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-caliber) 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 uneven bars — starting with basics and then moving into technical details.
The apparatus consists of two bars, one about 1.6 metres high and one 2.4 metres, set about 1.8 metres apart. As with every event, the top eight gymnasts in the qualifications round — with a maximum of two per country — will advance to the uneven-bars finals.
Routines must include at least one transition from the high bar to the low bar (and, not stated but functionally unavoidable, one from low to high); one move releasing and catching the same bar; one 360-degree turn; and two grips, or hand positions.
• Regular grip is overhand, palms facing away from you.
• Reverse grip is underhand, palms facing you.
• Eagle grip (or L grip) is underhand in the opposite direction, meaning the backs of your hands face each other as you turn them. Yes, it's unnatural.
• Mixed grip is one hand in regular and one in reverse.
Good routines have a deceptively effortless-seeming flow. Judges deduct from scores for errors like breaks in rhythm (if a gymnast loses momentum or visibly muscles through a skill), leg separation, flexed feet and, of course, falls. They also deduct points if she isn't fully vertical when swinging into a handstand or finishing a turn.
To reduce blistering and tearing on their palms and to keep a firmer hold on the bars, most gymnasts use leather grips with a narrow rod called a dowel.
What the gymnasts do
Skills in the bars include circles, turns, transitions and releases. Each skill has a letter indicating difficulty, starting with A and, currently, going through G.
Most routines begin with a kip, cast handstand: Gymnasts swing, bring their legs to the bar, pull up so their hips are against the bar, and kick up into a handstand.
Circles and turns
A circle is a 360-degree swing, starting and ending in a handstand. There are five types, differentiated by body position, and the same positions can serve as entries into more complex skills.
Any circle can be done backward (in regular grip) or forward (in reverse or eagle grip). Counterintuitively, "backward" refers to a standard circle. When in doubt, think: If the bar weren't there, would the gymnast be doing a back or front flip?
• A giant (rated B) is done with a straight body. The forward version is a front giant.
• A toe-on (C) is done with toes on the bar. Front toe-ons are fairly uncommon.
• A clear hip (C) is done with hips to the bar. The forward version is a Weiler kip (D).
• A Stalder (C, named for Josef Stalder) is done with legs straddled to either side. The forward version is an Endo (named for Yukio Endo).
• An inbar (D), or piked Stalder, is done with legs between the arms. The forward version is vanishingly rare.
Gymnasts can do turns — pirouettes on their hands — out of any circle. Difficulty values vary depending on entry and degrees of rotation. For instance, a toe-on circle into a 360-degree pirouette, colloquially called a toe full, is a D. (You could refer in similar shorthand to a Stalder full or an inbar half.)
There are also one-arm pirouettes: the Ono, the Healy and the Ling. The differences are technical and don't matter much because they're all rated E.
Transitions (low to high)
Most of these fall into two groups: shoots and "Shaposh" skills.
In a shoot, the gymnast does a toe-on or a Stalder on the low bar, lets go, flings her body forward in what's called counter movement — because she starts out rotating backward and reverses in midair — and catches the high bar. Depending on the entry, it's a Stalder shoot, or Ray (B, named for Elise Ray), or a toe shoot (also B).
Shaposh transitions — short for Shaposhnikova, as in the Soviet Olympian Natalia Shaposhnikova — start facing away from the high bar, and the gymnast does a circle and flies backward. They differ by entry and rotation.
• From a toe-on entry, gymnasts can do a Maloney (D, no twist, named for Kristen Maloney), a Van Leeuwen (E, half twist, for Laura van Leeuwen) or a Seitz (E, full twist, for Elisabeth Seitz).
• From a clear hip, they can do an original-flavor Shaposhnikova (D, no twist) or a Khorkina (E, half twist, for Svetlana Khorkina).
• From a Stalder, they can do a Chow (D, no twist, named unofficially for Amy Chow) or a Chow half (E, half twist).
• From an inbar, they can do a Komova II (E, no twist, for Viktoria Komova) or a Komova (E, half twist, also named for Komova). Confusingly, because Komova did the more complicated version first, the simpler one gets the Roman numerals.
On transitions, as well as release moves, you may see gymnasts' coaches standing by the bars. They're there so that if the gymnast makes a mistake, they can catch her as she falls and prevent injury, but they're not allowed to assist with the routine itself.
Transitions (high to low)
You're likely to see only four of these:
• Bail (D): The gymnast starts facing the low bar, swings with body straight, does a half twist and lands in a handstand on the low bar. Also called an overshoot.
