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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 13 January 2012 15:07    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Grading the Olympic Test Event
(20 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

Every four years the Olympic venues and staffs get a dress rehearsal for the real event. From a sporting standpoint, test events have often fallen short in terms of relevance. Some countries don't show up, while others send B- and C-team gymnasts. But by making the 2012 Olympic Test Event in London a second qualifier for teams and individuals, the FIG created a competition with built-in drama. Was it a good thing? On some fronts (ticket sales, YouTube live streaming) it certainly was.

Following are a few thoughts on what transpired in London this week.

Test Event Team Competition: I think it was a mistake to use the test event to qualify the final four teams to the Olympics. All 12 teams should qualify under the same conditions, which was not the case this time. At the test event, teams could use first-year seniors that were ineligible for the Tokyo worlds three months ago. (I preferred the old rule that allowed 15-year-olds to compete in the worlds the year before the Olympics.)

The biggest losers were the Canadian men and Spanish women, both of whom would have qualified under the old rules with their 12th-place finishes in Tokyo.

It would make a lot more sense to use the test event specifically for individual qualification. And if the FIG really wants to raise the level of competition at the Olympics, then it should reduce the number of all-around berths and add more top specialists via the previous worlds apparatus finals.

China: I am not quite sure why China sent 2011 balance beam world champion Sui Lu to this competition. She was lucky to avoid injury in the beam final, where she placed last with a 10.366. And on floor, where she is the world silver medalist, she finished only seventh out of eight.

I can understand why they sent Yao Jinnan, who is young and has a legitimate shot to win the Olympic all-around, but Sui has already competed in three worlds, including the one in 2009 in the O2 arena.

Double Standard: In his Jan. 3 "Letter from the President," Bruno Grandi called for the following:

"In a world where globalization and a world without borders are core issues, I would invite you to move beyond national, continental or international mind-set and strive toward a universal sport, as unique in its philosophy as it is diverse in cultural participation. And yet, a self-serving mission continues to permeate our ranks."

On Jan. 12, during the test event apparatus finals, Grandi could be seen congratulating fellow Italian Alberto Busnari immediately after the gymnast's fine performance on pommel horse.

Did the FIG President, who holds a position that requires complete impartiality, cross the very line of nationalism he is trying to eradicate?

Steven Legendre/USA: I can't help but wonder if the test event was Legendre's Olympics, given that he and training mate Jake Dalton share the same best events. At the Tokyo worlds, Dalton did floor, rings and vault in the team final, while Legendre did only floor and vault. And that was on a six-man team. London 2012 will feature five-man teams. Still, you never know what's going to happen between now and the summer, regarding the health of every contender.

Madeline Gardiner/CAN: Does anyone else see a bit of Svetlana Boginskaya in Gardiner? She has a certain flair and style that reminds me of the great Belarusian.

Ken Ikeda/CAN: The apparatus finals were already a mere exhibition with medals, so I could see how Ikeda might not have been very motivated to compete in the parallel bars final after his team failed to qualify to London. And his performance was proof.

Jordan Jovtchev/BUL: At 38 (39 on Feb.24), and with various body joints conspiring mutiny, the Bulgarian veteran willed himself through six routines to qualify for his sixth consecutive Olympics. If he competes in London this summer (and I'm sure he will), he will surpass Finland's Heikki Savolainen, who competed in five games (1928, ’32, ’36, ’48, ’52; World War II canceled the games in 1940 and ’44). Unique to Jovtchev's streak is that he's made his last three Olympics as an individual. Had he not qualified via the test event, perhaps he would have been given a wild card berth.

Maybe he'll need it in 2016.

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 30 December 2011 13:00    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year In Quotes From the Gym World
(11 votes, average 3.73 out of 5)

As the year comes to a close, we instinctively recap the previous 12 months. The highs, the lows … the quirky. 2011 was definitely memorable for gymnastics, but instead of another year in review, I have culled an eclectic collection of quotes from the last 10 issues of International Gymnast. Some are long, others short, but all, I believe, are worth repeating here. Happy New Year.


