Want to follow the women's gymnastics competition in Tokyo, but don't understand the skills or how they're scored? Here's a guide.
Women's gymnastics is a marquee sport at the Summer Olympics but otherwise doesn't get much attention outside a dedicated group of fans.
I'm one of those fans, as well as a former (decidedly not Olympic-calibre) gymnast, and I'm here to help you watch with a more discerning eye. Do you want to know what's required on each apparatus? Which skills are hardest? How to tell good routines from great?
Here, we will look at the balance beam — starting with the basics and then moving into technical details.
The beam is 4.8 metres long, 1.2 metres high and 10cm wide — the width of a coronavirus vaccination card.
The lack of room for error on the beam makes the finals (which will include the top eight gymnasts from the qualifications round, with a maximum of two per country) unpredictable, because a tiny miscalculation can knock out even the best gymnast.
Every routine must include:
• A series of two or more acrobatic skills (handsprings or flips) in immediate succession. At least one must be a salto, meaning no hands.
• Two or more dance skills (turns, leaps or jumps) in immediate succession. At least one must be a leap or jump featuring a 180-degree split.
• Acrobatic skills in multiple directions (backward versus forward or sideways).
• At least one turn or pirouette.
In the best beam routines, the gymnast will have no wobbles and, of course, no falls. (In reality, small balance checks are common.) Judges also deduct for things like body form and excessive pauses between skills.
What the gymnasts do
Every skill has a difficulty rating from A through H. Gymnasts get credit for their eight hardest skills, of which at least three must be acrobatic and three must be dance.
Many gymnasts do simple mounts like splits (A-rated), squat-throughs (A, basically a jump into a seated position) or handstands (B), and save the difficult skills for later.
Two harder (D-rated) but still common mounts are switch leaps — in which the gymnast uses a springboard to leap into a split, switching the direction of her legs in midair — and candles, in which she stands alongside the beam with her back to it, dives backward and lands upside down with arms wrapped around it.
Mounts involving flips, like a back layout step-out or a front pike (both E), are riskier and rarer.
Most gymnasts fulfill their "acro series" requirement with backward skills, for two reasons. First, they're easier to connect than forward skills, because you can use the momentum from one to rebound into the next. Second, when flipping forward, you can't see the beam as you land.
The most common series are the back handspring + layout step-out (B+C) — a back flip in which the gymnast's body is straight and she lands one foot at a time — and the back handspring + layout step-out + layout step-out (B+C+C). A side aerial, or cartwheel without hands, can replace the handspring: side aerial + layout step-out + layout step-out (D+C+C).
Some top gymnasts do a handspring + layout (B+E) with no step-out, meaning both feet land at once. Still harder are series with twists, like a handspring + full-twisting back tuck (B+F, knees tucked to the chest) or a handspring + handspring + full-twisting back layout (B+B+G, body straight).
Forward acro series are rare, but the rules reward gymnasts who do them: A front handspring + front tuck (B+D) earns a two-tenths bonus that a backward B+D series wouldn't.
Other acrobatic skills
Side aerials and front aerials (D) — the hands-free equivalents of cartwheels and front walkovers — are popular, as are back tucks (C), front tucks (D), side somis (D) and Onodis (D). A side somi starts like a side aerial, but the gymnast grabs her leg mid-flip and lands sideways. An Onodi, named for Henrietta Onodi, is like a back handspring with a half twist into a front handspring.
Then there are three rarer but very valuable skills: the standing full (a full-twisting back flip), the standing Arabian (a back flip with a half twist into a front flip) and the barani (a front flip with a half twist into a back flip). All are rated F.
Jumps and leaps
Jumps take off from both feet and move only up and down. Leaps take off from one foot and travel forward.
• In a wolf jump (A), one leg is extended forward and the other is bent. The plain version is too easy to be valuable, but full-twisting wolf jumps (D) can be.
• A straddle jump (B) involves a side split, meaning the legs are extended to the left and right. Many gymnasts do full-twisting straddle jumps (D).