• Pak (D, for Pak Gyong-sil): This starts like a bail, but the gymnast doesn't twist; she just swings from the high bar, flips and grabs the low bar. Also called a Pak salto.
• Bhardwaj (E, for Mohini Bhardwaj): A Pak with a full twist.
• Ezhova (D, for Ludmila Ezhova): The gymnast swings in the opposite direction from a Pak or a bail — as in a front giant — and does a half twist before catching the low bar.
In a release, the gymnast lets go of the high bar, does a flip or other movement in the air and catches the high bar again.
• Giengers, named for Eberhard Gienger, consist of a giant into a back flip with a half twist. They can be done piked (D, hips bent) or laid out (E, body straight). A variant with 1 1/2 twists is called a Def or a Hristakieva (G, named for Jacques Def and Snezhana Hristakieva).
• Jaegers, named for Bernd Jäger, consist of a front giant into a front flip. They can be straddled (D), piked (E) or laid out (F).
Then there are Tkatchevs, named for Alexander Tkatchev. They all involve circling and flying backward over the bar but differ by entry and body position in the air. Some gymnasts add a half twist.
• From a giant entry, gymnasts can do a plain Tkatchev (D, straddled), a piked Tkatchev (E) or a Kononenko (E, straddled with a half twist, named for Nataliya Kononenko).
• From a toe-on, they can do a Ray (D, straddled, for Elise Ray), a Church (E, piked, Shavahn Church), a Nabieva (G, layout, for Tatiana Nabieva) or a Tweddle (F, straddled with a half twist, for Beth Tweddle).
• From a clear hip, they can do a Hindorff (E, straddled, for Silvia Hindorff), a Shang (F, piked, for Shang Chunsong) or a Martins (F, straddled with a half twist, for Filipa Martins).
• From a Stalder, they can do a Ricna (E, straddled, for Hana Ricna), a Downie (F, piked, for Becky Downie) or a Derwael-Fenton (F, straddled with a half twist, named for Nina Derwael and Georgia-Mae Fenton).
• From an inbar, they can do a Galante (E, straddled, for Paola Galante) or a piked inbar Tkatchev (F, unnamed because Sophie Scheder and Kelly Simm debuted it at the same competition and hyphenated skill names weren't yet allowed).
Double layouts (D, backward even though the name doesn't specify), double fronts (D, tucked) and full-twisting double backs (D, tucked) are most common.
The best gymnasts may do a full-twisting double layout (E), a Fabrichnova (F, double-twisting double tuck, named for Oksana Fabrichnova); or a Ray (G, double-twisting double layout, the third bars skill named for Elise Ray).
How they're scored
Gymnasts' final marks are the sum of a "D score" (difficulty) and an "E score" (execution). A medal-winning bar routine is typically in the low 15s, but most all-around gymnasts will be happy with mid- to high 14s.
The D score has three components.
• Composition: The four routine requirements — a transition, a same-bar release move, a 360-degree turn and multiple grips — are worth 0.5 apiece.
• Skill values: A-rated skills are worth 0.1, B-rated skills 0.2 and so on. Gymnasts get credit for their eight hardest skills.
• Connection bonuses: Connecting one skill directly into another can yield extra points. For example, a D-rated release connected to an E-rated transition would be worth 0.2 on top of the value of the individual skills.
Take Suni Lee's routine on Day 1 of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Here's what she does, with the eight hardest skills italicized and plus signs indicating connections eligible for bonus:
• Kip (A), cast handstand (A)
• Nabieva (G) + Bhardwaj (E) + Maloney (D) + piked Gienger (D)
• Kip (A), cast handstand (A)
• Giant half from regular to reverse grip (B, called a blind change)
• Piked Jaeger (E) + Pak (D) + Van Leeuwen (E)
• Kip (A), cast handstand (A)
• Giant full (C)
• Giant (B)
• Full-twisting double back (D)
She gets 2.0 for composition requirements (because she has releases, high-to-low transitions, a grip change and a 360-degree pirouette), 3.8 for her eight hardest skills and 1.0 in connection bonus, producing a D score of 6.8 — one of the highest in the world.
The E score starts at 10, and judges take deductions ranging from 0.1 for slight leg separation to 1.0 for a fall. (A gymnast who falls is allowed up to 30 seconds to collect herself and put more chalk on her hands before resuming her routine.) Minor deductions add up, so it's normal for even a good routine to have an E score in the 8s; Lee's was 8.5, making her total score 15.3.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Maggie Astor
Photographs by: Chang W. Lee
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES