Artistic Gymnastics

What’s the deal?

One of the O.G. sports (for men at least — women were thrown a bone in 1928 but didn’t get their own full program until 1952), gymnastics has ties to ancient Greece in that some of the big philosophers thought it was a way to achieve perfect balance between mind and body. Over time the program’s evolved (it used to include rock lifting) to be acrobatic feats performed on various apparatuses. Men’s showcases their strength on six apparatuses:

  • floor exercise
  • horizontal bar
  • parallel bars
  • pommel horse
  • rings
  • vault

Women’s showcases balance and agility on four apparatuses:

  • balance beam
  • floor exercise
  • uneven bars
  • vault

Another difference in the men’s and women’s competition is that women’s floor exercise is set to music, while men’s is not (admittedly, the music ups the excitement level of the event–and forces athletes who are in different rotations on different apparatuses to have amazing focus to block it out).

Who competes?

First off is the team competition, with scores accrued qualifying gymnasts for the individual all-around (competitors compete on all apparatuses and the best total score wins) and individual apparatus medals.

Why should I watch?

Gymnastics–particularly women’s gymnastics–is incredibly popular and Olympic competition sparks the flame for many a young gymnast (take that, IOC, for putting the women off for so long). It’s popular because you wonder just how people can do that with their bodies–they run, flip and twist so fast–and then stick the landing. It’s pretty amazeballs. On the men’s side it’s more than impressive to watch guys do a big strength routine. Just check out the rings for a while–they’re flipping around, and then they go into a cross position and hold it and then go back to flipping. How is that possible?

The other reason to watch gymnastics is to try to figure out the scoring system. This is NBD for people who’ve grown up with the current system, but for the generations who always thought the best score you could get was a perfect 10, the new system is a little mind-boggling.

Under “new” scoring rules (that came into effect in 2006, but honestly, it takes you a good 10 years to wrap your head around them), final scores are a combination of Difficulty and Execution. That sounds pretty simple, but Difficulty is broken down a bit further: It’s the value assigned to how tough a move is + how well moves are connected to each other + including required elements into a routine. Execution is execution, artistry, composition and technique.

OK,  now the difficulty metric is based only on the 10 most difficult skills in a routine, so we understand it as if you nail that 11th and botch that 1st, you’re a little more screwed. On top of that, the Difficulty score is added together. The Execution score starts at 10 and goes down for every mistake made. Then you have to do some final addition of the two total scores for each category and voila! You’ve got a gymnastics score.

Mind you, this is the simple explanation of this–but that’s the gist and should be enough to get you through the Olympics. Hopefully your local broadcaster will fill you in on the finer points during lulls in the action.

Potential drinking game:

If a gymnast falls off an apparatus, drink to their sorrow.

The perfect snack:

Turkey roll-ups


The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is the governing body for the sport and is a good starting place to find out more about all the various gymnastics disciplines.

Gymnastics relies on the keen eyes of judges to determine who wins. To learn how to sit in a judge’s seat, you’ll probably need to look at the national governing body for your country. In the US, USA Gymnastics has information about women’s and men’s judging or look at the National Gymnastics Judges Association.

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