A Telling Blast From the Past
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"What has always made modern gymnastics unique is its emphasis on artistic acrobatics, where, in the words of the FIG Code of Points, Difficulty ... was never to be escalated at the expense of mastery. This sentiment expresses the heart and the art of gymnastics — that no matter what we do, we should always do it with the ultimate form, grace and aesthetic control at our command. Today, this isn't the case. ...Apparently, it has been decided that if someone performs a movement of higher difficulty, ugly form is fine."

The above may sound current, but it actually is an excerpt from a "Guest Opinion" in the January 1980 IG. The article, titled "Before It's Too Late," by Dan Millman, surprised me when I came across it recently, as it expresses much the same viewpoint we've been preaching in IG for years.

So the problem of difficulty drowning artistry is not new at all. It's just become more accepted.

Artistry is indeed a nebulous term. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what creates it in a gymnastics routine, but you certainly know when it's absent. And it's missing most of the time now. The soulful performances of true mastery have been replaced, at times, by efforts of sheer survival.

Case in point: Huang Xu's parallel bars routine from the 2007 World Championship apparatus finals (you can view it on YouTube). Armed — or rather, armbanded — with 7.1 of difficulty, he would have won the gold had he not taken an intermediate swing after his opening sequence. Huang was on his upper arms nine different times in the routine. He slammed onto his arms — on purpose — after six flight elements: five double backs and a front-1 1/4. Each was followed by a front uprise, swing handstand. That's six front uprise, swing handstands in one routine. How can the rules allow for that? Huang did about 25 skills, two of which were connected aesthetically. The rest looked more like a repetitive training drill: get to a handstand, throw a double...

Huang Xu

Huang's parallel bars routine is a sad joke that is blindly rewarded by the Code of Points, but nobody is laughing. What's the point of all of this difficulty if nobody really cares to watch? Though I greatly respect Huang's ability, his routine doesn't touch my soul. It's gaudy. The philosophy of gymnastics needs to be more than squeezing in the 10 hardest skills, regardless of whether they actually fit together.

Another sentence from Millman's article strikes at the crux of our dilemma in artistic gymnastics: "When world-caliber gymnasts are allowed to use movements in competition that would make a diver blush with shame, something is very wrong with the state of the art."

In diving — and also in trampoline — you can't get away with any form break or technical error without paying dearly in your execution score. Artistic gymnastics, for some reason, never embraced that notion completely. Instead, a long time ago we accepted the idea of "mitigation," which meant that judges could be more lenient on really hard tricks. In hindsight it wasn't such a great idea, because even though the term has long disappeared from the Code of Points, the idea still lives in the minds of many judges. It's only human nature.

It's been 27 years since Millman penned his warning to the sport, and look where we are today. Routines have grown in quantity but shrunk in quality. Is it finally too late, as Millman forecasted?

Following is an excerpt from the current Code of Points: "The gymnast is expected to include in his exercise only elements that he can perform with complete safety and with a high degree of aesthetic and technical mastery."

The rules still call for mastery, but the message continues to elude many judges. Until scores reflect every instance of flawed technique and each unpointed toe, the sport will continue to spin aimlessly out of control.