At the 2012 Olympics, where Thursday the world’s top 24 women’s gymnasts compete for the prestigious individual all-around title, grimaces have outnumbered smiles on the competition floor, as gymnasts gird for two-and-a-half twisting vaults that defy gravity and gulp lungs-full of oxygen to complete tumbling sequences that hammer joints and limbs.
The bliss seems to come only afterward. And even then, it often looks more like colossal relief over having escaped unscathed to earn a hug from an approving coach.
No doubt, there’s a danger of reading too much into a grin or the lack of one. But with the sport’s difficulty escalating so rapidly, it’s no wonder the “game face” of modern-day gymnasts tends to be a clenched jaw rather than a radiant smile.
That’s because the sport’s judging criteria, known as the code of points, rewards difficulty over artistry. While it was intended to take much of the subjectivity out of judging and encourage the evolution of gymnastics skills, some fear it has done so to a fault.
Even Bruno Grandi, head of the sport’s international governing body, has sounded an alarm over a system he feels is out of whack, calling it “a time bomb that we are wholly unable to contain.” What troubles Grandi is that the line between gymnastics and acrobatics is blurring. The former is intended as an artistic statement; the latter, purely athletic.
In their quests for higher “difficulty” scores, today’s gymnasts are packing their routines with so many demanding, high-risk skills that there’s little room left for artistry.
It’s particularly evident in floor routines. In Korbut’s day, the space in between tumbling stunts was filled with dance elements and expressive movements that wove a routine together.
Today, in the rush to rack up as many difficulty points as possible, the space in between stunts has beeen de-valued. It serves as the gymnastics equivalent of a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, affording gymnasts a moment to suck in a gulp of air before attacking the next skill.
“There’s a lot more at stake in terms of the skills that they’re performing,” explains 1984 Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar, 51. “But we’re always looking for the complete package, aren’t we? We want that great, great physical athletic performance. And we want that biggest smile in the world to go along with it.”
This is the essence of sports: striving for perfection, whether to be faster, stronger or more skilled. And with each generation, the standard of perfection is raised.