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 it 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 if a routine is great or just good?
Here, we will look at the vault — starting with the basics and then moving into technical details.
Gymnasts sprint down a 24 metre runway, use a springboard to propel themselves onto the vault (sometimes called the vaulting table or just the table), push themselves into the air and perform flips and twists. Vault is the quickest of the four events in women's gymnastics, and it's usually the first one in which the top gymnasts will compete.
Most gymnasts perform only one vault, but those who want to qualify for the vault finals have to do two from different "families" (more on that later). Based on the sum of their two scores, the top eight vaulters — with a maximum of two per country — make the finals.
Gymnasts are scored on both difficulty and execution. Each vault has an assigned difficulty value. For the execution portion, the judges penalise things such as form breaks, insufficient height in the air, and steps, hops or falls on the landing.
Errors on the landing are easy to see, but if you want to distinguish the best vaults from the pack, watch the gymnast's body position while she's in the air. If her legs are separated or crossed at any point, her knees are bent or her toes aren't pointed, those are deductions. With a really good vault, you'll see that the gymnast gets a lot of height, her legs are straight and pressed tightly together, and she is finished with any twists before her feet hit the ground.
What the gymnasts do
Vaults are distinguished by "preflight" (the movement from the springboard onto the vault) and "postflight" (the flips and twists between the vault and landing) segments.
Vaults are categorised by entry, meaning how the gymnast approaches the vault:
• In a handspring vault, the gymnast jumps on the springboard facing forward, goes forward onto the vaulting table and flips forward.
• In a Tsukahara vault, the gymnast jumps on the springboard facing forward, does a half twist onto the table and flips backward. Named for Mitsuo Tsukahara of Japan, it is called a Tsuk for short.
• In a Yurchenko vault, the gymnast does a roundoff (basically a powerful cartwheel in which both feet land at once, instead of one at a time) onto the springboard, goes backward onto the table and flips backward. Named for Natalia Yurchenko of the Soviet Union, it is the most common type of vault you'll see.
• In a Yurchenko half-on vault, the gymnast does a roundoff onto the springboard, does a half twist onto the table and flips forward.
When gymnasts perform two vaults, they must be from different categories, known as families.
Between preflight and postflight is the block, which converts horizontal momentum into vertical momentum. The gymnast's hands hit the vault, and with arms straight, she immediately uses shoulder strength to propel herself into the air. A vault can be ruined if she's too high coming off the springboard and her hands don't make firm contact, or if she's too low and her elbows bend. Height is evidence of a good block.
Each preflight category contains an array of vaults, so saying a gymnast did a Yurchenko, for instance, means nothing without identifying the postflight. At the Olympics level, it's almost always one flip — backward in Yurchenkos and Tsukaharas, forward in handsprings and Yurchenko half-ons — with one twist to 2 1/2 twists.
The most common vault is the double-twisting Yurchenko, or "DTY," which has a difficulty value of 5.4. But many of the best vaulters will perform an Amanar (a 2-1/2-twisting Yurchenko, named for Simona Amanar of Romania and worth 5.8); a Cheng (a 1-1/2-twisting Yurchenko half-on, named for Cheng Fei of China and worth 6.0); or a Rudi (a 1 1/2-twisting handspring, worth 5.8). You will also occasionally see a double-twisting Tsukahara (5.6).
American star Simone Biles may choose the double-twisting Yurchenko half-on (named for her and worth 6.4) or the Yurchenko double pike (provisionally worth 6.6, and to be named the Biles II if she does it in Tokyo). The Yurchenko double pike is one of only two vaults in women's gymnastics that involve two flips; the other is the Produnova (a handspring double front, named after Elena Produnova of Russia and worth 6.4).
How they're scored
Gymnasts receive a "D score" for difficulty (such as 5.8 for an Amanar) and an "E score" for execution (starting at 10 and decreasing for errors). The two scores are combined, meaning an Amanar can score a maximum of 15.8.
Some signs you're watching a good vault: if the gymnast's legs are straight and together, she is done twisting before her feet hit the ground and her chest is upright when she lands. Judges take deductions for insufficient height or distance from the vault, messy form, low chest position, steps, hops and more, ranging from 0.1 for a small step to 1.0 for a fall. Steps or hops are often easiest to spot, but not necessarily the most serious — a gymnast who takes a step forward but has excellent form can outscore one who sticks the landing but has crossed legs and bent knees.
Because small deductions can add up quickly, it's normal for even medal-winning vaults to receive an execution score in the low 9s. Biles is really the only vaulter you are likely to see earn an E score higher than 9.5.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Maggie Astor
Photographs by: Chang W. Lee
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES