Wednesday, 24 August 2016

"Beyond compare..." or is it?

Just a quick thought...

I loved the Olympics. I watched what I could catch via my European holiday on a grainy TV set with a bent aerial. Simone Biles was, as ever, magnificent to watch.

And as a result she has earned her place as one of the greatest Olympic gymnasts of all time, In a single Olympics! Well deserved.

The commentary and response has been wonderful and will undoubtedly inspire many young people to try their hand at this fantastic sport. Many of the soundbites painted this as a complete first ("unbeatable!", "Unprecedented!", "The greatest ever!") which in many ways it was.

But let us cast our mind back 16 years to Sydney, and to a story of what could have been...

The 2000 Russian gymnastics team is widely hailed as one of the greatest assemblages of talent ever to grace the sport. However, multiple mistakes on a range of disciplines forced the Russian contingent to bitterly settle for silver.

The greatest medal haul among this team went to...

Elena Zamo.

After famously falling from the beam and failing to qualify for the AA, Elena had a second chance when she was placed into the AA in the place of Elena Produnova.

Despite starting well, a disastrous double twist to punch front (the easiest pass of her later gold medal winning floor routine) cost her an AA medal. She did however follow this will two individual apparatus medals, the aforementioned gold on floor and vault gold to boot.

So what is my point?


Team silver (tipped for gold)
AA no medal (could have easily taken gold)
Vault (gold)
Floor (gold)


Floor (gold)

My point is that, were it not for a few fateful falls, the gymnastics history made in Rio could have been a rewrite of an Elena Zamolodchikova gold rush.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Lay it on the line: the five best layouts on beam

After yesterdays consideration of the unfolding Katelyn Ohashi story, I got to thinking about layouts on beam.

Now to be clear, I am not talking about LOSOs. In fact I have always thought their being labelled as a "layout" to be erroneous, given that at no point in the flight of most LOSOs is the body actually in a layout position. More like an arch backed, whipped pike with a knee eating stepout phase. But that is another story.

No, what I am talking about is the layout to two feet on beam. To me, a quintessential feature of the stellar beam routines past or present: a good layout two feet really is the hallmark of a champion. Indeed, 7 of the last 13 world and Olympic champions, including all four beam champions since 2000, have competed one during their golden routines.

Here are my favourite five.

5. Shawn Johnson

So it isn't the best in the world. There are higher ones. Quicker ones, more jaw dropping ones. But in the twilight of the 05-08 quad, the layout was Shawn's. Still when I see a BHS BHS layout combination, she still springs to mind. Her layout was pencil straight, javelin stuck and cold stone consistent, even (for the most part) in her comeback.

4. Mo Huilan 

It is no secret that I love Mo Huilan, and although I can't remember exactly I am pretty sure this was the first layout to two feet I ever saw on beam, during the 1996 AA (on a tiny grainy TV in a caravan). Usually, I dislike layouts from roundoffs, they rarely have as much height and tend to be more prone to form breaks and wobbles due to the direction change. But hers was always massive.

3. Kui Yuan Yuan

The protagonist in everyone's favourite underscoring controversy in 1997, Yuan Yuan provides the only full twist in this list. Usually, I dislike full twisting layouts, both on beam and floor: bizarrely one of the things I love about layouts, even though it isn't technically correct, is the hollow arch in the back which is usually lost to a closed hip with twisting variations. Yuan Yuan did not suffer from this, however, which no doubt helped her to achieve the highest beam score at the 1996 Olympics (a rarely celebrated achievement!)

2. Deng Linlin

This beam routine, and its signature flight series, was somewhat eclipsed in the hype of team-mate Li Shanshan's then revolutionary four skill series. However, Deng's layout was fantastic, and easily the best in Beijing in my opinion. It was one of those rare skills that seems to hang in the air, yet meet the beam like a feather.

1. Natalia Laschenova

A member of the infamous Soviet Union 1989 team - easily the most concentrated assemblage of talent in the last few decades, and maybe ever. I mentioned earlier a general dislike for roundoff-layout combinations, but foster a pretty much universal dislike for single backhandspring-layout combinations. However, Laschenova breaks that rule in a spectacular way. Not only is it arguably the first true layout two feet combo,   I am not sure that anyone has come close to challenging it since.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Katelyn Ohashi: which prophecy?

The noughties were all about WOGA.

What else could have so neatly epitomised the rise of the USA? A neat-post-cold war union of the artistry and graceful lines of the east meeting with the power and tenacity of the west, colliding in a crescendo in the work of rising star Carly Patterson, advancing like an army to dethrone Queen Khorkina in her last chance at glory.

(I read quite a lot of Game of Thrones in my absence. Sorry).

But seriously, WOGA had the noughties, and were responsible for its two biggest stars: Patterson and Liukin. Two stars. Two gold medals. Two lifes changed forever. One gym.