"Her father has a very rough nature. When she goes to compete, he says, 'Aliya, tear them apart!'"

Alexander Alexandrov, on Aliya Mustafina in "The Mustafina Mystique"


"I love the challenges, the preciseness, the dancing on floor, the sharpness on beam. I just love gymnastics."

Gabrielle Douglas, in "The Great Gabby"


"I am shocked, and am still shocked that I won [Elite Canada]."

Peng-Peng Lee, in her interview


"We are two members of the German national team. He's not my best friend, but we accept each other."

Philipp Boy, on Fabian Hambüchen, in his interview


"We deleted her results and sent her back to Vietnam immediately. She was absolutely not guilty, in my opinion."

Dr. Michel Leglise, President of FIG Medical and Anti-Doping Commission, on Do Thi Ngan Thuong, her country's first gymnastics Olympian, who tested positive for furosemide, in "10 Questions With…"


"I am going to quit [coaching] gymnastics when I can't do it anymore. But as long as the motor is running, I'm going to continue. Quite frankly, I don't really care what people think about me, because I have the official results to speak for me."

Leonid Arkayev, former USSR and Russian head coach, when asked how he would like to be remembered, in his Hall of Fame interview


"I think we push each other, and in a weird way, I'm kind of happy about the outcome of this meet. I wanted to be three-time champion, but for him to do what he did … he had such a passion, such a heart to come out here and beat me, and that's kind of flattering."

Jonathan Horton, on placing second to Danell Leyva at the Visa championships


"Nobody argues with me. Never, ever, I guarantee it. This is the only way it has to be in gymnastics. You can speak, you can talk. But once you start arguing, you're going down.

"Look at the Japanese guys; that's when they [declined]. Before, the coaches were like gods for them. And now again they work like horses day in and day out, and they never open their mouth. So much respect for their coaches. It's as simple as that."

Valeri Liukin, in "Sky's the Limit," (profile on Katelyn Ohashi)


"I remember hearing (Tennessee basketball coach) Pat Summitt say, that as coaches, we compete in front of crowds we deserve, and that really hit home with me."

Sarah Patterson, Alabama coach, on who has influenced her, in "10 Questions With…"


"We took difficulty out of her routines for worlds. … If it's consistently going to lose more than it's worth, we don't do it. We're not going to rely on adrenaline in the moment."

John Geddert, coach of world champion Jordyn Wieber, in his interview

Written by Dwight Normile    Tuesday, 06 December 2011 10:59    PDF Print
Stretching Out: A Holiday Gymnastics Wish List
(13 votes, average 3.62 out of 5)

It's that time of year again when the spirit of giving fills our hearts. So I hereby present a brief wish list for the gymnastics world.

Code of Points

I really hope the 2013 version of the Code solves some serious issues. I keep hearing that the execution score might be doubled, to dilute the difficulty score, but that's just adding another step to the equation. FIG President Bruno Grandi wants simplicity, and there is an easier way to lessen the importance of difficulty.

Since there are hundreds of gymnastics skills of varying degrees of difficulty, it's time to expand the categories to accommodate them more accurately. So instead of doubling the E-score, the difficulty values should be cut in half. A-skills are worth .05 instead of .10, B-skills are .10 instead of .20, and so on. This achieves two goals: it lowers the overall D-score and creates more room to assign the correct value to a growing list of skills. For example, how can a tucked double-twisting double tuck (E, .50) on floor be worth the same as a 2.5-twisting tucked double? One is obviously harder than the other. There are numerous other examples in the current Code.

Limit the Roll-outs

I do not like the full-twisting front-1.75 roll-out that nearly knocked out Yusuke Tanaka at the Tokyo worlds, especially when it's done after something tricky like a 1.5-twisting back. When the punch angle is off by a few degrees, there is little margin for error. I hope the FIG is taking a hard look at skills like this. Six-pass routines on a time restraint is the perfect storm for serious injury right now. And many gymnasts are choosing multiple roll-out skills to avoid landing deductions.

