Thursday, 26 January 2012

Lost in time part 2: mounts and dismounts

In our earliest years of education, we learn a simple fact about stories: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not one of these components can be singled out as the best, or the most important, with each having its own particular contributions.

In gymnastics, routines on two of the four apparatus follow the same rules. A mount begins a routine. Several skills follow, forming the middle section of the routine, and a gymnast ends with a dismount.

Based on classic storytelling rules, all three sections should be of equal importance when composing the routine. Why, then, have modern routines of bars and beam come to resemble an optional middle and a compulsory start and finish? This is obviously an exaggeration, but it is undeniable that interesting mounts and varied dismounts have quickly become a thing of the past.

Uneven Bars

To my knowledge, not a single competitor in a world or Olympic level bars event final since (at least) 2000 has mounted with anything other than a glide kip on the low bar, jump to high bar or a vault with hand repulsion to the high bar (be this straight or straddled) - but I would be happily corrected if I am mistaken!

In fairness to modern competitors, mounting the uneven bars was never a particularly noticeable hotbed of ingenuity. There was, however, some variation and certainly a great deal more than there is today. Even the simple half turn into kip on the low bar made a pleasant change to the norm (as competed most memorably in my mind by Tatiana Lyssenko, but also by many others including Lavinia Milosovici).

There were or course those who really took it to the next level with their bars mounts. My personal favourite for irregularity and difficulty is the fantastic Olesia Dudnik, whose roundoff Arabian somersault to hang on high bar really makes those used to modern bar routines look twice.

To my mind, the last top level gymnast competing a bars mount that could genuinely be considered interesting was Elena Zamolodchikova, with her roundoff to flip full turn to handstand on the lowbar. Even this was shortlived and often badly performed, though.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there were never really that many bars mounts around to start with (relative to other skill types). Therefore it is pretty forgivable if a little disappointing that we never see anything beyond what has become the norm. Less understandable, though, are the dismounts.

Although uneven bars dismounts are more varied than the above, they are still pretty stagnated. It generally comes as a shock at the end of a routine if the dismount isn’t any of the big three: the full twisting double tuck, the double layout or the double front. To my knowledge, no event final competitor in the new millennium has dismounted with anything other than a double somersault variation from a forwards/backwards giant.
This is such a shame when we consider the beautiful possibilities that exist out there! For a start, twisting dismounts are almost never seen and they can be gorgeous. I would love to see a triple twisting layout at the end of a bar routine (I always thought Yang Yilin would have been perfect for this).

I imagine with skills like this, norms of coaching are a problem. Perhaps it seems less worth training a twisting dismount when the techniques learned can be applied to little else (learning a double back off the bars can be modified into a whole host of skills). Maybe, though, it is just force of habit that causes these dismounts to be left languishing in the shadows. 

At least when something was never popular, one doesn’t have the problem of “missing” it. This can be said somewhat for the twisters but sadly not for the toe on and hip circle dismounts of this world. The eighties brought us many of these, and they were allowed to live on through the much missed compulsory exercises. A personal favourite of mine is the underswing front tuck salto with a half twist. Here it is performed by Svetlana Khorkina in a rare example of a bars compulsory video by the superstar Russian (incidentally the whole routine is a favourite of mine, as I think it shows she DID have good technique on the bars beyond her own niche set of skills).

(Love seeing my favourite bar worker doing my favourite bar transfer. That's another story though)

Of course, this particular dismount and many like it are rated as C elements or less, and hence do not fulfil D dismount category of the code of points. I understand this rule as it necessitates the maintenance of difficulty throughout a routine (a paltry dismount at the end of a routine can be really disappointing: for example I really hated Elena Produnova's double pike dismount in 1997). It is a shame however that some sort of originality bonus cannot be worked into the code, allowing us to see a greater variation of dismounts.

But not all of these types of dismounts are low rated: the super cool “Ma” is an F (A hip circle hecht with full turn to salto backwards - nice).


Since the code change, many gymnasts mount the beam as if they are getting on a bus. Thankfully, there are still many gymnasts who begin a routine with an exciting, acrobatic skill. Alicia Sacramone has been front piking for years now, and while I was never fond of the attempted connection to back tuck it certainly begins the routine with a bang (or on occasion, a bang and a crash...but hey, that was 4 years ago).

In terms of interesting and artistic mounts, Lauren Mitchell’s cartwheel to chest roll is pretty original (and it was nice to see Shawn is using it too, making a great change from her 2008 borefest). For others, though, one finds oneself having to look back until at least the last Olympics where we saw a few nice press to handstand variations, such as Nastia’s beautiful start.