...but then it all changed.

In the months following the Olympics, the metaphorical groggy awakening and clearing away of the bottles from the night before, the image of WOGA left is not one of success, not one of smiles and the glitter of realised dreams. It is the image of a young girl,with a taped knee and sad eyes, being waved off the podium by her coach to a room full of pitying glances and shocked silence.

But it is a new quad. A new senior star. A new hope.

Katelyn Ohashi is no stranger to most of us and hasn't been for some time. Here is why:

This surely needs no explanation, except to draw attention to what a full in double pike from the beam SHOULD look like. Any junior that can put vintage Ponor to shame is worth her weight in gold.

Without meaning to exaggerate wildly, we hadn't really seen beam work like this before. Sure we had the tricksters, and sure we had the elegant ones too. But never, really, had we seen such ridiculous knockout insane difficulty in the same routine as a perfect split leap. Surely Katelyn Ohashi was going to take over the world?

As seems to be WOGA tradition, though, she narrowly missed age qualification for the Olympics. Whether or not WOGA experienced a series of coincidences of this manner (Liukin and Bross would both have contended for 2004 and 2008 respectively) or whether they have a tendency to peak their athletes too early is a matter of opinion. What seemed unanimous, though, was that Ohashi was slowing down. Had it been a case of too much too soon? 

Her DTY was starting to look more and more like a terrifying parody of Bross's infamous demise

But enough ruminating over the past, let's move into the present.....

2013 American Cup

The first major post Olympic competition, the American Cup, was won by Ohashi, although not as convincingly as one might have expected given her early notoriety. Simone Biles, tipped to be the next All American powerhouse, was 1.533 behind Ohashi in second place, having beaten Ohashi on vault and bars, and made mistakes on both beam and floor. 

Which prophecy?

A question we all undoubtedly look forward to seeing answered: will Ohashi prove to be a WOGA success or a WOGA tragedy? There is certainly precedent for both.

Things in her favour

Beam is still super hot. Even with missed connections Ohashi managed a cool 15.333 - a massive score for this early in the quad and clear of the second highest beam score of the meet by 1.333 points. I am personally VERY excited by what seems to me to be one of the most difficult and original combinations in years: Onodi to front walkover to front walk over to sheep - pretty awesome if she can put that together at the right time.

Vault looks better. Sure, she is still on a DTY and is likely to come up against a whole host of Amanars, but the code changes favour her too: the Amanar is a 6.3 now, not a 6.5, and Ohashi can utilise her huge beam capability to make up that two tenths elsewhere. Moreover, her DTY looks nice, against all expectation she managed to stop it looking at all scary.

Floor Choreography is lovely, and she looks confident performing it

Things in her way

Bars pirouettes are a mess. She is clearly struggling there and unless they are cleaned up she will end up losing more than she gains. A more Bross themed routine might be better but she may lack the power to make that happen.

Floor is likely to be the big hitter this quad, like bars was in 05-08 and like vault was 09-12. Katelyn isn't bad on floor, but her tumbling isn't great either. 

Degeneration of skills. Katelyn has a few top skills that have always been a bit iffy. Perhaps most famously her DTY which, touch wood, seems to be looking good. Also, though, her signature full twisting layout on beam, although impressive in its consistency, gives a hint that it might not stand the test of time. It has always been whipped and low, and is now looking increasingly piked. 

This picture shows the extent of the piking going on, and a big leg separation too. Her left leg is pretty much 90 degrees to her body. 

Ultimately, though, the only way to know is to wait and find out. I only hope that Ohashi's career is more of a sustained success than a quick rise followed by a crash and burn. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Don't look back in anger...

Hard to imagine that it is all over. You wish for something for four years and when it arrives, it flies by like a freight train. The individual event finals of London 2012 were ridiculously unexpected for me (Deng Linlin beam champion?! - NEVER would I have predicted that). after a bit of settling time I thought I would consolidate my main thoughts after the individual competitions.

What The E Panel will remember fondly

Gabrielle Douglas - 2012 AA Champion

Already the issue of Gabs vs Vika has been hotly debated, and it is likely to be bitched about/staunchly defended for the next 4 years. It is impossible to discuss this without bringing in personal opinion and whilst I usually try to avoid extended chunks of personal rambling I will indulge myself a little here.

I love Gabby’s gymnastics. I think he has great form, lovely amplitude and a zesty quality to the skills she performs that few others managed. My real clicking moment with Douglas came at the 2012 American cup on her final skill: the split leap out of the double tuck which was the highest and most exciting I had, and have, seen.

I love Komova’s gymnastics too, and have done for a much longer period. I first saw Komova on some grainy youtube videos three years ago and was instantly mesmerized by her unusual and fantastic ability to combine difficulty with supreme execution. When asked in 2009 to predict the 2012 AA champion, I instantly tipped Viktoria Komova for the win.

