Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Day.... Another Rant

This time it's about...

Grace vs Power

Last night, at Gymnastics Coaching’s urging, I watched Anna Myzdrikova’s pretty Glasgow World Cup floor routine. 
It was terrific ..... and it was definitely pretty. 
Before I viewed it, though, I read a lot of the comments on the page.  
Most of them were admiring, and many of them protested along the lines of how much better she was than Tweddle, and how she should have beaten her with her Soviet-reminiscent choreography and amazing tumbling.
I haven’t watched Tweddle’s routine and have no opinion on that matter, persay, but the Russian’s tumbling was incredible, her Arabian tuck was beautifully tight and her dance was gorgeous.

Anna Myzdrikova

What I really want to talk (or rant) about in this post is the ongoing battle in the gymnastics world between the importance of grace and the importance of power in sport.  These are the two dueling forces at work in competition.  
Both necessary.  But never equal.  

There has been an ostensible shift in gymnastics in the way it has been performed in the last ten or twenty years. This can largely be attributed to the changes in training systems, affected by the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the rise of China, and also to the growing eminence of the United States in the competitive field. The greatest shift has been in the balance between the use of these two most important elements of women’s artistic gymnastics.

Grace. The Soviets had it. Some still do. The Chinese certainly do. To be described by a commentator as performing your routines with Soviet style or flair, often means you have exhibited much grace and impeccable form.

Korbut- famous Soviet Styling

Power. The U.S.A have it. Their Olympic teams are usually composed of several power players, known for their big tricks and clean, rather than graceful form. These are the one’s who wow us with their height and speed.

Memmel- the toughest of the tough
(and very, very clean)

And it’s not all about the U.S and the Post-Soviet states. These days we see gymnasts from all over the world falling into one of these categories, while others hover in between. Tough, explosive power-gymnasts like Sacramone, Memmel, Johnson, Amanar, Tweddle, Dos Santos, Ferrari and Nistor come up against the elegant, polished work of graceful gymnasts like Liukin, Semenova, Pavlova, Shanshan, Tamirjan and Krasnianska in an ever-waged battle between power and grace, between difficulty and execution.

Maybe its about training styles and body types. Maybe it's about national preference.
(I have a theory that if Cheng Fei had been trained in America, she would been molded more like Sacramone or Johnson, clean and powerful, but have turned out far less graceful than she did being brought up within the Chinese regime.)

Cheng Fei- China's greatest combination of strength and grace

And, of course, commentators love to continue playing out the sporting Cold War they began between the Soviet and American gymnastics teams and now continue with the Chinese school of gymnastics ongoing battles with the U.S.A's school- pitting their opposing gymnastics styles against each other. 

The opposing elements of grace and power shown by these teams are of course, coming together within the sport as the secrets to training Olympic fodder are no longer buried in a vault at Round Lake or exist only in the minds at Deva.  The globalisation of gymnastics teaching methods has served gymnastics well in bringing the two together.
The lithe, elegant Chinese have gotten tougher. They can tumble with the same difficulty and vault with the best of them these days, thanks to the Chinese taking a leaf out of the U.S's books and focussing on some more strength training.
And, of course, the movement of so many people after the fall of the Iron curtain means that countries like the U.S.A and Australia and Brazil have all benefitted exponentially from the teaching of old soviet gymnasts and coaches with their stern demand for grace and excellent execution.

In fact, through the congruence of these international influences on the gymnastics world , two of the greatest gymnasts of the last quad, Nastia Liukin and Cheng Fei, both experiencing the success that comes with the possession of fairly equal doses of both grace and power (though both having natural propensities for one or the other) were produced in countries, where ten years ago, they may not otherwise have been.

Liukin- The U.S's greatest combination of elegance and toughness

Though the powerful gymnasts of modern times have contributed so much to the sport in the form of unexpected heights, new tumbling feats, added half-twists to Yurchenko vaults and daringly difficult beam sets, I would argue that there is still an unerring bias toward the 'purity' of graceful gymnasts of the old-school.
 I personally, have said- in fact I said it only a few posts ago- that I can enjoy a power gymnast AS long as she is clean (Tweddle, Memmel, Ray), but I still find it hard not to love and sometimes prefer the balletic work of a gymnasts like Liukin or Yuyuan or Semenova.

Jiang's Floor was a favorite with fans and commentators in Beijing for its dance and expression

I find this to be a general trend among gym fans. Youtube commenter’s are constantly deploring lack of grace and harking back to the old routines of the Soviets while commenting on modern competitions. Commentator’s like Christine Still openly and vocally preferred the work of Nastia Liukin over Chellsie Memmel at the 2005 worlds despite Memmel's win, describing Memmel as a fighter, and an animal, while Liukin 'epitomized all that gymnastics should be'. There was a general sense of distaste among those internet debaters during the pre-Beijing run-up,  who much preferred to see the lovely lines of Worley and Hong gracing their U.S Olympic team over stronger gymnasts like Peszek and Bieger.
Seems ‘tis a far greater crime not to hit your splits than it is to perform a low double pike these days.

Nistor: Stellar or Sloppy?

The Powers That Be are clearly working hard with this new code and the new scoring system to assimilate the importance of both these power and grace into the judging of gymnastics. 
I find an interesting example of this to be the women’s floor finals at Beijing. Between the grace of Liukin, and the power of Johnson, sat the winner, Sandra Izbasa, hovering  somewhere in between, with just enough difficulty and just enough dance to take that gold medal.

Izbasa- the right combination on the day?
(also, what a great, great picture from the F.I.G site)

Sometimes though, the constant harking back of the old days of gymnastics worries me. It worries me because it reminds me of moment in sport where it feels like the world has regressed to a place where women can only be "ladies"- never tough and competitive unless it is disguised behind the sweetness and charm. 
If anyone reading this follows tennis, they might remember when the Williams sister hit the tennis scene. I recall that while some people loved the newfound strength and toughness they brought to women’s tennis with their power serves and hard, hard hitting, there were those who thought they were “masculinising” women’s tennis and ruining the sport. 

This, my friends, was sad, old-fashioned, and terribly, terribly sexist.

Gymnastics of course, is about as sexist a sport you can get. Oft-dismissed by critics and academics as a “gender-appropriate” sport, whose actual written code demands grace, elegance, a look of ease (no matter how impossible the feat) and ladylike attire and behaviour. 
The media doesn’t help either, portraying women’s gymnastics as a hotbed of drama and glamour, playing on the histrionics they often create around athletes like Khorkina and Ponor and emphasising the overly emotional and feminine aspects of the sport.
 (With idiot commentators saying patronizing things like, as Khorkina winds up her floor routine, “Okay, Mr Demille, I am ready for my close up” or “Lights! Roll camera!” as the gymnasts entered the Athens arena for the all-around it's a often a wonder any non-fans can muster a shred of respect for gymnasts) 
 Often, they treat gymnastics like it is a soap opera, rather than a serious sporting event.

Khorkina- Media-made or Melodrama Queen?

I would hate to think I was contributing to these outdated and unfair notions that gymnastics must always be performed a certain way and that the sport must remain stagnant and ‘ladylike’.
I want to celebrate all the good stuff that comes with the changes and innovations 'power' gymnastics has brought, while appreciating the elegance of the old-school too. Without the changes we might not have the joy of witnessing full-twisting double layouts, piked double Arabians, superb planches, Cheng Fei's vault and multiple bars releases in amongst the ever-rarified gorgeous dance and beautiful leaps.

Ferrari- Keeping the strength moves in gymnastics

(I still, however, will NOT abide sloppy dancing like Dos Santos’s no matter how unbelievable her tumbling.  Gymnasts like Johnson and Tweddle still manage to be clean without being particularly graceful!!!)

So I guess what I am saying is that I am trying to accept and welcome all the fantastic things that come with pure power-gymnasts and remember their contribution is just as great and as necessary a part of the sport as it evolves as grace and beauty was in its beginnings.

Of course, I will never pass up the perfect blend of the two! But I also am learning to respect that it can't always be like that.   

Vive le difference, I say. I will take good gymnastics- as in original, interesting and inspiring gymnastics- wherever I can get it!


  1. To me, gymnastics is always about form first of all, because that's something you can get from training, rather than be naturally endowed. Liukin, I feel, gets away with a lot of form breaks thanks to her naturally pleasing, lean lines. Grace is like the frosting on the cake, and if you can get a combination of strength and grace in a gymnast, like Cheng Fei, then all the better.

  2. Good article!

    I love a combination of both gymnastics styles. The two reasons I can't stand Nastia is a)her attitude on floor. Every single floor routine I've watched in her, she does not smile and to me looks both like she's not having fun and that it's a job to her. I know it's supposedly her "work ethic" but I don't buy it. Sorry. The other reason is her leg problems. Her twisted legs in her twists, her cowboywing in her sommersaults and finally her leg problems in bars.

    Otherwise, I agree with you.

  3. Good observation about the commentators encouraging this attitude. I want to mute the sound every time I hear someone talk about Khorkina. They harped on her like crazy. It may be interesting, but I think it does trivilize the sport.

    The American news media outlets play a part too. How many times did they ask Nastia and Shawn about their supposed rivalry?

  4. And maybe it's just me, but if form is right, nothing prevents me from enjoying the sport. For me, form IS grace because it takes so much grace to do things cleanly and make it look easy. This is a sport, after all, not a competition to look pretty.

