Many of the floor exercise routines at the most recent World Championships were like a breath of fresh air, thanks to the updated Code of Points. In 2009, the number of required skills was reduced from 10 to 8. As such, gymnasts had more time during the 90-second routine to focus on dance elements instead of just trying to pack in as much difficulty as possible.
A case in point: the floor exercise of South Korean gymnast Park Eun Kyung. This routine comes off as a bunch of tumbling skills set to music, shockingly devoid of any meaningful artistry. Even the little motions between tumbling passes show a surprising lack of any sort of interesting movement. But who can blame Park? She simply wanted to achieve as high a score as possible within the confines of the Code of Points.
Park Eun Kyung (KOR), 2008 Swiss Cup
Brazilian Jade Barbosa’s Olympic floor routine also received a lot of criticism for its lack of artistry. Barbosa moves from one tumbling skill to another, and one leap combination to another. She does throw in a few little dance moves in between, though.
Jade Barbosa (BRA), 2007 Pan American Games
Under the revised 2009 Code of Points, gymnasts performed 8 skills and had more time to focus on the entire package. One of my favourite routines of the past decade is Lauren Mitchell’s floor exercise from the 2009 World Championships. The routine makes the most of Mitchell’s best qualities. She may not be the most naturally graceful, but her musical sense and and unique style set her apart from the rest. I wish she had won the gold medal with this routine instead of the silver.
Lauren Mitchell (AUS), 2009 World Championships
It’s been a long time coming to see such a graceful Romanian gymnast, and Ana Porgras’s performances at her first World Championships bode well for her future.
Ana Porgras (ROM), 2009 World Championships
Heading into 2010, I look forward to seeing what the new wave of senior gymnasts has to offer. Judging by the most recent World Championships, I think we can expect to see some fantastic floor finals!
Last week I witnessed a performance of The National Acrobats of China with my sister, Gymbyte. It was a fantastic show, and I could tell by their technique that many of the performers were former gymnasts. I wonder if there are any well-known names among them.
One of my favourite acts was the Hoop Diving, where the guys did all sorts of flips through hoops that appeared to be at least 8 feet off the ground. Most of the acrobats went through the hoop on the pre-flight, but the last guy went through on the post-flight. One gymnast even did a full-twisting salto through the hoop! I also loved the Icarian Acrobatics, where the gymnasts flipped on each others’ feet, and the Grand Acrobatics & Martial Arts act which included swords and a huge red flag.
The ladies demonstrated tremendous talent as well, especially the one who continued to pedal around the stage while 10 other acrobats hung off her bicycle! There was another performer who simultaneously balanced decorative ornaments on both feet, both hands and her head, all whilst moving into various contortion poses. Many of the poses performed by the ladies reminded me of Sports Acro, and as always, I loved the one-handed handstand act which always makes me think of Jackie Bender!
Many of the acts were not so much acrobatics but equally impressive skills, such as balancing spinning plates on sticks, juggling straw hats, bouncing large spools on a string, and balancing huge Chinese vases on the head. Such control is required to master these acts!
Three years ago on Christmas Eve, the mysterious black-and-white videos of the 1984 Friendship Games in Olomouc were suddenly unveiled. Indeed, there had been question as to whether or not footage of this competition actually existed, and discussions surrounding its whereabouts frequently popped up on gymnastics message boards.
Gymnasts from behind the Iron Curtain gathered in the Czechoslovakian city as an alternative to the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. One notable exception was the Romanian team, which chose to compete in Los Angeles, but other strong teams such as the Soviets, East Germans, Czechoslovakians and Hungarians showed up in Olomouc to compete for medals.
Olga Mostepanova of the Soviet Union was the class of the women’s field in Olomouc, making history with her unbeatable score of 40.00! This is the first and only time a gymnast has achieved true perfection across all four events. Though there were still some memorable performances in Los Angeles, the Soviets’ winning combination of artistry and athleticism was sorely missed. Despite having the competition of her life to take the gold medal, Mary Lou Retton would not be the household name she is today had these Olympic Games been fully attended.
As you watch the first clip, take note of Mostepanova’s extension and amplitude. Her opening sequence is as difficult as any performed today, and though the skill at 0:14 is credited to Henrietta Onodi in the Code of Points, Mostepanova was in fact the first to perform this Arabian handspring in international competition. (Even Onodi herself refers to the “Onodi” as a “Mostepanova”!)
Olga Mostepanova, 1984 Friendship Games, Balance Beam
Irina Baraksanova, also representing the Soviet Union at the Friendship Games, displayed some exquisite floor work. Her team won the gold medal with a total of 395.25 out of a possible 400.00 points.
The long lines of the Eastern bloc gymnasts stand in stark contrast to the powerful performances of Olympic Champion Mary Lou Retton. She was able to take advantage of the home crowd and the absence of many top gymnasts in order to secure the title.