Impose a Skill Limit

Danell Leyva won the world title on parallel bars with a total of 10 skills. Defending champion Feng Zhe, who placed seventh, did 23 skills. Should a set of rules allow such routines to coexist? Shouldn't they encourage efficient routine construction? Again, here is where artistic gymnastics can learn something from trampoline, which requires 10-skill routines with no repetition.

Three-Step Approach

If every gymnast learned to tumble from the beginning with a three-step approach into his or her roundoff, we'd see a lot fewer out-of-bounds infractions. Too many gymnasts take four, or even five, steps (Jordyn Wieber, Alicia Sacramone, Lauren Mitchell, Yao Jinnan, et al.), which leaves little room at the end of the tumbling run, especially when a punch layout front is tacked onto the end.

These extra steps are usually out of habit and really don't contribute to the final skill(s) in the pass. And in a routine that is supposed to be a performance, they are visual clutter.

Ksenia Afanasyeva won the world title on floor with powerful tumbling, and she used an efficient three-step approach.

It's a subtle detail, but something I always notice when I watch floor routines. It's also something that is hard (but not impossible) to change late in a career. If I am not mistaken, years ago it used to be a deduction to take more than three steps for men. For the record, Valeri Liukin took three steps into his historic triple back.

Stocking Stuffer

We included a poll in our special December world championships issue about whether Kohei Uchimura was the greatest male gymnast of all time. The opinions from various generations were enlightening to say the least. Results-wise, we seem to have already forgotten that Yang Wei won three consecutive major titles: two worlds and the Olympics. Also, Viktor Chukarin sandwiched two Olympic crowns around the 1954 world title. I don't think Yang was as good as Uchimura (not even close), but it's difficult to compare generations.

I think the venerable Abie Grossfeld put things in perspective when he quoted Christopher Columbus: "It's easy when someone shows you how." Grossfeld also recalled the accomplishments of various gymnasts that many of us have never seen in action.

Personally, I think Uchimura is fantastic, but superlatives are too unforgiving. That said, I will always remember the beauty, power and precision of Dmitry Bilozerchev, whose first world title came at age 16, in 1983. But I'm not saying either is the greatest of all time.

On that note, who is the greatest female gymnast of all time?

Happy holidays.

Written by Dwight Normile    Friday, 30 September 2011 14:23    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 Things to Like About Danell Leyva
(13 votes, average 3.92 out of 5)

As the U.S. men's team prepares for the world championships in Tokyo, I started thinking about its new national champion, Danell Leyva. I have watched him compete in the senior division of the U.S. championships since 2006, when he placed 17th as a 14-year-old. I remember thinking, Why is this kid trying compete with seniors?

The following year I started to figure it out, because he placed ninth. From 2008 to 2011 he finished 11th, fifth, second and, just over a month ago, first. No. 1. The champ. Not a bad run for someone who doesn't turn 20 until Oct. 30 (the same day Nastia Liukin turns 22, by the way, but I digress).

The longer I've watched this unique gymnast, the more I've come to appreciate what he's done and, more importantly, what he represents. So, following are nine things I like about Danell Leyva, because I've left No. 10 for you.

1) His work ethic: I used to think he would never be more than a two- or three-event guy. He was pretty good on floor, parallel bars and high bar, and very average on the other three. Now he's pretty good on pommels, rings and vault, deceptively talented on floor, and absolutely amazing on parallel bars and high bar. Through hard work, he has turned himself into a legitimate contender for an all-around medal in Tokyo.

2) His attitude: He is humble yet confident. When he says he wants to win, he doesn't sound cocky. He respects two-time world champion Kohei Uchumira (who is only 22), but he's not intimidated by him. Instead, he wants to put a little scare in him. It may be the world championships, but for Leyva it's still all part of the fun.

3) His parallel bars: He is fantastic on this event, and I like that he doesn't do any somersaults on the apparatus. His peaches, giants and Diamidovs are so good, he doesn't need to.

4) His gym: He seems to be in the perfect place for his gymnastics career. He decided to go pro, so the NCAA is out. But his steady progress over the years proves that everything is clicking for him at Universal Gymnastics in Miami.

5) His coach: When I see coaches chewing out their gymnasts after a bad routine, I appreciate that Yin Alvarez is always there with a hug. He realizes that his gymnasts don't mess up on purpose. "I have my moments like everybody else, but I never go to the gymnasts when I'm mad," Alvarez once told me. "Gymnasts want to do nothing wrong; they want to do good all the time."

6) He's old school: There are certain details that reveal a gymnast's training and tradition. On floor, for example, Leyva understands that good form applies to the entire body. When he runs into his tumbling, he keeps perfect form with his arms and hands (arms straight, fingers together). And here is a subtle detail that you just don't see very often (anymore): After his Manna, press to handstand, he pikes down and silently places his toes on the mat first, then his heels. That's control. When he stands up from this position, he lifts his arms overhead simultaneously. Very classy. (A lazy gymnast would bend his knees a little during the pike down, slam his feet onto the mat, and then leave the arms hanging down when he stands up.)

7) His trademark: Every star needs a signature skill, and his jam-dislocate-hop to undergrips on high bar works wonders on a crowd. It's also unexpected because it's at the end of a very difficult routine. Now that he follows this skill with an immediate Endo-full pirouette, it's even better. Leyva says he added the Endo combination by accident. "I was training one day and was a little tired," he said. "And when I did the hop I caught the bar directly in a handstand with my legs open already. And ever since I was little I've always mashed my skills together."

8) His post-routine routine: Leyva never celebrates harder than he just worked on the apparatus itself. After all, he's got a coach to do that for him.

9) His team spirit: Even though he has specific individual goals, he's the ideal team player. And his overall improvement in the past year could be the biggest factor in determining the U.S. team's fate in Tokyo. The irony here is that he's a native of Cuba. "I can't wait to show a better job of what we did [at Visa Championships] in Tokyo," he said. Note that he said "we."

10) What do you like about Danell Leyva?

Written by Dwight Normile    Wednesday, 14 September 2011 13:30    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The True Legend of Paul Hamm
(32 votes, average 2.91 out of 5)

Like many in the sport, I was saddened by the Paul Hamm incident that led to his termination as an assistant coach at Ohio State. It only takes one slip-up in the Internet age, especially when video is involved. So Hamm, whose gymnastics brilliance had always shone brighter because of his humility, was humbled even further.

While I don't condone his actions, I certainly will not judge him on one night of his life. As a writer, I have covered him since he and his twin, Morgan, dominated the age-group scene. When he showed up at the 2002 U.S. championships in Cleveland, he ran off with the first of three consecutive senior national titles.

At the 2003 Worlds in Anaheim, Hamm performed one of the best routines I've ever seen under the circumstances. After China's Yang Wei had already finished his all-around performance with a solid floor routine, Hamm needed to nail the high bar set that had betrayed him more often than not in the past. That's what I remember most. He went up and hit the best routine of his life, stuck his dismount, and became the first American male to win a world all-around gold.

"It was just an awesome feeling," Hamm said at the time. "I was finished, and I finally beat high bar."

A year later, at the Athens Olympics, he again completed his all-around with a clutch high bar routine. And even though his Olympic all-around title was clouded in controversy because of a scoring error, he carried on as best he could. He did nothing wrong, yet was robbed of the elation that usually comes with being Olympic champion. At his athletic peak, he disappeared from the sport after that.

Hamm, who turns 29 Sept. 24, was the most successful U.S. male gymnast ever, but I'll always appreciate his demeanor off the apparatus. No matter the situation, he answered questions honestly, respectfully and thoughtfully. He was never too busy, or too full of himself. That's what impressed me more than anything.

So when I think of Hamm, I will consider the total picture, not just one unfortunate evening. Because all we really learned from his incident with the police is that nobody is perfect. And nobody ever will be.

Paul Hamm was great for gymnastics. He was pivotal to the resurrection of a U.S. men's program that had nose-dived after its 1984 Olympic team victory. And if his comeback stalls and he never returns to the sport, that's how I will remember him.


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