One thing I particularly miss is roundoff mounts. At one stage the roundoff LOSO mount was relatively common but we sadly get very few of these today. A personal favourite of mine was Khorkina’s roundoff BHS 1/1 mount directly into a flight series: linking an interesting mount straight into difficult on-the-beam work is unheard of these days.

Other favourites include Ivana Hong’s front handspring.

Looking to dismounts, I am bored to tears with an endless tirade of double pikes. An interesting point, though, is that there were just as many double tucks from the beam in years gone by and these were not nearly as irritating. The problem is this: the double pike is an E whereas the double tuck is a D. Therefore gymnasts obviously go for the former. This would be fine is everyone’s looked like Bridget Sloan’s, but sadly the vast majority end up as a messy, unstuck and knee eating catastrophe that quite frankly ruin a beam routine for me. I would rather take a stuck tucked double (like Lobaz’s beauty) any day of the week.

Love ya Bridge

In terms of dismount variation, it was lovely to see Casey Jo Magee bringing the swing through 2.5 twist back from the dead at this year’s visas. 

Perhaps this is just the spoilt ramblings of someone who rarely gets to see their favourite skills, but maybe it is something bigger. I can't help but feel like we never see anything intriguing anymore, and in few areas is this as true as it is with mounts and dismounts. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The untimely departure of Ana Porgras

“But I am sure we will see her in the future. Three more years and I am sure she we have more experience”.

And it wasn’t just Christine Still who felt sure. At the 2009 World Championships, many gymnastics fans (included me) believed we were seeing one of the next greats. Ana Porgras is and was a fantastic gymnast, and yesterday’s news of her retirement is incredibly saddening. Saddening for her, saddening for the fans, saddening for Romania and saddening for the entire sport.

Ana was one of the only gymnasts this quad who could truly be called artistic. This simple fact is brilliant enough in its own right, given the times we live in. But further to this: she was a Romanian.
Who do we think of when someone says “Romanian WAG Gymnast”? For me: Simona Amanar, Lavinia Milosovici, Gina Gogean. In other words: compact gymnasts known less for their artistry, and more for their almost robotic consistency, vaulting and tumbling. And of course, their terrible bars.

This was part of what made Ana’s gymnastics so special. She wasn’t just good; she shattered a mould that had been set tight in the Romanian system for decades. Rather than perfunctory choreography, gluey feet and nailed landings, she was all about delicate lines, beautiful presentation and ethereal inconsistency.

She was the star of the 2009 World Championships, despite winning only one medal. A bronze on the uneven bars - in the final Ana showcased her classic lines and presentation to capitalize on a weak field. This medal is misleading though, as Ana is no bars specialist. It was all about her beam. There was a sense that if she could battle through her inconsistency problems, she would be a beam frontrunner. To me, it seemed like she was poised to upgrade dramatically and would become a real threat in the all around as the quad drew to a close.

2010 saw Ana stay on the beam to win a well deserved world title. However, even by this point, pressures of the code had drained much of the originality, poise and artistry out of her beam routine that had won over the fans and commentators in the first place. Thankfully, she retained her fantastic flight series ending in her super sky high layout. Even here, though, the artistic touches were fading: I loved in 2009 that she began her flight series with a back walk over as opposed to a back handspring. The change in tempo from slow grace to speed and power was fantastic to watch.

The highlight of Ana's career. But.....
...many of the personal touches seen here were gone. Look at that mount, and my favourite BWO into the flight series.

In other respects though, Ana never lived up to the hype that her debut seemed to promise. Unfortunately, she never seemed able to upgrade her vault from a full twisting yurchenko. In an open ended code, a vault start value of 5.0 was never realistically going to cut it against American and Russian 6.5s. Combining this with increasingly scrappy floor routines and bar work that was beginning to plateau around the 14.000 mark, Ana’s chance of impacting an AA podium was seeming slimmer and slimmer each competition.

You could say (as I have suggested in a previous article) that Ana was born into the wrong quad. A delicate, artistic girl with a great FTY would have been right at home in the early nineties. Sadly it is now a game of muscles and mammoth D scores.

A beautiful vault, but sadly lacking in the tariff necessary to compete at the very top level

Regardless of all of the above, and even regardless of making no finals at the 2011 worlds, it still seems a shame to throw in the towel at this point. Easy for the unfatigued spectator to say, but one would think it worth hanging on a few extra months to make all the years of training that bit more worthwhile. Still, all that can be done is to hope that Ana’s decisions are her own, and ones that she does not come to regret later.

