Monday, October 17, 2011

2011 Worlds: The Direction of the Sport



There is great debate about who deserved to win the all-around at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships.  While debate is healthy, it is not a good sign for the sport when the audience feels one gymnast deserves to win and the results say otherwise.  Gymnastics has become exceedingly confusing.  Many of the expert commentators announcing the event felt Viktoria Komova deserved to win the event.  The truth is that Jordyn Wieber and Viktoria Komova both left the door open for the judges to deduct in the competition.  When that happens, politics and the critical eyes of judges come into play.  One's vision of the 'ideal gymnast' also has an impact on their opinion of the decision.

For those who have watched the sport for decades, it is clear that Viktoria Komova's classical gymnastics is obviously superior.  Those who began watching intently during the last decade may appreciate the power of Jordyn Wieber more and feel that gymnastics should be more about skills.  The FIG has given statements that they aren't pleased with the direction of the sport, yet their own policies and open-ended judging system sent the sport on a roller-coaster ride to becoming an obscure sport like aerial skiing and the luge.



When difficulty was 'moderately' limited, the audience was able to feel connected to the gymnasts in a way that doesn't come through under the current iteration.  Floor routines used to be performance art, but now they involve mostly arm waving while the athletes rest for difficult tumbling runs...that they have to jam their ankles into the floor to stick.



While every sport needs progress, it is important to realize that we actually saw a greater diversity of gymnastics back in 1999 and 2000.  At the time, the overuse of the wolf jump was groaned about by everyone.  The sad part is that the sport has become one cheap wolf jump combination where having a coach who can 'work the code' often times exceeds athletic ability (see Lauren Mitchell.)  Watching bar finals from Sydney, Teza, Produnova, Ling, Yang, Khorkina, Karpenko, Zharganova and Roschupkina each had their own individual styles and skill selection.  They didn't each have to do the same skills to reach an optimal start value.  The final was actually more interesting for judges and viewers alike.  The innovation was actually far greater.  It didn't matter if Produnova was doing a bar routine, the crowd sensed that she was an aggressive girl whose way everyone should stay out of.  Khorkina was a lanky diva longing for a cinematic career.  Now, the routines are marathons and the athletes are forced to become robotic in order to achieve greatness.  There are rare gems who are able to combine artistry and athleticism, but they are few and far between.

When the judging of the sport went open-ended, it was partially in respond to judging controversies.  Scoring systems do not solve biased judging.  Sadly, the bar routine of Aly Raisman in bar finals shows just how political the sport can get.  A routine that should've scored two points lower would've been awarded a score that was points higher than Aly has ever received had she executed it without serious errors.

If a sport is going to sustain interest, it needs stars.  Love of hate her gymnastics, Aliya Mustafina is one of the leading personalities in the sport.  Her attitude on and off the floor engage, offend and perplex those who follow and cover the sport.  In short: the girl has star quality.  Injuries may always occur, but the rate of injuries has increased to a point where one can not perform up to their top level at the European Championships, lose and look for redemption five months later at Worlds.  The three biggest stars from Europeans: Mustafina, Dementyeva and Izbasa were all either injured or burnt out and past-peek by the time Worlds rolled around.  Success in the sport becomes a game of Russian roulette where luck has just as much to do with competitive success as preparation and mental acumen.

Where is the sport going?  Is Jordyn Wieber the goal?  Is Komova the goal?  Bruno Grandi was thrilled when Nastia Liukin won gold in Beijing because it was proof that 'his code worked.'  That was not exactly accurate, as Nastia spent two years being injured at the big meets and didn't have the type of sustaining competitive rivalries that would've been beneficial for the sport.  Beijing was her moment.  It is rare for multiple winners.  Kohei Uchimura needs to be kept in a bubble for the next ten months should Bruno's code have any merit in London.