• Split jumps and split leaps (B) involve a 180-degree front split, with legs extended forward and backward.
• A switch leap (C) is like a split leap, except the gymnast switches legs in midair — meaning she kicks her left leg forward before switching to a split with her right leg in front, or vice versa. Half-twisting switch leaps (D) are common.
• A switch side leap (C) starts like a switch leap, but the gymnast turns 90 degrees and does a side split instead of a front split.
• A ring jump (D) is a split jump with the rear leg bent upward, back arched and head thrown back. Some gymnasts also do switch ring leaps (E). Both are tricky because, by throwing her head back, the gymnast loses sight of the beam.
• In a sheep jump (C), the gymnast arches her back and kicks her feet up so that, in theory, they touch the back of her head. In practice, most gymnasts don't get there.
Any jump gets an extra tenth in value when performed sideways.
Turns may not look as flashy as flips, but they can be just as difficult. The reigning Olympic beam champion, Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, gets much of her difficulty value from intricate pirouetting.
• A garden-variety pirouette is done with the nonsupporting leg in passé or a similar position. A full turn is rated A, a double turn is rated D and a triple turn, named for Betty Okino, is rated E.
• In an L turn, the nonsupporting leg is horizontal, forming a 90-degree angle with the supporting leg. A full L turn is rated C. A double L turn, named for Wevers, is rated E.
• In a Y turn, the nonsupporting leg is vertical. A full Y turn is rated C and a double Y turn, named for Aiko Sugihara, is rated E.
• The illusion (D) is an unusual full turn in which the gymnast, while spinning, kicks her leg up into a split and touches the beam with one hand.
• Often wobbly and almost always ugly, wolf turns — done in a squat with one leg to the side — are a subject of derision among gymnastics fans and gymnasts alike. Unfortunately, because a double wolf turn is rated D and a triple wolf turn is rated E, they're a great way to increase your difficulty score, so every gymnast and her mother does one. Or two. It's the wolf turns' world; we just live in it.
Most gymnasts dismount with a roundoff (basically a powerful cartwheel in which both feet land at once) and/or a back handspring, followed by a double back flip. The difficulty value depends on body position and whether the gymnast adds twists, which very few can.
The most common dismounts are the double tuck (D) and double pike (E). Only a handful of gymnasts can do a full-twisting double tuck (G). So, naturally, Simone Biles went and did a double-twisting double tuck (H), which no one else will probably ever do because it would need to be rated an I or a J to be worth it.
Some other gymnasts do single back layouts with two (C), two and a half (D) or three (F) twists.
Forward dismounts are much rarer, both because they're risky (you can't see the ground when you land) and because doing them means forfeiting the connection bonus that comes with doing a backward dismount out of a roundoff.
How they're scored
Gymnasts' final marks are the sum of a "D score" (difficulty) and an "E score" (execution).
The D score has three components.
• Composition requirements: Each of the four requirements — an acrobatic series, a dance series, acrobatic skills in multiple directions, and a turn — is worth 0.5.
• Skill values: Gymnasts receive credit for the difficulty of their eight hardest skills, with an A-rated skill worth 0.1, a B-rated skill worth 0.2 and so on.
• Connection bonuses: A large part of the difficulty score comes from connecting skills in accordance with formulas. For instance, a B acro skill + an E acro skill is worth 0.1 in bonus, and two D skills are worth 0.2. You can leave the number-crunching to the judges, though. Just know if a gymnast is supposed to connect two skills but wobbles after the first, she can lose difficulty value in addition to the penalty for the wobble.
Judges take deductions ranging from 0.1 for a slight balance check to 1.0 for a fall.
Wobbles and unstuck dismounts are easy to spot, but less obvious things are equally important. Jumps and leaps can be minefields, with deductions for insufficient height, unpointed toes and splits short of 180 degrees.
In some cases, execution errors can lead judges not to credit the skill a gymnast intended to perform: If a gymnast means to do a ring leap but the position of her head and back leg don't meet the definition, she might only get credit for a split leap, worth 0.2 less.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Maggie Astor
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