And so it is will sadness that Ana Porgras becomes added to a list of fantastic, hugely talented and widely loved athletes who never quite managed to reach their true potential.

Three famous examples of unfulfilled potential

-         MO HUILAN

One gold and two silvers in terms of individual achievement: less than you would imagine for someone who made such a lasting impression on gymnastics. Mo was the epitome of inconsistency which cost her AA medals in 1995 and potentially 1996, and locked her out of the EF of her signature apparatus in Atlanta.


Only one individual silver for perhaps the most overhyped American gymnast of all time. Dominique showed exceptional difficulty at a very young age (if age restrictions stay the same she will forever be the youngest American national champion, aged a mere 13 back in 1995). Personal issues and injuries prevented her from coming back strong at the world level beyond the Atlanta Olympics.


For me the greatest waste of potential of them all. Lobaznyuk was one of the stars of the 2000 Olympic Russian team: in my opinion one of the greatest assemblages of talent in the modern history of the sport. Sadly, they failed to deliver in a spectacular way. Ekaterina’s career was similarly underwhelming in light of the incredible talent that she possessed: she has an individual silver and bronze to her name. A bad vault in 2001 tore her ACL and MCL, which ultimately prevented Lobaz from progressing in the sport. The fact that this girl has neither AA medals nor any floor medals is a real shame. This was surely world class in anyone’s book...


Monday, 16 January 2012

Deja vu?

Walter Bageshot, a nineteenth century politican and businessman, was once quoted as saying the following: “Life is a school of probability”. For us at least, he was right.

Our whole lives are peppered with the mention of probabilities, statistics, percentages and figures. Quite some time ago, these bitesize bores jumped into the world of advertising. Now, it is impossible to watch or buy anything without being bombarded with facts about its level of carbon neutrality, antioxidant performance, the number of years it will shave off your appearance and how many of your five a day it is. Sport is of course no exception: modern competitions are saturated with seedings, world rankings and future performance predictions.

In a world run by stats, is gymnastics exempt? In other words, are an athletes probabilities of striking gold affected by those that went before them? Inspired by a recent thread on intlgymnast, I began to wonder what the 2012 medal roster might resemble if history is anything to go by.

So, I took the gold medal winners from the four previous Olympics and collected their finishing positions in the world championships from the previous year (if they were not in the preceding final, their qualification placement was used, and if they were not in the previous worlds then their best mark at an international competition in the preceding year was used). I then took an average.


Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 1,1,4,4
Average: 2.5

According to the average, the Olympic champion on vault in 2012 will be either Oksana Chusovitina or Phan Thi Ha Thanh.

Likely? Seemingly not, although these two gymnasts may well figure into the equation, it would take a catastrophic fall from American wonderwoman Mckayla Maroney for either to strike gold. The way things look right now, it will be a repeat of 1996 and 2000: the reigning world champ will be crowned the Olympic vault queen.

It is worth noting, however, that in all of the last 4 Olympics, the eventual vault champion competed in the world EF in the previous year. This is the only apparatus final of which this can be claimed. 

Uneven Bars

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 1,1,40,1
Average: 10.75

And here is a great example of how averages can be completely meaningless and useless. This is though an interesting selection of numbers nonetheless. With three first place figures, Uneven Bars is the apparatus upon which the reigning champ is most likely to repeat. Some may be confused about why there are 3 numbers ones listed here. As He Kexin was not age eligible in 2007 I took her score from the 2007 Cottbus Cup: a 16.800, which would comfortably have won her the gold at the 2007 world championships ahead of Ksenia Semenova. 40, on the other hand, is the position in which Emilie LePennec qualified on the bars in Anaheim, 2003.

Although none of these averages particularly mean anything, this means even less due to the skewing. According to this inspired system, the best bets for 2012 bars gold are Japanese Tanaka and Minobe. Unlikely.

This does seem to show, though, that uneven bars specialists are more consistent leading from world championships into Olympics. This is, of course, skewed by Khorkina.

Balance Beam

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 4,26,2,8
Average: 10

A very mixed bag of numbers and an average of ten, again pointless and misleading: this position would place Yulia Inshina as the favourite for beam gold next year. Again, not something I am expecting to happen.

What this does show is how unpredictable beam is, and this is of course true. We are relatively accustomed to multiple medallists on the uneven bars and vault, for example. But very few people seem to make an impact on the beam podium on more than a few occasions. Notable exceptions to this include Nastia Liukin and Shannon Miller.