Like many of you, I want to feel invested in the sport and its competitors again.  I want to see Komova cry tears of joy and sadness, but I also want to see theatrics on the actual competition floor.  Adding a leap to a pass doesn't impress me much when it becomes rote.  It was exciting when Dominique Moceanu added a straight jump to a front full because it displayed individual expression.  Seeing it on every tumbling run becomes monotonous.  I don't care about cheap combinations that won't be worth anything in another year.  I was to see four layout stepouts on beam.  The best gymnast should be the best gymnast, not the best code whore.

Sadly, many of the top performs at Worlds will likely not be competing or in top shape at next year's Olympic Games.


(They have a point...)

33 comments:

  1. Close, debatable results are fine... I think it's the fact that both girls kind of stumbled to the finish line which made it more controversial.. It's like neither girl actually "earned" it.

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  2. Aly Raisman wasn't in bar finals.

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  3. Notice the Russian camp never actually protested a score, they just created a media circus of hearsay. Just food for thought.

    Floor and beam have become unwatchable in general. Even the most "beautiful" gymnasts have basically zero expression, choreographic originality, flow. Unfortunately, Komova's FX invites comparison to Mostepanova, and it's just depressing. All Komova has is a favorable body type and good form.

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  4. Re UB, I think the damned inbar stalders need downgrading. Sure they're hard, but if you can't make EF without them, something's wrong. And they're certainly no more exciting than a regular stalder done well.

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  5. In my opinion, the true problem with the open-ended scoring system are the execution scores--which are boxed in at 8.800 +/- 0.200. If a gymnast like Raisman is just going to chuck around a bunch of difficult skills with horrible form to increase a D-score, she has the advantage because no matter what she, Komova and Yao Jinnan are are going to score roughly an E-score of 8.800.

    I used to be a proponent of the open-ended system because I remember watching Lysenko throw a clean DTY (even by today's standard), take a step and come in third behind Milo and Onodi--who threw less powerful and mediocre FTYs.

    If there was a greater disparity in the E-scores, then it would somewhat wash out the ability to just chuck around very difficult skills with horrific form.

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  6. I agree. The 10.0 is very much alive (in the E-score). There have been times when judges should have awarded 10.0 E-scores--at the very least (9.900). Nastia Liukin's AA vault from the 2008 Olympics comes to mind.

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  7. Can we talk about those webisodes from, IG? Did anyone think they were serious train wrecks... barely got through one! They had to do video chats vs in person interviews!

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  8. I really like the use of that bar finals to back up your point. Gosh I miss those days.

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  9. I like the example of that bar finals because it still had to be stretched to argue that Ling and Yang had different styles and skill selection. I blame it on Lu Li. :)

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  10. "I was to see four layout stepouts on beam."

    YES. THIS. I remember when this was the gold standard of beam acrobatics and grace. I'm so sad no one does them anymore. I don't know all the exact details of the current code but is it no longer a valuable acrobatic combination? I hate all the jump connections and the day I don't see wolf jumps as often can't come soon enough. I don't like how the new demand for difficult vaults is causing so many unnecessary injuries and ruining careers. What's the point of chucking an Amanar, having it be a hot mess, and risk a crippling injury?

    I absolutely see the merit of an open ended system (re FTY vs DTY value), but without retaining some element of the old perfect 10 system the direction of the sport (particularly WAG) doesn't look so good. In my perfect world I would bring compulsories back so artistry and form would improve, keep it at the fixed 10 system and integrate it with individual open-ended scores. At least that way crap execution couldn't be saved by difficulty if you couldn't do the simple moves well in compulsories. Also, Michael Buckley <3. I love his gymnastics commentary. :)

    *sigh* Unfortunately I don't think the power vs artistry debate will ever fully be resolved. People were aghast at Olga Korbut's back somi on beam, fearing it would reduce gymnastics to cheap tricks. Where do we go from here?

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  11. "but now they involve mostly arm waving while the athletes rest for difficult tumbling runs..."

    If only they would wave their arms or something. Most don't even bother to do that, and I have to admit it's a pet peeve of mine, to see the gymnast slumped in the corner with her arms plopped by her sides panting for several seconds until it's time to run and flip again.

