Risk and Elegance

By Karlheinz Friedrich

Freie Welt, February 1974 - Ambitious gymnasts have always been putting new, unprecedented elements and combinations into their routines to surprise judges and spectators. That is the nature of things: master a risky element and get cheers. That's how it was when Nina Bocharova, the balance beam champion of the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, performed a split (spagat) on the upper uneven bar. The audience responded with amazement. Her famous successors Larissa Latynina, Sofia Muratova, Larissa Petrik, Natalia Kuchinskaya and many other Soviet gymnasts enriched women's gymnastics again and again with new ideas - continuing with Olga Korbut and Ludmila Turischeva, the Olympic champions of our day.

What were formerly the high points of a floor exercise routine we see today on the balance beam: high split leaps, forward and backward handsprings, and somersaults. Soft and elastic, the floor mat is 10 meters square. The beam is a hundred times more narrow: 10 centimeters wide and 7 meters long. It's a catwalk of concentration! Nevertheless, in 1964 a 15-year-old girl became the first gymnast in the world to risk performing a back handspring (flick flack) on the beam. Erika Barth - later world champion Erika Zuchold - opened the door to a new kind of gymnastics. Until then, the usual repertoire included handstands, pirouettes, scales, and leaps. So "flight elements" came into vogue - fast flips and flick flacks, in which the body floats freely in the air for a moment before the hands or feet touch the beam again. And how easy it all looks! During warm-ups, we often see the girls practice these elements on a chalk line drawn on the floor, as if they want to make sure they're going in the right direction. A thin line, and the feet must not stray more than a few millimeters. It was after ther 1972 Olympic Games that discussion arose whether or not difficult elements should be prohibited in order to protect the gymnasts' health, because they were "too difficult." Tempers were especially inflamed by such elements as the backward somersault on beam or the flick flack from the top bar to regrasp, two "highlights" from the beam and bars routines of the Olympic champion Olga Korbut. Meanwhile, the storm has subsided again. In a press interview, the president of the women's technical committee of the FIG, Mrs. Nagy (Hungary), said that there would be no restrictions.

We talked about this problem with the multiple world and Olympic champion of past years, Larissa Latynina. "What single element should be forbidden?" she asked. "What, actually, is too dangerous? In my youth, for example, I injured myself doing a simple leap on the beam. There are artists who perform a somersault on a wire. They can do it...".

Larissa points out that the coaches play a huge commitment to systematically prepare talented young girls to master difficult exercises so they look seemingly effortless and completely safe in competition. "Today, very young gymnasts are showing combinations that we didn't dare to think about ten or twenty years ago," said Latynina. "As in other sports, this is a normal development. Gymnastics has a strong tendency to be acrobatic-artistic, today even more than before. That led some coaches and judges to turn a blind eye when they see form errors during particularly risky elements. One may find herself forgiving little sins in execution especially if the gymnast is doing a very difficult and unique routine. But they should not come to the forefront in the education of our young gymnasts. They just need to learn to perform every movement with technical perfection down to the smallest detail. When they can do that, they will be able to perform elements of even the highest difficulty with great elegance."

Olga Korbut's flick flack on the bars was a unique element in 1972. Others showed this element in 1973: Lyubov Bogdanova and the first East German gymnast, 15-year-old Annelore Zinke, a new star from SC Dynamo Berlin, the gym where Birgit Radochla and Karin Janz launched their careers under coach Klaus Helbeck.

Our gymnasts were very impressed at the recent GDR-USSR competition in Rostov-on-Don. They not only saw the aces of today, Ludmila Turischeva and Rusudan Sikharulizde, with whom they have had friendly ties for several years, but also the masters of tomorrow: Lyubov Bogdanova from Moscow who's an artist on all events; Galina Parshinzeva from Rostov who is one of the first female gymnasts in the world to perform a double salto on floor; or Lyubov Yudina, a 13-year-old who performed a triple twist on floor! That must be read again - three rotations in the longitudinal axis! This happened only once in the men's competition: world champion Eizo Kenmotsu (Japan) risked performing this fantastic acrobatic element at the 1970 world championships in Ljubljana. Since then no one has performed it in an international competition.

Together with her coach, Vladislav Rastorotsky, Ludmila Turischeva moved from Grozny to Rostov-on-Don in April 1973. With them came Yudina and some other talents. Latynina was also at the dual competition. The training gym was of the higest quality. "We weren't surpised," said Roselore Sonntag, the longtime coach of Erika Zuchold.

The first generation of GDR gymnasts was in the 1950s, with Charlotte Scholz, Gertrud Burgstein, Vera Ewald, Ingrid Fost, Roselore Sonntag and others. The Soviet Olympic champions of Helsinki revolutionized women's gymnastics. They and their coaches came to us, taught us, helped us. Everything was provided - theory, technology, and methodology of training. It was an unforgettable apprenticeship with with good friends. The first medal success by Ingrid Fost at the 1959 European Championships in Krakow was followed by others: Ute Starke-Kahlenberg, Birgit Radochla, Erika Zuchold, Karin Janz. Ever since, the GDR women gymnasts are among the best in the world. This is a high requirement for a number of young girls who have taken up the legacy after the retirement of Erika and Karin. European V champion Angelika Hellman and 15-year-old Kerstin Gerschau from Leipzig made their first moves at the 1973 European Championships.

Will the acrobatic trend in women's gymnastics make it more masculine? Larissa Latynina: "Never! When you look at a gymnast like Rusudan Sikharulidze, whose gymnastics is so graceful and beautiful, she's lithe as a cat, that one barely hears a noise when she jumps or lands the most difficult elements. And she is gymnastically perfect - for me, she's the most typical representative of women's gymnastics in the future."

The same could be said about Svetlana Grozdova. From her we saw a front aerial on the beam with a soft, inaudible landing. Here is the highest difficulty paired with perfect precision, reliability and elegance. Why should Svetlana perform such a feat without the impression that it's so difficult to do? Larissa Latynina: "Development will not stop. And you cannot just walk back and forth on the beam today like you could 20 years ago."