I’ve been on a tear over the past few weeks on Quora, writing a bunch of answers to questions related to gymnastics, which suddenly becomes relevant once every four years during the Olympics. This year was no exception, except now, instead of just answering questions for my friends, I can answer them for the world on Quora and my blog.
I’ve included four of my more interesting answers, which discuss the risks of competitive gymnastics for girls, the dominance of the US men’s vs women’s gymnastics teams, the experience of doing a gymnastics vault and finally a rescoring of a 10.0 vault. (This last one actually got 200+ upvotes and got reposted by the Quora team to the Huffington Post, woot woot!)
But anyway, here are my answers. Enjoy!
Q1: Why are American female gymnasts consistently dominant, whereas American male gymnasts are overall not nearly as competitive in the world stage?
Female gymnasts far out number male gymnasts.
In 2007 (most recent date I could get numbers for) there were 67,626 female gymnasts and 12,120 male gymnasts registered with USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the US. That’s already 5.6x more girls than guys.
But it gets worse as you look at the prime age range for male and female gymnasts. Look at the chart below* – in the prime years of elite competition for men (17 – 30) there are barely over 1000 athletes, while for women (15+) there are over 10,000.
Why are there far fewer male gymnasts? 2 major reasons.
- Gymnastics is not an idealized sport for males.
Growing up, male gymnasts are accused of being effeminate or gay for prancing around in leotards. Unlike Football, Basketball, Baseball, it’s rarely televised and you don’t earn a lot of social status for doing it, until everyone one day realizes that you are ripped (see: Gymnastics: Why is every male gymnast ripped?) I think this discourages a lot of guys from starting/continuing to pursue the sport.
- There are few places for male gymnasts to go after high school.
There is no NFL/NBA for gymnastics. There is college or elite/national team. In 1980, there were 116 colleges with NCAA programs for men’s gymnastics. In 2011, there are 17. This 7-fold decrease in 20 years has massively reduced the opportunities for male gymnasts to compete beyond high school. (In comparison in 2011, there are still 83 women’s teams)http://www.ncaapublicatio
ns.com/…Much of this decline has been blamed (rightly or wrongly) on Title IX – a law passed in 1972 that was supposed to, among other things, encourage schools to create more women’s sports programs, but instead caused schools to cut a lot of men’s programs. Gymnastics was an easy target – lots of expensive equipment, not a lot of revenue. You can learn more here: http://usa-sports.org/Tit leIX.pdf
With a smaller pool of athletes, it’s hard to have the depth necessary to field a great team every year.
* stats slightly skewed due to inclusion of Tumbling/Trampoline, Rhythmic Gymnastics, etc which are a small but non-zero portion of all gymnasts
EDIT – I want to point out that the US men’s have fared quite well in recent years in face of this huge number disparity.
- We won Silver in 2004 as a team, with Paul Hamm earning Gold in the All-Around and Silver on the High bar. (US Women won Silver as a team + 1 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze)
- We won Bronze in 2008 as a team, with Jonathan Horton earning Silver on the High Bar (US Women won Silver as a team, 2 Gold, 4 Silver, 1 Bronze)
- We won Prelims in 2012 as a team but ultimately placed 5th in 2012. This indicates that we had the potential to win but failed to perform up to our capabilities in finals. Daniel Leyva also won Bronze in the all-around. (US Women won Gold as a team + 2 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze)
Q2: Gymnastics: What’s it like to perform a gymnastics vault?
I’m wondering about how much “thinking” actually happens while an athlete is in the air.
I imagine it’s different for every gymnast but here’s my perspective of competing a yurchenko double full in an NCAA meet. The quoted words are basically the anchor phrases that I’m thinking during the actual vault.
- Visualize the vault. When the guy in front of me is competing, I imagine myself doing the vault – from the run to the vault to the landing. I know what it should feel like when it’s done right, and the visualization helps me reach that ideal vault.
- Set the vault. Every gymnast wants the springboard at a slightly different place, with more or less springs in the board, and for a Yurchenko, there’s often a mat infront of the board. Usually your coach or teammate helps you with this, but sometimes you gotta do it yourself.
- Line up against the tape measure. Every gymnast also knows how far back they like to start. While it’s called a runway, most athletes only start 60-90 feet back, which around 8-12 steps.
- Chalk up my hands and feet. This helps with traction and preventing slipping/sliding, especially if you sweat a lot.
- Salute the judge. When the judge(s) are ready, they raise a flag. I take a deep breath, raise my hand and set on to the runway.
- Start the run. I usually take light, controlled steps – it’s not an all out sprint. I have my eyes on the board.
- “Reach”. In a Yurchenko, you do a round off on to the board, so I’m focusing on reaching forward to get my hands on a particular spot on the blue mat in front of the board.