    Sure, it's not like we were really fooled in the old days when a gymnast would sidle to the corner with lots of arm fluttering and then do few simple steps or poses before a run... We all knew she was "resting", but it didn't matter when the artistic ones had enough style to integrate with the rest of the routine and make it look like performance instead of an exhibition.

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  12. I agree with the above commenter. :)

    Gymnasts used to get bonus(or value part increase? I'm not sure) for performing multiple of the same skill in a row. The rules for awarded value parts have changed since the 90s to promote diversity of skills within the routine. Now you might see roundoff back layout on beam whereas it used to be back handspring 3 back layout stepouts in a row.

    Both can be dynamic and beautiful when done well.

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  13. I think a lot of the issues have to do not with open-ended difficulty per se but with the relative weighting of execution vs difficulty, and the binary nature of the deduction system for judging execution.

    Compare the results of switching to the code of points in ice skating vs gymnastics: common to both are the complaints that everyone has to do the same thing to maximize their points but otherwise the results have been very different. The Lysacek/Plushenko drama was in some ways the same debate of difficulty vs execution with nationalities flipped.

    The technical score mixes difficulty and execution and +/1 on GOE can contribute as much or more points than changes in difficulty so athletes and coaches concentrate on GOE first, then upgrade difficulty. The component scores then double down on execution with skating skills, etc.

    I'm not arguing that the skating code of points is necessarily a superior system, though I think what's happened to ice dance shows that with the right mix can work well and benefit an artistically-oriented sport. But I think it shows that gymnastics could keep open-ended difficulty but rejigger the system to rebalance difficulty and artistry.

    To do that, though, I think they really need to take a look at the deduction system for judging execution. 9:30 is exactly right in that it's very boxed in. And part of that is that it is very binary - a tiny foot slide and 3/4 shoulder width step get the same deduction. If Wieber and Komova both have their legs together and their feet pointed there is no way for a judge to make a distinction that Komova did it better. Adding an artistry deduction only helps a little since again, it's binary, yes or no. There are shades in execution that this system does not reward appropriately.

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  14. Skating has also dropped in popularity under an open ended system. They do t work.

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  15. Ling was much more labored than Yang due to having superior shoulder flexibility.

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  16. If the code was different I honestly believe the US would have some gymnast not even there. One thing I give Marta credit for is looking at the code and seeing which gymnast work with it the best. Other countries send old style gymnast to me who dont favor the code. If the code was different USAG would be putting a great deal more interest in Gymnast like Kyla Ross, Gabby D. and even Maroney and even Sabrina Vega who have the lines and execution needed, or certainly have the potential for great execution and lines..

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  17. I agree that Komova is much more artistically appealing than the majority of competing gymnasts today. But speaking as as a former ballerina, I have to say that her form in her pirouettes is much more awkward than graceful.

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  18. @2:00pm I'd be interested to see the trend stats on popularity/ratings. I'm pretty sure that the downtrend on skating predates the change to the code of points and is also largely influenced by the lack of a dominating American female star. Sasha Cohen was the best we've done since Michelle Kwan. I'm not saying that the code of points has helped skating in general -- I don't think that's true. I'd be happy never to see another catch-foot again, and the sameness of routines encouraged by a set code is a problem in both sports. But ice dance in particular has benefited from the new system and is in fact more popular because of it, helped by the fact that between Belbin/Agosto and Marlie we've got dominating stars.

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  19. As someone who has followed gymnastics for decades I fail to see Komova's appeal. She's ok but not particularly artistic. She was hardly precise in Tokyo. The beam routine was fraught with problems. The floor routine had a string of errors... and not just on landings but on dance elements. She is the sentimental favorite because people want her to be a gymnast from the past. But at this world championships she was not and Weiber was the clear winner.

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  20. Komova needs to wash her hair. I have never seen so much grease in my life! I hate her gymnastics.

    I hope that mustafina retears her knee and goes away.

    I hope that jordan retires now.

    I hope that mitchell fails a drug test and is suspended for life.

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  21. I feel like the upcoming battle between the Russians and the US in gymnastics is a battle for the soul of the sport. I really do. I just love the fact that the Russians do STYLISH gymnastics.