  5. Your writing is gorgeous and should be published. Great insights!

  6. Ah Katrina, totally agree with you on Nastia's form!

  7. I enjoyed reading this post, and the comments as well! I agree; I’d much rather have you as a columnist than certain IG writers.  Scattered thoughts provoked:

    1. Defending the commentators—I generally love Christine Still’s commentary, adjusting for understandable Brit bias. I do think Johnson and Liukin (gymnastically) invite the comparisons. And Khorkina IS ready for her close-up

    2. I love the pic of Cheng Fei looking at her foot. Reminds me of a scorpion, a puppy, Yang Bo, and Irina Bregina.

    3. American Cheng theory—hmm not sure I totally agree with it (assuming I grasp it). I’m pretty sure her leaps would be worse. But one of the reasons she was chosen, I suspect, is her body type. She has great proportions, beautiful shoulder and waistline… Sacramone and Johnson do not. Which brings me to…

    4. 'Natural endowment’ is important imo. I think Liukin’s long limbs and excellent body condition contribute hugely to the elegance of her gymnastics. I’m sorry I don’t like Tweddle’s line, and on an apparatus like unevens, line is everything (almost). Johnson has good form, but imo her gymnastics is not so beautiful (oh dear, maybe it is about ‘looking pretty’ for me :P)

    5. “Hovering in between” Izbasa does do. It’s a blend, but there is still a trade-off. For Liukin as well… I do not think she has quite transcended the divide… (does she perform any F or G skills?)
    Now, Cheng Fei, she is a different matter. I don’t think she understands the whole trading-off business. Difficulty vs execution, power vs grace, utility vs aesthetics, complexity vs purity …. they are all brought before the Cheng and the Cheng gives them her pre-vault frown.

    6. Vive la difference indeed! I recently found myself being thrilled by Bieger and Memmel in the second half of Aarhus TF (which would have been an unthinkable shock!horror! a few years ago) and I like Dos Santos too, tossing Gs like confetti!

  8. Great article, indeed. I personally tend to favor power + precision over elegance and grace :D Nastia... I think she's very professional, I don't see what's so wrong about her not smiling, she's focusing on the routine. Izbasa even said in an interview this year that it's "like a job". Nistor... injured in 2005, not so stellar as we hoped she'd be.

  9. I decided to review my favorite floor routines in regards to this post,
    Kate Richardson 2004
    Allana Slater, 2001-2004
    Anna Pavlova 2004&2008,
    Yelena Produnova 1997&2000
    Jiang Yuyuan 2008,
    Cheng Fei, 2004&2008

    The power levels vary but all are graceful and the dance is fantastic

    To be honest even if Jana Bieger had the absolute cleanest tumbling ever, in her floor routine I still could never appriciate it because she has no grace, same thing with Memmel and Dos Santos.

    Just how graceful a gymnast is depends on their basic training, whether ballet was included and emphasized. Its not a matter of build, look at Produnova, so muscular yet graceful with splits that were always 180.

    Lets face it if you stop looking at the grace aspect of womens floor, you might as well have them do floor routines like the men, the big tricks. That is why I believe grace is just as important as the big tricks

  10. The thing about going on line is that some gymnasts naturally have an advantage over the other, and I don't think it's fair, especially when there is a much fairer criteria for judging tidiness such as form. Also, I think lines can be achieved in uneven bars very well by good extension and good form, though of course it helps if you have naturally nice lines like Nastia (though her bent legs drive me up the wall.)

    And I like Christine Still simply because she called Cheng Fei 'the gymnast of her generation.'

  11. That was one of the most eloquent an insightful things I have ever read about gymnastics. For the most part, I agree with you. It is hard to expect a gymnast to be capable of both only the true champions are capable of that. For instance, as much as I enjoyed Ivana Hong's spectacular lines and form, her lack of amplitude in releases was off-putting.
    Certainly, Lilia Podkopayeva was the closest to the total package we haveever had (at least in my mind). That must be why she's a multiple Olympic gold medalist.

  12. I agree with most of what you are saying, but do you seriously believe that Tweddle is graceful? She is as graceful dancing as is a truck trying to park in a small space. I feel embarrassed when I see Tweddle dancing, because she has no ability whatsoever, but she really tries hard. Dos Santos and Johnson are not my favorite dancers at all, but at least they are graceful enough to make me enjoy their performances, rather than feel sorry for them like I feel for Tweddle.

  13. Well said. Awesome rant!

  14. vive LA différence... !!

  15. While some of it has to do with looks (although a lot of the gymnast with the better lines, take things like dance/pilates to give them better lines)

    But I will say that there were gymnasts with more Shawn like bodies that managed to be artistic. Izbaza herself is not a "little" thin petite thing. But she managed to have an artistic floor that had fun dance.

    Shushonova didn't have a Silva's like body, and leaned towards more power. But she still managed to be an expressive artistic gymanst.

    And really in men's gymnastics too while it's not as talked about, beautiful gymnastics is also considered important. Some of the greatest male gymnasts also combined the two.

    The name of the sport IS artistic gymanstics, and so it's not just about what type of skill you can do but how beautifully you can do it.

    The Soviets weren't just grace IMB. They also had power. And that's what artistic gymnastis is.

    I do think though that while Nastia has beautfiul gymnastics. A gymnast like Lilia Podkapayeva is more the idea. Because Lilia had bother power and grace.