A Day At London 2012: Artistic Gymnastics

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In Spring of last year, I was one of the 1.8 million strong who applied for Olympic tickets. Applying for the big events – as well as few less-known sports – I was pretty pessimistic in thinking I wouldn’t get any; after all, applications passed the 20million mark.

In fact, I even tried to counter the risk of this by applying for so many tickets that I if I even got quarter of my allocation, I would have been left penniless. (Ouch!) It was thus both with a sign of relief and joy when a very acceptable sum was taken from my account. I was going to the Olympics!

What I would be seeing was less than certain however (Remember the crazy ticketing scheme where your money was often withdrawn before you even knew what you were seeing?!). My mind went wandering over the feast of sporting action I could be watching in little over a years time. Perhaps I’d got tickets for a trip to the heart-pumping action of the velodrome? Or a chance to see some top tennis at Wimbledon? Maybe even the pinnacle of it all with some athletics. I mean, it could even be the hottest tickets in town; the Opening Ceremony or the 100m Final.

Alas, it was not to be. When, a few days later, I woke up, checked my inbox and found an email from London 2012, I found out I would not be witnessing Bolt, Pendleton or Federer; instead, I would be witnessing the world of Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton & Olga Korbut.

If you are unsure what world that is (and don’t feel too bad about it as I had to look up at least one of them), that is the world of women’s artistic gymnastics.

It may of not been my first choice – my knowledge of gymnastics consisted of some awareness of the appartus, knowing what a ‘perfect 10‘ is and knowing that Beth Tweddle, Britain’s best ever gymnast, has a move named after her – but there is no doubt witnessing gymnastics would be a interesting and once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience.

Luckily, the organisers were prepared for such amateurs as myself with a audience-help system explaining the different apparatus and many rules; using all 4 corners on the mat, 10 seconds to get back onto the beam if you fall over, you lose marks if you stray into the red, the bars having to contain certain elements (the list went on and on).

The gymnastics scoring system, which is notoriously complicated for most viewers, was also explained. Shock horror; the perfect 10 is dead! Instead, there is a now open-ended score system in order to encourage innovation. I’ll attempt to synopsise it; there are two scores, ‘difficulty’ and ‘execution’, which works with difficulty going up from 0 when different elements are used and execution, which starts at 10, going down depending on how well it is, well, executed. These scores are then added together, with the best around the high 15s and into the 16s. Easy right?

So when it all began, I felt pretty expert-like. A magnificent pre-show portrayed the athleticism of gymnasts (balance, agility, grace, strength) and off it went.

Luckily, in the two sessions, I got to see the British team as well as the world’s best of China, Russia and USA. It was manic; flips there, somersaults over there, twirls everywhere (Okay, so I don’t know what anything was actually properly called, but it all looked great). Sometimes it wasn’t even on the apparatus, but just practicing along the walkways. It was all rather spectacular; in fact, I couldn’t tell the difference between a 12.8 or a 15.8.

I mean, there is no doubt I am easily impressed, especially considering my own limited skill in gymnastics which consist of never completing a succesful handstand in my life; and thus looking up in awe at those who can do a cartwheel.

My own limited skill in gymnastics consists of never completing a succesful handstand in my life; and thus looking up in awe at those who can do a cartwheel.

But, in reality, it’s hard not to be slightly stunned; for example, the balance beam is 1.5 metres off the ground and only 10cm wide (most of us couldn’t even walk down that successfully). The gymnasts don’t just walk on it – they leap, tumble and glide along it. The uneven bars are up to 1.8m apart, with the gymnasts flying between the two, doing 360-degree turns and creating enough power to defy gravity.

This was all done with crowd noise as well; I had expected the gymnastics to take a Wimbledon-style of ‘quiet please’ when the action was on play. After all, it is a sport of very fine margins; with the athletes hanging in the air, sheer millimetres from colliding with wood, metal or floor. It is, alongside diving, probably the most dangerous Olympic sport.

It thus requires far more concentration than tennis, especially considering the dangerous nature of it all; the worst injury possible in tennis is a ball smacking against a body-part (which, by all accounts, would still hurt as this video indicates). In reality, a serve in the face would be enough to make anyone cry; it is still not quite the high probability of broken bones, stress fractures, concussion or even paralysis that gymnastic could occur just by a getting a routine wrong. (The amount of strapping and bandages did give the impression they were all half-injured).

Instead, the crowd were raucous; shouting, cheering as well as the floor routine music blaring out with instrumental songs as diverse as Bollwood style musicals, the Rolling Stones and Sak Noel‘s ‘Loca People’. With many audience members, mainly young girls, shouting “come on Hannah” (and such-like names) clearly in reference to one of 15+ gymnasts below; I felt not just totally out of my depth, but also in awe in how the athletes were able to concentrate with such noise.

By the end, it was clearly making more sense. Indeed, so much so, that when Beth Tweddle – who at 28 is like an pensioner in the gymnast world – produced a stand-out performance on the uneven bars, it was noticeably brilliant. So fleetingly quick, powerful and graceful, it literally whirled past in seconds of frenzied activity. Beth twirled, the crowd wowed and clapped, and the judges gave the best score of the day with 16.133. The score was about 0.17 above her nearest competitor – He Kexin of China, the 2008 Olympic champion on bars – who scored 15.966. And, just to clear, I’m have no idea how close that is; but I’m going to hedge a bet and says its pretty tight.

By the end, I wanted a go. The gymnasts were making the vault look so easy that I thought it looked fun – launching off a springboard into the air. But after a young Chinese gymnast went up and landed partly on her face – which was documented with angle-changing slow-mo replays on the big screen for the subsequent 2 minutes (poor girl!) – I came crashing back down to earth; like I would have done literally if I had attempted it.

Indeed, all joking aside, these gymnasts are phenomenal athletes; both strong and graceful. How they manage to generate such power to do some of their moves is purely breath-taking. It is more incredible considering their age, with Britain’s Rebecca Tunney competing aged just 15 and making the all-round final. 

I also want to give a special mention to Oksana Chusovitina, who at 37 is still competing (her first competition was before most of her fellow competitors were born). Chusovitina, who is at her 6th Olympics, moved to Germany and carried on competing in 2002 in order to pay for her son’s medial bills after he was diagnosed with leukaemia. She is not just to make up the numbers though; winning silver in 2008 in the vault and making the final again this year. A true Olympic story.

I left the O2 (Sorry, the North Greenwich Arena) not exactly a gymnastic convert (or expert, despite my claims); I will, however, be tuning in to see how Britain’s men and women do in their respective finals. And, for once, I might actually understand the rules and scoring a bit. Well, here’s hoping.

Are you going to see some of the sporting action of London 2012? Or maybe just some of the events organised around the games. If so, please send in your stories and pictures or write about your Olympic experience!

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