    Its not like there aren't a few Americans I don't like but overall MEH.

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  22. Totally agree with anon at 6:28. In all honesty, Komova (unlike Musty, an exceptional gymnast who COMMANDS attention) really is nothing special. She was tentative and showed a complete lack of confidence. The truth is that people are longing for the days of Mostepanova and Co., and they're channeling that desire through her. I think once she hits a growth spurt/puberty and doesn't have "the look" any more, people will move on.

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  23. Komova has zero expression/charisma/charm/star power.

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  24. @7:07 - well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine. LMAO.

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  25. Let's not forget the most important factor in receiving a commendable score...WHO you are and the name you have built for yourself. Otherwise gymnasts from the less gymnastic dominant countries who have some beautiful routines would be scoring better. It is ridiculous that even a non judge's eye can see missed handstands on casts and pirouette skills, piked swinging, and low releases still receive high scores on bars because of WHO the gymnast is! Very frustrating...the judges will nail girls on these things if they aren't a well known gymnast.

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  26. @9:27 PM Hah well not all gymnasts have Khorkina-esque personality, but it doesn't make their gymnastics any less special. I honestly think Komova is tentative and nervous this competition because she is still recovering from her ankle injury since... last year (?) and just hasn't put in the numbers to be that confident. Truly showcasing the performance/routines can only come after an athlete is confident of her skills. Mustafina was at peak physical condition last year (like Jordyn this year), Komova was barely able to even compete FX and VT a month ago. She will be better next year as long as she stay healthy.

    RE puberty, its really unpredictable for different athletes. Mustafina used to be tiny too, and she adjusted fine. Maybe a growth spurt will make her lines even more gorgeous, who knows? Well, Koko Tsurumi is still tiny, even compared to Komova.

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  27. @6:28 PM Maybe compared to past greats Komova is nothing special, but compared to today's gymnast her form and lines are one of the best. I don't think its as much sentimental favorite, but last year at YOG, Komova was a gymnast that combined both grace and tremendous difficulty, why shouldn't people like that? This worlds, as some has pointed out, she is recovering from an injury, and pushed a little into AA (she doesn't seem ready for FX), and is probably tentative from lack of training.

    No way is Jordyn a "clear winner", she won fairly definitely, but it was so close. Her reaction proved that. Kohei Uchimura was a clear winner, Aliya Mustafina was a clear winner last year, this year's AA came down to 0.033.

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  28. Nastia did not deserve a 9.9 execution score on vault at the Olympics. God when did the announcers become fact that so many idiots believe shit just because Elfi said it?

    Nastia has very little height of distance on that vault and she barely got the 1,5 twist around. There was plenty to deduct.

    If you are going to even bring up her name lets talk about how she code whored a bar routine. She never would have been in an AA discussion with her 1996 vault. It is comparable to the freaking Yurchenko Porgras does now.

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  29. Haha all the people deceived by the dreadful trio. There is definitely more to E score deductions than a stuck landing. But generally though, E scores are a joke, they are so boxed up (except falls), that you really can't differentiate good form from bad.
    Don't see any problem with "code whoring", why shouldn't athletes/coaches work by the rules to get the highest possible score? Unless the reintroduce a ROV (rewarding) system, I see no way around it. Why should they penalize themselves? But my main gripe is that in the 2005-08 quad, bars were way over-scored, its possible to get insane D scores compared to other apparatus and rewarded gymnasts good at bars while harshly punishing others who are AAers with a weaker bars. All four events should be equally important.

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  30. Anon @5:44 - Get off your 'I hate Liukin because it's cool to be non-conformist emo' kool-aid. I suggest you go back to youtube and watch the video again. Her height and distance on that vault are more than sufficient.

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  31. After this year's world championships, I seriously needed some "Miller Time":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6X7qFDiscE

    I just love the way she *finishes* every single dance move, how there's no "dead time", and how she makes it all flow together and actually performs it to the music... You just don't see that kind of thing at all anymore, sigh...

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