So, it’s been a while since you last watched gymnastics. Just about four years, in fact. By the end of London, you felt like you were getting the hang of things – you could tell a Yurchenko from a Tsukahara, and you had just wrapped your head around the new scoring system.
But then four years went by, and you’ve barely thought about gymnastics since, which is understandable, given how little mainstream press attention it receives during non-Olympic years. Only now, the Olympics have rolled back around, and the gymnastics competition starts on Sunday, and you’re probably racking your brain to remember the difference between an Arabian and a full-in.
That makes sense because gymnastics, to those who didn’t grow up doing it, can seem impenetrably complicated. It’s fast-paced, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at or what you’re looking for, it can all just look like a high-speed sparkly blur. And there’s zero shame in being a four-year fan. The good people over at The Gymternet have even put together a handy four-year fan guide, explaining some basic (and not so basic) terminology to send you into the Games feeling well-informed.
And once you are, well, it’s time to show off your newfound knowledge. Here’s how to sound like you know what you’re talking about, whether you’re watching the competition live on the couch, or trying to impress your colleagues at work the next day.
What you say: “Can you believe the Romanian situation? What a staggering downward slide.”
What it means: The once-great Olympic team is a mess right now.
Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, the Romanians were the queens of the gymnastics world. Nadia Comaneci and Simona Amanar, who invented one of the hardest vaults you’ll see attempted in Rio, are both Romanian. They were a global gymnastics power, along with the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans. But in recent years, their training program has completely fallen apart, which gymnastics journalist and author of The End Of The Perfect 10 Dvora Meyers attributes to the open-ended scoring system that was introduced in 2006. It made it harder for the Romanians to coast on their superior beam scores and punished them severely for their long-standing weakness on uneven bars. “When the new rules were introduced in 2006 and the 10.0 scoring cap was removed,” Meyers writes, “it blew the lid off the kind of math that allowed the Romanians to fall behind on bars and make it up on the other three [events].”
Add that to limited funding for building a pipeline and a game of musical chairs in their coaching leadership, and you’ve got a recipe for steep decline. Last year, they did so poorly in the qualifying events leading up to Rio that they didn’t even get to send a full team: they’re allowed to send ONE gymnast. And the two gymnasts they had to choose from have been plagued by injuries. The woman they’ve settled on, Catalina Ponor, is 28 years old, which is ancient by gymnastics standards, and had to come out of retirement in order to aid her struggling national team.
What you say: “I don’t understand how many girls wobble on their beam turns.”
What it means: How can something so easy cause so many problems?
Ah, the pirouette. Nemesis of all gymnasts. Downfall of so many would-be medalists. Sworn enemy of people who like staying on the beam. Gymnasts are required to do at least one full turn on the beam, in addition to the required leaps and acrobatics. It is a truth universally acknowledged that even if you stick all your jumps and flips perfectly, you may still be brought low, literally, by a simple pirouette. No one really knows why turns are such a stumbling block to so many gymnasts, because, truly, they’re not that hard, but a stumbling block they are.
What you say: “It’s so lovely that Martha’s last Games are Kim’s first.”
What it means: The dowager countess of U.S. gymnastics is stepping off the throne.
Martha Karolyi is the team coordinator for U.S women’s gymnastics. This means that she is the final word on who makes the Olympic team and who competes in which events on game day. She’s been coaching for over 50 years; she coached Nadia Comaneci, and a very long list of U.S. olympians and world champions. You probably know less about her than you do about her husband, Bela, because Bela provides us with great TV. But Martha provides us with great GIFs. This is Martha’s last Olympics; after Rio, she’ll be retiring (not for the first time, but almost certainly for the last).
The first American champion Bela and Martha coached from scratch was Kim Zmeskal, who was world champion in 1991 and was on the 1992 Olympic Team in Barcelona, where USA won a bronze in the all-around competition. Kim and her husband now run their own gym and, this year, they have their first ever Olympian, Ragan Smith, who’s one of three alternates traveling to Rio. It’s the end of the Karolyi coaching era, but the beginning of a new generation of Olympians who are learning from the people the Karolyis coached.
What you say: “Is there anything in the world as delightful as Gabby’s Tkatchev?”
What it means: Damn, this woman gets a lot of air.
A Tkatchev is a release move on bars – one of those amazing tricks where the gymnast lets go of the bar, does a somersault or flies over the bar, and then catches it again. The Tkatchev is named for Russian champion Alexander Vasilyevich Tkachyov, who in 1977 was the first to perform the release in international competition. The gymnast swings forward with their body fully extended and, near the top of their swing, lets go; the momentum of the swing pulls their body up and back and they fly over the bar before grabbing it again.
It can be done in a pike or a straddle position. Gabby Douglas’ pike Tkatchev is huge: she flies remarkably high, putting a huge distance between herself and the bar before coming down to catch it again. It’s amazing to watch.
What you say: “I mean, apart from maybe Eythora Thorsdottir’s floor routine?”
What it means: It's not the hardest routine you'll see in these Games, but it is the most distinctive.
Thorsdottir's is probably the weirdest, loveliest floor routine that will be performed in Rio. She's known for her somewhat odd and avant-garde floor routines, which look like interpretive dances with some very good gymnastics sporadically thrown in.
Under the open-ended scoring system, gymnasts are incentivized to add more difficult tumbling passes to their routines, which tends to push out the dancing once common in floor routines. Thorsdottir’s floor routine is one of the last remaining bastions of high-quality dance in elite gymnastics, and it’s weird and delightful and very fun to watch.
What you say: “Simone Biles really might be the GOAT.”
What it means: Precisely that.
Not just the greatest gymnast in these Games, not just the greatest gymnast ever, but one of the greatest athletes of all time. She’s up there with Ali and the Williams sisters and Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Truly. Jessica O’Beirne, host of the popular podcast GymCastic, told HuffPost that “in Simone Biles you are watching someone that not only comes along once in a generation, but maybe once in a hundred years. She is that special. And she’s so special that even to compare her to somebody like Michael Jordan… she may have already surpassed what he has accomplished,” and that’s before setting foot in an Olympic arena. “There just isn’t an adequate comparison, because she is so far beyond anyone that has ever come before her.”
O’Beirne says that Biles is remarkable not just for her athletic achievements – she’s the first person to win three back-to-back-to-back World Championships and performs some of the most difficult routines you’ll see in Rio – but also in how she talks about herself and her sport. “That she says to reporters, ‘I’m not thinking about the future, I’m going to enjoy the moment. I’m going to enjoy making the Olympic team. I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m human; I make mistakes’… So not only might she be the greatest gymnast there will ever be, she is already, at 19, one of the great leaders in sport.” When it comes to Biles, believe the hype. As O’Beirne says, “she’s transcendent.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Olga Korbut was part of the Romanian gymnastics team. She is from Belarus and represented the Soviet Union.
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