What this suggests to me is that beam is a really hard one to call, and that a lot can change in a short space of time.

Floor Exercise

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 7, 12, 2, 8
Average: 7.25

Another mixed bag of results and another strange average. With this logic, Beth Tweddle would be the 2012 champ. As much as the thought of FX gold on home soil appeals to me, it just won’t happen this way.

So what does this show? In all honesty, absolutely nothing. It is obvious that the only thing impacting upon the medals later this year will be the performances on the day by the athletes present: anything else is just silly speculation (fun for geeks like me, though).

BUT what is interesting is the array of pre-olympic worlds placements we see above. Interesting that a high world championship placement on the Uneven Bars and the Vault is a much better predictor of Olympic success than a high finish on floor or beam. This is clearly because there are more uneven bars and vault specialists than floor and beam specialists, but why should this be? Within the new code, vault and bars are the places that really pack the punch score wise, so this is understandable here. Especially with vault, as such a weak second vault field means maximum payoff for those who can learn two.

To start with a quote and end with another: “from principles is derived probability, but truth or certainty is obtained only from facts” (Tom Stoppard, Playwright). In other words, the above means nothing.  

Monday, 9 January 2012

Hopes for days ahead....

It was as if 2012 would never come, but here we are. In the coming days the final roles of the 2012 Olympics will be cast, in the city of the games itself within the North Greenwich arena. Whilst the event itself will bring no huge surprises (it is undoubtedly the case that the teams which will fly home with the team gold medals later this year have already qualified, and beyond this the majority of the competitors at the test event will qualify anyway) it is sure to be an exciting event for a number of reasons: a few key individuals have yet to qualify, and a couple of those that already have will give us another look at their top class routines.

For instance, it is super exciting that China have decided to send Sui Liu and Yao Jinnan. There is obviously no need for the beam world champion and AA bronze medallist to qualify for London, but it is clear that they and their coaches are keen for as much international experience as possible. Good for them, and great for us as spectators.

So apart from the usual hopes before any competition (good judging, no injuries) I am hoping for a few key things.....


It doesn’t take a Brit to see how far the programme has come in recent years, mainly because of Tweddle and Smith, but also as a whole. Both teams are better than ever and other athletes like Daniel Purvis and Hannah Whelan have shown they are up to the challenge of international competition.

The fantastic team outing of the women in Tokyo was of course a fantastic moment for British Gymnastics, but it must have made the failure of the men to qualify a team to the home games even more bitter to take. But now they have a chance, on home soil, to put on a good show and show what they can do. This goes for all of them, but particularly Louis Smith: as a serious contender for a second podium finish on the pommel horse this summer it really is a great opportunity to show what he is capable of.


Who knows what will happen in the coming months, but I think bars is a surprisingly weak field at the moment. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that it can no longer give a gymnast a mammoth score like it could in 2007 and 2008. Whatever the reason, this year’s bar final was pretty empty (any bar final that puts Wieber as the fourth best in the world leaved something to be desired).

Despite this, Dufournet has upgraded and upgraded, and showcased a routine this year that had the potential to be fantastic. Problem is she can just never seem to get it together when it actually matters. I feel like if she can get a good performance in at the scene of the upcoming games then it might give her a nice boost of confidence: if she hits a routine cleanly with the difficulty she is capable of she might even have a chance of an Olympic medal, although it does seem like a long shot.


We all watched Grishina as a junior and saw her huge potential, but in recent competition she has been showing signs of slipping a bit. It would be a shame for someone with such talent to become one of those juniors that promised everything but ultimately delivered nothing. With her fresh senior status, I am hoping for a clean and strong outing for Anastasia and hopefully some top 3 placements.


I could happily watch this any day of the week.


The above are my main thoughts heading into the competition, but other smaller ones include the hope that Kononenko qualifies well. The awfully untimely injury of Mariya Likchikova has dashed the main hopes of the Ukrainian camp for any impact this year, but a good solid bars set from Kononenko could take the edge off a little bit.

Whilst thinking of injury, it was a real shame to see Ferrari out of floor finals at the last minute. It will be nice to see her in the coming days.

The talk of this years vault final, besides Maroney’s amazingness,  was Yamilet Pena attempting the Produnova. She will be competing at the test event, and although I highly doubt she will attempt the double front when it isn’t needed it would be good to see (if she can do it properly I want to see it with proper cameras).

Mainly, it is just great that we can see footage of some of the top names in the world competing so early in the season: just the beginning of many great things to come in this Olympic year.