stroke a large white fluffy cat and kill henchmen for fun”.

The real Aliya Mustafina

Elfi's version

The overall point is, whether the caricatures are true or false, they have no real place in our minds as spectators. A personality does not make or break an athletic performance, and the bias that can result from the peddling of these stereotypes can be damaging. 

When it comes to the reality of the situation, I’d rather not have it. 

  1. What Elena Produnova wants to achieve with her eyebrow plucking
  2. What Aliya Mustafina said to her dad on skype, or indeed if she skypes with her dad at all
  3. If Svetlana Khorkina is mean to her coach or not

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Lost in time

Change can be a good thing, and often is. It gives us variety, surprises, new things we never thought of and even with bad changes comes the opportunity for debate.

Gymnastics is no exception, and perhaps one of the sports with the most room for change. The skills we see performed and the criteria on which they are judged change with high regularity, meaning a gap of just two Olympics can see changes of great proportion.

What I find interesting, and often saddening, is how particular skills become left behind. Slung into the back of a dusty cupboard and never again to be brought back out into the light by the top level performers (or very rarely at least). There are of course many reasons for this, primarily involving changes in the code to the difficultly rating of skills, and in many cases there is no real cause for these moves to be given more podium time. But on a personal opinion level, here are some skills I miss from back in the day.

Kim Zmeskal shows us what we are missing

Ok so these are not entirely gone. We get a fair amount of whip into triple, a few whip to double Arabians and so forth, but whipbacks by no means have the pride of place they once did in floor routines. A notable and brilliant exception is Catalina Ponor’s new second pass which sees two consecutive whips indirectly into a full twisting double back. Execution wise it’s messy but I am all over the concept.

But despite these few pop ups, we don’t see nearly as many as we used to. There was a time when anyone who was anyone did a fair bit of whipping. 1992 was clearly its heyday, with Kim Zmeskals super famous middle pass: whip whip whip bhs double tuck. So cool, so fun to watch and so so so nineties.

I personally think we could use a whole lot more whipping. I think it is a really underrated way of making routines by less than artistic gymnasts interesting and different. Few things match music like whips. Kim’s music was amongst the worst ever (I think) BUT that middle pass was a brilliant link with the music in a way that most tumbling lines rarely achieve. I personally think that Jordyn Wieber’s current music with a multiple whip pass would be just fantastic.


I love that Chuso was the first person to do one of these fantastic little bar elements (I have since been corrected - she was not the first but the skill does bear her name). She is just great, but not on bars and I love that she had a lasting impact on something she was not known for.

But back to the skill itself, it is so fun to watch. So energetic, quick and magical. I loved it as an alternative to traditional pirouetting, and whilst I am in agreement with it no longer being classed as a release skill I found it to be a really pleasant addition to any routine. Even more so when done in combination. Lili Podkopayeva springs to mind here. I happen to think her bars were often a bit scrappy and overscored but her hop full-hop full-gienger was really cool. I have seen fewer and fewer of these over the years and they were another skill that defined the nineties to me, and a large part of this is down to Lilia and also Shannon Miller.


And may I quickly point out that the tired old 2.5 twist to layout front doesn’t count. I am talking about a good, old fashioned tucked punch front, preferably in a different direction to the tumbling line itself.

Part of me is tempted to hate punch fronts: they have claimed many of my favourites as their victims. A punch front lost Dominique Dawes an AA medal in 1996, Elena Zamolodchikova an AA gold in 2000. It set back the legendary Svetlana Boginskaya in her third Olympic effort, and undoubtedly countless more along the way. But these incidents pale into insignificance when they are done well. The aggressive landing, the rebound, the sudden change of direction. They are one of those skills that can genuinely be called exciting, and I am sure even non gymnastics fans would agree.

I have particular fondness for double layout punch fronts. Mohini Bhardwaj and Vanessa Atler’s efforts were amazing and epitomized powerful American gymnastics.


Remember when combinations on beam were actually made up of skills, being combined?! I do. It was a brilliant time and one that is sorely missed. Now, in theory a group of skills of different directions and types could be combined, but why the hell would you risk it if no one told you off for not doing so? This seems to be the general pattern in the modern day for the flight series on beam, and I don’t even resent them for it: they have to play to the code. Just as much as the code says “don’t fall off” it also apparently says “do a FWO, do the YMCA for a bit, relax, then have a go at a BHS-LOSO and have some points”. So obviously, people do.

Back in the 80s and 90s, if a gymnast meant to combine a flight series, then they did. With ferocious speed, attack and precision (not all the time of course, but that seemed to be the general idea). Again I must use Shannon as an example. I loved her mount sequence leading into a back handspring and pike back in Barcelona. She often took a wobble, but it was flighted and super super quick.

Obviously code changes make it less likely for gymnasts to do multiple layout step outs. Great to see Komova bringing it back from the dead a bit with her two LOSOs in a row.