Both Komova and Gabby suffered with the same problem: they had fantastic skills but seemed to suffer terribly with stage fright and often failed to perform when it mattered most. Both still have this in spades: Douglas is now the only AA champion not to possess any individual apparatus final medals due to edgy performances in both beam and bars finals. Komova fell afoul of the same curse.

The difference is that Gabby had a brilliant day when it counted. Komova didn’t. Although some of her performances were peppered with brilliance (her floor routine was the best of her life, and the best of the AA competition, making me wish she had made the EF) she was generally inconsistent and didn’t meet her potential on three of four events. Gabby on the other hand, although admittedly not floorless either, WAS the better gymnast that day (at least I think so) and that is why she won.

To sum up my general feeling, had Komova won, it would be a gold medal for the memory of her from 2 years ago. But the gold medal for Douglas was a recognition of the gymnast we see today.

Aliya Mustafina - 2012 UB Champion

Russia’s first WAG gold medal since Zamolodchikova and Queen Khorkina in Sydney 2000, and wasn’t Musty evocative of Khorki on their shared signature event?

Although patriotism tied me into routine for gold elsewhere, if I am honest I have loved Mustafina’s bars work ever since the 2010 worlds, which might as well be renamed the Aliya Mustafina welcome party. I love her execution and power, but more than this her originality. I never fail to be bowled over by her 1.5 twisting double tuck, not to mention her uncanny ability to nail it cold everytime.

There was a scary few moments when I thought my He Kexin prophecy may actually come true (I still reserve the right to be a little bit smug for calling it given she got silver in the end). Not that I dislike He Kexin, her bar work is undeniably impressive. But a win for Kexin would show an unfair lack of recognition of the developments bars has undergone in the last four years: changing from a three minute pirouette slog into an exciting connection and release led “Russian/Tweddle” style romp. 

Aly Raisman - 2012 FX Champion

OK, so I haven’t always been Aly’s biggest fan. Plenty of people haven’t been. However, for me Aly has been the most impressive gymnast of these games. The time has come to stop bemoaning toe point and artistry and recognize the positives: that Raisman should be recognized as one of the top USA team players of all time.

Sure, her floor isn’t my favourite to watch. However, that opening pass is so original, so risky and so brilliant that it is hard to argue with the verdict. Indeed, one of the best things about Raisman (and something that people rarely celebrate) is that she does NOT attempt skills that she can’t do...

Despite any complaints about presentation, Aly is no chucker and her floor composition is testament to this. Her leaps are all complete, her tumbles speak for themselves and my favourite thing is her spin - ridiculously simple, but she can do it.

My main thought is that I wanted her to leave these games with an individual medal. I would have preferred it to be AA bronze, but I love that she won here, although admittedly this is not just based on an impartial view of the routines themselves.

Beth Tweddle gets her first Olympic medal on her final day of Olympic competition

I won’t do my usual Tweddle gush. It is clear what I think about her and her routine. I am just thrilled she managed to pull it off and intensely relieved that she moved up a place from Beijing.

Things The E Panel would rather forget

The vault final

OUCH. It began with a crash and ended with open mouthed shock. This vault final was a perfect example of how nothing can be predicted at the Olympic level.

I cannot even imagine how Maroney must feel. The one time she crashes a vault in competitive memory and it comes in the event finals of her signature apparatus. This is a great shame, as everyone is in agreement that Maroney is undeniably the best vaulter in the world. However, as always, it is not enough to be able to do the vault well: it has to be done well on the night, and this wasn’t. Really, she should be happy to have gotten a silver with a fall.

On an impartial level, sweeping aside any bias towards Maroney, this final does little for vault as an event. Two Olympics in a row, and both since the introduction of the open ended code, have seen crashed vaults make the podium. It isn’t really the direction we should be moving in, and I think harsher penalties for falls are needed.

There is a potential silver lining however: This failure may stimulate Maroney to continue competing. I would love for this to happen.

Sandra Izbasa FX EF

Falling at the final hurdle on a routine that should certainly have been medal worthy is not how I wanted Sandra to end her second Olympics. I guess the unexpected vault gold should take the sting out of this somewhat, but it took the pop out of a final which I had been looking forward to for a year. 

Beth's Dismount

So she got the bronze, and for that I am grateful. However, I wanted gold for Beth, or failing that at least the silver. Mainly, I wanted her to beat He Kexin, and she couldn't.

The reason was the dismount. Again. Two Olympics and two giant steps from a double tuck variation. I am unbelieveably glad it didn’t knock her down into fourth - the last few routines of that final had my heart racing at dangerous levels. 

Tie Breaks

...A full article to follow

Roll on Rio.