Has the Degree of Difficulty Reached Its Limit?

By Lu Enchun

China Sports, January 1992   The 26th World Gymnastics Championships held in the American city of Indianapolis in September 1991 witnessed no dramatic breakthroughs in gymnasts' routines.  Few theretofore unknown moves were attempted for the first time.  Instead, athletes showed increasing skill at combining long-established moves in new and different ways.  Is this the trend in gymnastics today?

"The degree of difficulty has become so great in gymnastics today, I think athletes' parents would object if we ask gymnasts to make their routines even more difficult.  Indeed, I suspect the level of difficulty is nearing its natural limit," commented Y. Titov, the President of the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), at a press conference during the championships.

Though Titov's comments make some sense, it occurs to this reporter that there is still ample room for gymnasts to raise the degree of difficulty of their routines merely by stringing existing moves together in more challenging ways.

A number of novel moves have appeared in international competitions since the 1970s.  Some of these, such as the "tucked double back salto with a full twist" dismount on the high bar, the "Thomas flair" on the pommel horse, the "Tsukahara salto" on the vaulting horse and the "salto to a stand" on the balance beam, were employed by gymnasts and incorporated with other difficult moves into their routines at the 26th Worlds making athletes' performances more sophisticated and difficult than ever before.

It was innovation and a high degree of difficulty that catapulted the Chinese men's team from fourth place after the compulsory rounds of the men's team competition to a silver medal finish when all was said and done.  Huang Huadong strung a "Thomas flair" to a handstand together with a full rotation on the pommel horse, a Guo Linyue captured a bronze in the parallel bars by performing a "double salto to an upper arm hang."  Team star Li Jing won the gold in the parallel bars with a highly difficult routine which was perfectly composed.  When he executed the double Healy-Twirl -- a handstand to a forward 360-degree turn -- he could not see the bars.  Yet, he hit the move perfectly.  He then moved smoothly to a "double salto with an upper arm hang" before nailing a firm landing.  High bar co-gold-medalist Li Chunyang also showed exceptional daring in his winning performance.  He developed the tucked move created by the American Gaylord and made them more risky by adding a "1 1/2 forward piked salto over the bar to hang."  He ended his performance with a "Russian giant swing to a forward salto to a hang" before executing a flawless landing.

Innovation is the heart and soul of gymnastics.  No gymnast will be able to win medals at domestic or international tournaments if he or she does not have a fresh look.  Korobchinsky of the USSR adopted Li Ning's piked moves into his "stretched double back salto with two twists" in the floor exercises.  Shi Liying of China was the first to perform a "giant swing with a half turn to a Russian giant swing followed by a forward salto to a hang" on the uneven bars.  It was a very difficult routine the likes of which male gymnasts had not even tried on the high bar.  A "Steinemann Stemme to Tkachev in hang" by another Chinese young woman, Li Li, was also performed for the first time at the World Championships.  Unfortunately, however, both Shi and Li failed to win medals due to their weak showings in the compulsories.

Kim Gwang Suk of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) won the DPRK's first ever gymnastics gold in the uneven bars by performing a "Tkachev to a Xiao salto" -- the most difficult combination ever attempted on the uneven bars.  The first half of the combination was created by Tkachev of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the second half by Chinese gymnast Xiao Ruizhi in the 1980s.  So far, no male gymnast in the world has attempted a similar combination on the high bar.  Kim's experiment broke new ground by adopting high bar moves to the uneven bars.  Even more risky routines on the uneven bars can be expected in the days ahead.

One notable fact about gymnasts' routines in Indianapolis is that these increasingly difficult combination moves were not only performed by gymnasts of the traditional elite club but also by gymnasts from lesser known teams such as the Spanish and Australian women's teams and South Korean men's team.  Their ability to perform world-class stunts catapulted their teams from the bottom to near the top of the list.  A good example is South Korea's You Ok Youl who successfully executed a very difficult "stretched Cuervo" earning him the vaulting horse title and his country's first gymnastics gold.

With the degree of difficulty on the rise, will it be possible for a gymnast to perform four saltos in a row, or complete 1140 degrees twists, or execute multi-axis turns and somies at the same time?  Li Yuejiu, a well-known Chinese gymnast, tried a four-tucked-saltos dismount from the high bar in the 1980s.  He failed due to insufficient height and speed.  He might have succeeded if he had been able to make his somies half a meter higher and rotate faster.  Undoubtedly others will pick up where he justify off.

Having said all this, a high degree of difficulty is just one among several factors that determines championships.  Grace, beauty and stability are also important factors.  For instance, Kim Zmeskal of the United States beat Soviet star Svetlana Boginskaya in the floor exercise with a relatively simple routine -- she started with a fliffis and ended with a double salto.  Yet, her movements were crisp and fluid and her landings rock-solid.  Her victory demonstrates that success in gymnastics today depends both on the degree of difficulty and the flair with which athletes perform.  As FIG President Titov put it: "Gymnastics is an art.  It should be developed to better reflect that fact."

In a modern world, there seem to be no limits.  Despite the pride of every new generation that views its own achievements as unsurpassable, people continue to reach new heights.  Gymnastics is no exception.  Like everything else around us, it is likely to continue to develop beyond even the limits of our imaginations.

This page was created on March 31, 2001.
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