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Stretching Out: The opposing forces of difficulty and age limits
(19 votes, average 4.47 out of 5)

We hear it all the time: "The sport is called Women's Artistic Gymnastics." It is the most common rebuttal from those who staunchly defend an age limit. However, I believe it is more accurate to say "it used to be Women's Artistic Gymnastics."

When the sport gained global interest thanks to Olga Korbut in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci four years later, Women's Artistic Gymnastics began its slow transformation. Korbut, 17, and Comaneci, 14, were teenagers more than they were women. And very acrobatic teenagers, at that. They also displayed artistry in their routines, even though some of Korbut's contortions broke the conventional mold of good form at times.

Since the trend toward more difficulty has escalated since, the gymnasts most capable of executing, if not performing, the current trick-filled routines are still teenagers. I just can't imagine 1964 and ’68 Olympic champion Vera Caslavska or 1972 winner Lyudmila Turischeva — two wonderful examples of women's artistic gymnastics — ending their floor routines with a piked full-in, for example. Granted, they lacked spring floors back then, but the idea of sacrificing execution to add another twist or flip was considered a gymnastics sin back then. Case in point: When Nellie Kim performed one of the first tucked double backs on floor in an Olympics (1976), she did it with her knees together and toes pointed. How often (or seldom) do you see that skill done with clean form today on any women's event?

Had Nadia presented her mind-boggling routines in 1976 with sloppy form, well, few would really remember her today. It's interesting that she is known mainly for her impeccable execution — her seven scores of 10.0 — but her difficulty at the time, particularly on uneven bars and balance beam, was just as noteworthy, maybe even more.

Difficulty continued to grow after Nadia, and it is generally agreed among gymnastics purists that the 1980s were the "golden years" of women's gymnastics. After that decade, perfect execution began to lose some of its importance, and Women's Artistic Gymnastics became Female Acrobatic Gymnastics.

By the 1990s, certain Code changes contributed to the beginning of the end of that glorious time in the sport. More and more acrobatics began to take hold, often at the expense of good form and proper technique, which usually go hand in hand. Then, in 1997, compulsories were dropped and the age limit was raised to 16, which is where it stands so divisively today.

Sixteen isn't so sweet for many gymnasts, who find themselves battling their physical maturation and the most demanding Code of Points ever. Professional golf has the senior tour, where 50-somethings get to play shorter courses. But it's quite the opposite for female gymnasts, many of whom are expected to compete the hardest gymnastics of their careers when their bodies can barely do what they could a few years earlier. Taped ankles and/or braced wrists are practically the norm because of the physical strain of today's routines. The Code of Points even states that "bandages must be beige-colored" so as not to "detract from the aesthetics of the performance."

In reality, the sport is only going through its natural progression, since gymnasts and coaches will forever strive to be better than the rest. Difficulty will always have its rightful place in the sport, but it is up to the FIG to manage this trend effectively and responsibly. Which is valued more: execution or difficulty? Strangely, the new, more stringent execution evaluation for women's gymnastics has further bolstered the clout of difficulty. Gymnasts know that the quickest way to increase their scores is to add harder tricks. After all, the execution mark is capped, and even the best routines are lucky to approach 9.0.

In the last 13 years, the age limit of 16 has slowly contributed to a decline in women's gymnastics as we once knew it, and the lack of depth in major all-around competitions is alarming proof. The age limit simply closes the window of opportunity for many gymnasts. Few are born at precisely the right time to hit their competitive peak at 16 or 17 in an Olympic year. Fewer still can remain healthy and motivated until they are 19 or 20 and give it another shot — with easier routines, no less.

Evolution can only be stopped by extinction. So with the current age limit combined with the high premium on difficulty, is Women's Artistic Gymnastics nearing such a fate? Or has it already?

Comments (4)add comment

KristyJ said:

I agree that the current code places an emphasis on a degree of difficulty that is unsustainable for most gymnasts of any age. While some gymnasts are able to work to a peak of difficulty, and even fewer are able to do so in the proper year, very few indeed (of any age!) can even attempt to maintain that difficulty, let alone increase it, after a few years of the wear and tear it brings. If the code is going to demand so much of gymnasts (who incidentally will need to start training more difficulty at a younger age anyways just to get up to a competitive level in the new code), then it should give them a larger window of opportunity in which to demonstrate their hard-won skills.

If the FIG wishes to maintain the current age limit, or even simply wishes to maintain the public appeal of the sport, then they need to make execution more important than sheer difficulty. The best way to do this would probably be to bring back the 10.0 code (oh, how I miss the days of perfection!), but in lieu of this, perhaps they should double the execution score. It's very frustrating to watch routines that include "upgrades" stuck into routines when the gymnast cannont yet consistently perform the skill with good form- they merely incur fewer deductions than they earn in difficulty points. At this rate perfected difficulty may never be seen again.

Wasn't it the form and virtuosity that made the difficulty in artistic gymnastics exciting in the first place? Though we see little glimpses of it here and there still (Nastia's Olympic AA vault!), gymnastics in general is less pleasing to watch now than it used to be despite being much more difficult. The routines are so difficult that gymnasts can't be expressive all the way through- there is the inevitable moment of standing in a corner before tumbling passes.

Perhaps another way to encourage gymnasts to work on proper form, and to decrease injuries, would be to bring back some form of compulsories. This would bring back the clean basics while allowing gymnasts to spend less time doing huge skills on hard surfaces. If everyone had to have both difficulty and clean basics then perhaps we'd see fewer injuries, and better gymnastics!
March 10, 2010
Votes: +3

Renata said:

I think it´s very ironic that FIG changed the code to "favour execution" when we see the sport going the complete opposite way. We see more injuries today not just because they have to add more difficulty, but also because they have to keep training those difficult skills for many more years, since the gymnasts learns new skills when she is 12, 13, 14 tops, because that´s when their bodies can handle addapting to new movements. I think it is very clear that FIG doesn´t have a clue about training and coaching and makes a delusional code based on what they wanted to be true in spite of what is real.
March 10, 2010
Votes: -1

Cassie said:

Seeing as how they've already gotten rid of the 10.0, why not just move to a scoring system like diving, where they multiply the difficulty level by the execution? That way an increase in one is most beneficial if the other multiplying factor is higher as well. Being a gymnast with exceptional form and limited difficulty I found it very frustrating that difficulty is weighted so much more heavily than form. A new, more difficult combination can add up to a full point to your score whereas significantly improving form might garner five tenths at best.
March 10, 2010
Votes: +0

Charlotte said:

I first started watching gymnastics in the 1980s and it was something else than what it is today... dare I say it now it is often boring. Please change the code back to 10s so audiences understand again. And deduct for double backs that do not have knees together and pointed toes. And get these gymnasts dancing properly again. PLEASE! I miss the drama and the beauty of this sport. Now I'm just scared these gymnasts are going to hurt themselves. And drop the age limit - they will be doing the tricks in the gym before 16 anyway.
May 01, 2010
Votes: +1

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