In August 2012, I wrote a lamentation about the seeming lack of lyricism, fluidity and artistry on display during the Olympics’ women’s gymnastics routines.
“Raw, explosive power? Yes. Bare-knuckled competition? Of course. Unparalleled muscular athleticism? Beyond a doubt. … [But] the pervasive get-‘er-done-quick flicking movements robbed balance beam, floor and rhythmic performances of balletic grace and replaced it with competitive cheerleading’s snap and speed,” I complained.
Back then, I was bewildered by the change. Now, after reading journalist Dvora Meyers’ meticulous and surprising book, “The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score — from Nadia to Now,” it’s obvious how it happened.
I grew up watching women’s gymnastics when post-Nadia Comaneci gymnasts were still working toward a “perfect” routine that was, in part, scored on the elegance, style and beauty of the movements.
Today, as Meyers details, we are a decade into the new, “open-ended” scoring system that was instituted in 2006 and whose highest scores hover in the 16s.
The change in scoring — devised not only because 10s were becoming so common as to make the designation meaningless, but also to reward higher achievement in the discipline and techniques involved — had the effect of pushing aside the dance style that was typified by the Russians in the 1960s and ’70s and ushered in the era of women’s gymnastics as sport, rather than as art form.
Now, after years of upping the ante on moves that initially had their roots in ballet, gymnastics has evolved into an “extreme” sport featuring unimaginable tumbling combinations.
Check out any reporting on gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian or Laurie Hernandez, all of whom are representing the U.S. in Rio, and you’ll see their styles described as explosive, powerful, daredevilish, acrobatic, spectacular, fearless, bouncy, hyperactive and possessing brute strength.
Watch these women’s performances on YouTube and you will not see prettiness — of painstakingly perfected head carriage, leg extension, pointed toes and soft, fluttering hands. Those are now rushed, having been replaced with excitement. For the viewer there is breath-holding, amazement and terror mixed with deep admiration that a human body can fly through the air at such eye-popping speed.
It turns out that — aside from sort of ruining it for those of us who appreciated gymnastics as a graceful form of storytelling — the change in the character of women’s gymnastics actually has upsides.
The rules governing the Olympic sport now put the minimum age at 16. This, combined with the physical demands of routines that took skills honed by male gymnasts and pumped them up even further, has had the net result of developing female athletes who are mature, strong and healthy-looking instead of the cute, tiny, bony waifs that used to pervade gymnastics squads.
The musculature of the new generation of gymnasts is what drives performances that are focused on cramming in as many high-complexity skills into vault, beam, uneven bars and floor routines in which perfection is not the goal.
The new scoring system makes for routines that can be so highly difficult that even an extra hop, a glaring error or even a fall doesn’t count significantly against the gymnast because the skill involved carries so many points.
So what does it all mean for the casual Olympics viewer who enjoys watching gymnastics only once every four years?
For us older folks, it means forgetting the past — it may have been more traditionally beautiful in terms of choreography, gymnast personality and artistry, but the apples-to-oranges comparison cannot make us think of it as “better.”
The new world of elite women’s gymnastics is one in which the U.S. team is more mature, more racially and ethnically diverse and more amazing than ever before. These young women deserve to be judged by the standards of their international contemporaries and not of our fuzzy memories of Comaneci or even Mary Lou Retton.
At the end of her book, Meyers concludes: “The move toward greater complexity and difficulty is what imperiled and ultimately ended the 10. This forward march will continue until we reach the limits of what the human body can do, a line that keeps moving. After all, back in Comaneci’s and [perfect 10-winning gymnast Nellie] Kim’s day, everyone thought we were at the edge of human ability. And 40 years later, we’re still moving forward.”
On the whole, this is to be celebrated, rather than mourned.