Gymnastics: In Search of a Path

Sport in the USSR, 2/90  The USSR's Svetlana Boginskaya and Igor Korobchinsky, all-around world champions, personify gymnastics as it is today.  What awaits us tomorrow is the subject of the following article.

Gymnastics is undergoing sweeping changes with the arrival of the new Olympic cycle.  This was borne out by the 25th world championship, which was held in Stuttgart, West Germany, last October.  It was a milestone in the four-year Olympic cycle and a landmark in the development of this sport.  Gymnastics fans, of course, are well familiar with the results of these competitions.  All the same, we have decided to revert to this event.  Our task is not to recreate the events that occurred in the Schleyer-Halle, but to draw on them in an effort to reflect on modern gymnastics, and also on the trends which are sure to materialize at the forthcoming Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Ebarhard Gienger of West Germany, a member of the technical committee of the International Gymnastics Federation and former world champion; Karol Spacek, head of the technical committee of the European Gymnastics Federation and president of the Gymnastics Federation of Czechoslovakia; Lidia Ivanova, state coach of the Soviet Sports Committee, Olympic champion and former world champion; Dwight Normile, editor of the American magazine International Gymnastics; and Carmen Algora, president of the Gymnastics Federation of Spain, have agreed to help our special correspondent Natalia Cherepanova with this.

Ivanova:  It gives me pride to remind you that the world championship ended in a solid victory for the Soviet gymnastics school.  We collected nine gold, five silver and four bronze medals.  It seems to me that the 1989 Soviet team embodies not only the current stage in the development of this sport but its future as well.  This applies above all to the women.  With the arrival of "men's" coach Alexander Alexandrov (in the past he was Dmitry Bilozerchev's mentor) on the squad, our women's gymnastics, strange as it may seem, became more feminine.

Gienger:  And more adult, I would add.  What is more, I was pleased to note that the women participants in the competitions are taller.  This means that the period when unthinking robot-children dominated the platform has passed.  Today the pace is being set by proportionally built, attractive and very artistic girls.

Normile:  Yes, I am also convinced that it is artistry that is the main trend in the development of this sport.  It seems to me that the complexity of the programs has now reached its limit.  Further complexity, if this is possible, will occur not in the name of beauty, but for the sake of complexity itself.  And I am certain that such gymnastics cannot fascinate spectators, who at times cannot even appreciate the novelty of an element or determine what number of turns an athlete makes.

Algora:  It seems to me that even a switchover to less complex programs in comparison to those today is possible in gymnastics in the not too distant future.  And gymnastics can only gain in terms of greater expression and spectator approval.

Spacek: This tendency towards simpler programs could be noticed in the performances of the top athletes as early as this championship.  As a rule, the favorites for top honors include highly complicated elements in their routines only if they are 100 percent sure that they will be done flawlessly.  Conversely, gymnasts who are not major contenders and who have nothing to lose, take risks.  Admittedly, today these elements from the ultra C group are no longer given the high marks they once used to receive.  For example, 11 years ago, at the USSR Spartakiade, I believe, one Cuban athlete did a turn-over with a double backward salto.  Even though he did not stay on his feet during the landing, he received a very high 9.8 points for boldness, as innovativeness was encouraged.  Today he would have got no more than 9.1 points for flawed execution of the newest and most complex element.

Normile:  A few remarks about the judging.  It seems to me that the criteria governing evaluations have reached a certain limit.  The tens which the judged have been showering upon the champions do not stimulate the further growth of expertise.

Ivanova:  The highest mark has at times been given for performances of entirely different levels.  Generally speaking, the judging at major international competitions is a lot more liberal than, say, at our domestic tournaments where it is much more difficult to receive the top mark.  This strictness on the part of the Soviet judges is readily explainable.  We have many top-flight athletes, and it is hard to pick the best of the best.

Normile:  As I see it, it is high time to think about evaluating the performances by two indices -- for technical performance and separately, for artistry, as is done in figure skating.

Gienger:  A rather unexpected proposal.  I suppose the technical committee should give it serious consideration.  How do you feel about the possibility of introducing qualifying tournaments of the type of, say, the preliminaries of the world or European football championships?  What is more, it seems to me that two championships for strong and weaker participants is even possible.  This division would be a boon not only for the spectators but also the judges for whom work in Stuttgart, where athletes from 46 countries gathered, was an endless exhausting marathon.

Algora:  You seem to be reading my thoughts.  I am also in favor of making separate competitions for two groups -- A and B.  The competitions in this case would be more dynamic and exciting.

Spacek:  If you remember, these questions were already discussed at one of the latest congresses of the International Gymnastics Federation.  However, federations where gymnastics is still poorly developed were against them out of hand.  They can be understood.  After all, by competing next to the top gymnasts, lesser athletes can learn something from them and borrow experience.

Normile:  I am also of the viewpoint that gymnastics should be one big family.  Imagine if a few years ago we had divided the gymnasts of the world into two groups.  And then, after weeding out the poorer ones, which category included the Koreans at the time, we would not have seen them on the platform in Stuttgart.  This team just recently made a big leap forward and was the real discovery of the world championship.

Spacek:  All the same, we need to think about how to make the competitions less cumbersome.  To my mind, we should divide this super-marathon as follows:  hold separately a team event, where not more than 12 squads would compete, and an individual event separately at a different time and in a different place, where three contestants from each country would appear.

Ivanova:  Changes are also required in the rules in the compulsory program that were passed at the FIG congress in Seoul.  This innovation was a failure, to put it mildly.  The "school" was for the first time stretched to three days.  On each of the days two athletes from each country competed, which broke the team's integrity.  Thus, the rivals were forced to compete as if for individual rather than general team results.  Only on the third and last day, when the competitions were in full swing, did the current all-around champion, Svetlana Boginskaya, enter the fray.  It is a mystery to me how she managed not to burn herself out in expectation of her performance.  I suppose our prima possesses not only great expertise but also steel nerves, thanks in part to which she became the gold medalist.  Furthermore, the rule under which the finals began from scratch, without consideration for the marks received in the team events, was applied for the first time in Stuttgart.  As I see it, this last innovation suited many people.  This enhanced the excitement and therefore the spectator appeal of the championship.

Gienger:  I would like to make another point.  It is high time to think about the problem of gymnastics going professional.  I am convinced that we need a union that would guarantee athletes high salaries and pensions and would have an assistance fund and insurance in case of injury.

Ivanova:  The Soviet Sports Committee has already taken the first steps in this direction.  Of late we have begun concluding contracts with athletes in the national team which stipulate not only monthly salaries and victory bonuses, but also pensions.

Algora:  I am in favor of our sport going pro, too.  Good work by gymnasts should be paid highly.  And, the greater the material incentive, the more top-flight athletes will appear, and gymnastics itself stands to gain -- it will be still more popular.  This in turn will draw more wealthy sponsors, with whose support gymnastics will be able to flourish.  As you can see, the logic of my reflections is rather simple and obvious.  So why not follow it?

Ivanova:  We are indeed living in times when money is a prime concern for everyone.  All the same, while engaging in these arithmetical operations, let us not forget that gymnastics give us what cannot be calculated on the most sophisticated computer.

This page was created on May 11, 2003.
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