Before You Leap...

NBI 47, 1981 - The world's best gymnasts are always showing more difficult and risk-filled elements on the apparatus. What was once unique yesterday, many can perform today. Where are the limits? At the upcoming world gymnastics championships, to be held November 22-29 in Moscow, new gymnastics innovations are expected.

Since the introduction of competitions - its beginnings reach far back into the last century - considerations have been made about how to judge the exercises as fairly as possible. Should the gymnast who risks the most win the prize, even if his routine is undermined by small wobbles? Or does the victory go to the gymnast whose exercise is less difficult but faultless?

The dispute over this question is older than you'd think. By the middle of last century, there were two different views. The so-called "Berlin school" was very respectful of stretched knees and toes. The gymnasts of the Leipzig clubs, however, cultivated a posture that was a little looser than the "Berlin toes." One such representative of the Liepzig school was Alwin Martens, who founded the "German Gymnastics Newspaper" in 1856. He believed in the naturalness of all movements and for a rational effort to "use too much or too little." But Martens probably knew something of the importance of the link between technical perfection and the visual power of a gymnastics routine. Therefore, he called "all under- and over-done elements" unasthetic.

It must, of course, remain open whether the brave gymnast of yore could have even imagined performing a double layout with full twist dismount from the high bar. At the 1981 Moscow News international tournament, two young Soviet gymnasts (Yuri Korolev and Stepan Martsinkiv) dared to perform this immensely difficult dismount. This competition showed that six months after the Olympics, gymnastics had been enriched with with new exercises of high difficulty.

This was even more evident at the 1981 European Championships in May. Maxi Gnauck aroused quite a stir when she debuted a completely new mount on beam. She mounted with a back handspring, a flick flack, onto the apparatus. In some previous competitions, she had often lost her balance on the 10cm beam. But in Madrid she flipped boldly into uncharted territory. The world's best gymnasts now have many elements in their repertoire that had previously been thought impossible. Where has this development come from? Is it worth risking security for risk? These aren't new questions. Each of them were asked when someone with courage decided to break the rules of convention.

At the 1972 Olympics, a new element attracted much attention on the uneven bars, when Olga Korbut, from a squat position on the upper bar, jumped backwards, did a flick flack and caught the same bar. There was a time when there were demands to ban the Korbut flick flack because it seemed too dangerous. Larissa Latynina, former Olympic and world champion, said, "A much easier exercise can also be too dangerous if the gymnast hasn't mastered it. Acceptable risk is always determined by skill. For a gymnast, performing a salto on beam, for example, isn't dangerous when she has acquired the necessary skills for it in training. This is all that matters."

A gymnastics performance cannot be measured objectively. Judges rate the value of the performance. They rely on the Code of Points, the scoring requirement of the FIG. The thick rulebook is constantly adpated due to ongoing development of the sport, because much of what was exceptional years ago is now no longer in the category of highest difficulty. Think of the handspring vault that Yamashita improved upon in 1962 with his interesting variant. The Yamashita vault was a 1960s fad that was added to other gymnastics attractions that tore the audiences out of their seats.

For years it has been customary to name new elements after their creators. Meanwhile, this "inventor index" has reached a bewildering size, and there's no end in sight. However, it's increasingly difficult to introduce completely new elements. Today, it's becoming a furthering of perfection and a combining of elements to reach maximum difficulty, says Ludmila Turischeva, former Soviet Olympic champion.

Improved apparatus and training aids, like foam pits, have positively contributed to the sudden increase in this. It's striking that today not only the gymnasts from the top countries but also from many other nations are daring to perform the most difficult combinations. In an interview with TASS, Alexander Dityatin, the 4-time world champion in 1979 and the 3-time Olympic champion in 1980, said that the stormy progress in gymnastics is also due to the fact that the sport is exceedingly popular in many countries in the last few years. This power density increases and complicates the fight for medals. Also, new rules in scoring have greatly accelerated the development of the sport.

In 1976, ROV was introduced in men's gymnastics. Since then, the most original, risky and virtuous routines are awarded with 0.2 points. In event finals, judges do not score from 10 points, but from 9.4 points. Only those gymnasts who fulfill one or more of the three factors can be scored from a 10.

To gymnasts, one element carries the name Tuskahara. In the 1972 Olympic final in Munich, he performed a startling dismount from high bar: a double salto with a full twist. The new novelty was spontaneously called "Moon Salto" or "Tsukahara Salto." Despite trouble in form and unsecurity in the landing, Tsukahara won gold. The uniqueness of the dismount outshone his execution errors.

Meanwhile, the progressive ROV rule that gave gymnastics much momentum has been further clarified. GDR coach Karl-Heinz Zschoke, vice president of the men's technical committee, said, "We want to encourage the gymnasts to perform in a technically safe manner. Their creative pursuit of difficult and original combinations will be rewarded. But in the future, extra tenths for special risk will only be awarded to those who perform the element technically correct and clean." So, no green light for crooked legs. Perfect form is the basic concern of gymnastics. That's how it should stay.