- “Snap”. I want my round off to turn me over a lot so I can hit the board in a good position to get maximum power. The word “snap” helps me think of snapping my feet in front of me on the board.
- “Big block”. The key to powerful vault is to hit the horse with a lot of power and with your entire board super tight and in one piece, so that all energy you hit the horse with is returned to you. This action is called a “block” in gymnastics.
- “Tight wrap”. After the block, I’m think about wrapping (twisting) as hard as I can, to complete the double twist.
- Prepare for the landing. Once you feel you’re almost done twisting, you start preparing your body for the landing. This mainly means getting your legs ready to take a really hard decelleration into the mat.
- Control the landing. Ideally you stick your vault and don’t move, but usually you’re a little off balance, so you do your best to take as few steps as possible to stop all motion.
It sounds more complicated than it feels. In competition especially, you have gone through this same routine a million times in practice and it all goes by pretty fast.
My disclaimer is that vault was never my strongest event, and actually suffered a pretty serious knee injury that prevented me from competing on most events even post-recovery. It might be different for a gymnast where vault was their speciality.
Q3: How many points would Mary Lou Retton’s perfect-10 vaults at the 1984 Olympics receive with the modern scoring system and competitive level?
Retton’s vault should translate to a score of 15.20 by 2012 scoring standards.
But What Does that Mean?
Back in 1984, the highest score you could receive in artistic men’s and women’s gymnastics was a 10.0, which is if you perfectly completed a routine or vault that achieved some arbitrary “maximum difficulty”. Thus the concept of the “Perfect 10”
After the 2004 Olympics, this system was overhauled and starting in 2006, gymnasts could score far above a 10.0.
How the New Scoring System Works
The 2009-2012 F.I.G Code of Points, the official handbook for judging/scoring gymnastics at the international level, indicates that every event is scored by adding two sub scores together:
Difficulty Score (D-Score)- basically how hard your routine or vault was (max value is ostensibly unlimited)
Execution Value (E-Score) – basically how well you performed all the moves (max value 10.0).
How Retton’s Vault Stacks Up to 2012 Standards
Mary Lou Retton does a Tsukahara stretched with 1/1 twists. In the 2009-12 code of points, that’s a D-Score of 5.20
Assuming she scores a 10.0 on the E-Score, she would have scored a 15.20 (10.0 + 5.20)
In comparison, Gabby Douglas, who won the 2012 Olympic Trials in the all-around, performs a Yurchenko stretched with 2 & 1/2 turns, which is worth 6.50
If you watch the video, Douglas takes a small hop and ultimately scored a 16.00 on Day 2 of Trials, which I feel indicates a far stricter evaluation of gymnastics execution in 2012 vs 1984.
Retton’s Score Against 2012 Olympic Trials Competitors
Looking at the results from Day 2 of Olympics Trials, Retton’s 15.20 would have put her in 7th out of 11 vault competitors.
That seems relatively competitive after 28 years, but my speculation is that the judging is a lot tougher now and in looking at her video, I don’t think Retton would have scored a perfect 10 today. She lands with her feet slightly apart and she makes a small hop after the landing. The highest E-Score of Day 2 at Olympic Trials was a 9.65 and in fact I don’t know when the last time someone actually scored a perfect 10.0 on the E-Score at an international competition.
Criticism of the New Scoring System
For the record, Mary Lou Retton (among many including Nadia Comaneci and Shannon Miller) is not in favor of the new scoring system. As the New York Times reported in 2008:
At the United States women’s Olympic team selection camp in July, Retton explained why she “hates” the new scoring. “It’s hard to understand,” she said. “I don’t even understand it.”
Nostalgic for the old system, she said: “It’s simple. People get it, and you don’t have to explain it. Everybody could relate to it. I miss it, and I think other people will, too.”
My Defense of the New System
In my view, the new scoring system is a better standard (despite the loss of the nostalgic 10.0) because it really shows how gymnastics has evolved over the years in terms of difficulty.
In the old system, the Code of Points was re-evaluated every Olympiad and skills would get “devalued”, forcing athletes to perform new/harder skills to stay at the 10.0 level. This makes scores/routines from different eras difficult to compare (the difficulty of 10.0 routine in 1970 vs a 10.0 routine in 2000 are clearly not the same)
Now, we have a scoring standard that does not revise every four years. Skills don’t get devalued, harder skills just garner you more points. We can say now see that Retton’s “perfect vault” would have netted her perhaps a 15.20, nearly a point less than Douglas’s 16.00.
- FIG 2009-12 Code of Points for Women’s Artistic Gymnastics:http://www.gymnastics.org
- Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Trials 2012 results: http://usagym.org/PDFs/Re
- FIG Code of Points on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/w
- A 10 Isn’t Necessarily Perfect in New Scoring System for Gymnastics (NYTimes) – http://www.nytimes.com/20