Mary Lou Retton, 1984 Olympic Games, Balance Beam
Though true fans of gymnastics are undoubtedly thrilled that the rare footage of the Friendship Games has been released two decades later, one can’t help but wonder how the Olympic medal tallies would be different had all the countries of the world participated. It would have been nice for the Soviet, East German, Czechoslovakian and Hungarian gymnasts to showcase their talent on the biggest of world stages, and to have their efforts appreciated on a global scale.
Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson? Svetlana Khorkina or Carly Patterson? Daniela Silivas or Yelena Shushunova?
The list could go on forever. The rivalry at the recent Olympic Games was the epitome of the Artistry vs. Power debate. Both Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson had a 66.1 Start Value, possessed nerves of steel, and represented the same country. But that’s where the similarities end.
The race for Olympic All-Around Gold was going to be interesting, to be sure. Either of these Americans could have won the most prestigious accolades of the quadrennium, with their most fierce competition coming from Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Ksenia Semyonova, Anna Pavlova, Steliana Nistor and Sandra Izbasa. Johnson held the advantage on Vault thanks to her consistent Amanar, but Liukin more than made up this deficit on Uneven Bars with a whopping 17.7 Start Value. As Balance Beam and Floor Exercise were roughly equal in terms of Start Value, the title was going to be determined by who performed to the best of her ability and who most impressed the international judges.
It seemed that Johnson could do no wrong in the eyes of the American judges. Her consistency had allowed her to finish at the top of the scoreboard in almost every competition she entered leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games, including the at 2007 World Championships. Liukin, on the other hand, struggled more despite winning the ever-decreasingly prestigious American Cup. Johnson surely thought that if she could just compete to the best of her ability, the Olympic crown would be hers.
The international judges, however, demonstrated a preference for Liukin’s more artistic style, resulting in the largest margin of victory in an Olympic All-Around in decades. Liukin’s routines were more reminiscent of the old school gymnasts of the 1970s and 1980s, all the while managing to pack in the highest level of difficulty.
Nastia Liukin Balance Beam Montage
There’s no denying Johnson’s amazing tumbling abilities. Her opening double-double always seems to float through the air with excellent form, and her Balance Beam routine is always so rock-solid.
Shawn Johnson Montage
There were two other gymnasts from these Olympic Games whose combination of power and artistry I truly admire: Anna Pavlova, with her classical Soviet style and high level of difficulty, and Cheng Fei, with her perfect form and cutting edge vaults (Amanar and RO-half on, layout Rudi). I was so disappointed that Pavlova narrowly missed a medal at these Games, especially in light of her 4th place in the All-Around at the 2004 Olympic Games. I was also hoping Cheng would win Vault, having won the World Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but it was nice to see North Korean Hong Un Jong mount the highest step on the awards podium.
Anna Pavlova, 2008 Russian Championships, Floor Exercise
Cheng Fei, 2008 Olympic Games, Vault
There have been several gymnasts over the years who have managed to integrate beautiful and relevant choreography into their Floor Exercise routines while simultaneously showcasing the highest level of tumbling. In fact, it seems that almost all the Soviet gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s were able to do so. My favourite routine ever belongs to Natalia Frolova, a gymnast who never competed in a World Championships due to the tough competition from her Soviet teammates. Watch as she intertwines dance with some exceptional tumbling: 1.5-twist through to piked full-in, whip to triple twist, and double tuck.
Natalia Frolova, 1986 Display, Floor Exercise
Another personal favourite of mine is Silvia Mitova’s Floor Exercise from 1991-92. She chose unique music and some bizarre dance elements that just seem to flow together. Many gymnasts have used this cut of music since, but none have quite managed to capture the same magic as Mitova.
Silvia Mitova, 1992 European Championships, Floor Exercise
It’s not just the female gymnasts who are able to display such artistry. During the Beijing Olympics I was stunned by the exquisite form of Kohei Uchimura. It was so disappointing when he fell from the Pommel Horse in the first rotation of the All-Around. By not giving away form deductions, however, he managed to climb his way back up to the Silver medal position behind the clear favourite, Yang Wei. Could his triple twist dismount be any more solid?!
Kohei Uchimura, 2008 Tianjin World Cup, Floor Exercise
Let us not forget Olympic Gold Medallist Xiao Qin. This Chinese gymnast demonstrates perfect form, fast swing and great height above the apparatus in his Pommel Horse routine, resulting in his utter dominance on the event in the past four years. At the 2007 World Championships, Xiao won Pommel Horse with a whopping 0.6 margin of victory!
I think I’ve saved the best for last. I’d like to know where the judges found 0.3 in deductions in this next routine. And since when does a crowd ooh, aah and applaud during a Pommel Horse routine?!
Xiao Qin, 2007 World Championships, Pommel Horse
Oh, and as for the original questions…as much as I love watching the risky tricks performed by the others, I’m sticking with Liukin, Khorkina and Silivas.