We love gymnastics. It gets the highest ratings of any summer event. Every four years we fall in love with a new "America's Sweetheart." They get the Wheaties box. The team goes down in history.
But that's artistic gymnastics, which we're totally not talking about here. We're talking rhythmic gymnastics, which is something you've probably never watched.
In the family tree of gymnastics, rhythmic is that distant cousin you're not really sure how to act around, because they're always lugging around their favorite toys, and doing stuff like stretching their legs over their head to pick their teeth with their toes. Like this—weird, right? To prepare for this piece I asked 10 real live people the first thing that came into their minds when I said the words "Rhythmic Gymnastics." Everyone said the exact same thing: "Ribbons." Well done, highly scientific survey sample. There is a ribbon, but there's also hoops and clubs and glitter-bombed unitards and group numbers that resemble off-brand Cirque du Soleil acts. It's like Branson on ketamine.
Rhythmic gymnastics, which may not actually be nicknamed "R-Gym," but we'll pretend it is, is taking place in London RIGHT NOW. Here's what you should know, beyond ribbons.
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Rhythmic gymnastics is made up of both individual and group routines to music that incorporate dance, acrobatics, and sick flexibility with the use of multiple apparatuses: a ribbon, a ball, a hoop, and a pair of clubs. There also used to be a rope, but we'll get to the rope's misfortune in a bit.
Paradoxically, "artistic" gymnastics has roots back in the pure athletic competitions of Ancient Greece. But rhythmic is the ice-dancing to artistic's figure skating—it's always been about aesthetics. The sport has its origins back in the early days of ballet, and began to take its modern shape around 1900 with the Swedish School of Rhythmic Gymnastics. The Swedes combined exercises for dancers called "eurhythmics," developed in the 1800s by Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, with the practices of French polymath George Demeny, who pioneered the idea of routines set to music that would focus on graceful movement, flexibility, and good posture. What started as one of those weird turn-of-the-century fads managed to stick around, and once apparatuses were incorporated in Germany 1929, "Modern Gymnastics" was born.
After the war, when the Soviets were basically inventing sports to be good at, they caught wind of modern gymnastics (still mostly performed as exhibitions) and set about making the sport competitive. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) officially recognized the sport in 1961, though not without an identity crisis. Originally it was called "Modern Gymnastics," then "Rhythmic Sportive Gymnastics" and then finally "Rhythmic Gymnastics." We've stuck with that name ever since, though we're still pushing hard for "R-Gym."
The first world championships in 1963 in Budapest, and only ten European countries participated. The United States didn't send its first delegation until 1973. And yet, a sport developed and popularized by the Russians only made its Olympic debut in the games where the USSR was nowhere to be found. After being included as an exhibition sport, R-Gym was formally introduced at the 1984 Olympics, where a Soviet boycott made for weak competition. How bad was it? An actual Canadian won the first gold medal. Since then, the Soviets/Unified Team/Russians have won every single all-around title except for one that went to Ukraine, which is basically the same thing. In 1996 a group competition was added, and the Russians have won all but one of those.
I know what's on everyone's mind: These chicks are crazy flexible, right? Yes, here's some shots of things they do that few athletes can:
The sport was originally judged on the 10.0 scale we know and love. That obviously wasn't complicated enough for the FIG, so they switched to a 30-point scale in 2003, then to a 20-point scale in 2005, then back to the 30-point scale in 2008. (Got that?) The 30-point scale requires three panels of judges that deliver scores for technical elements, artistic expression, and execution. In R-Gym, dropping an apparatus during a routine is the deduction equivalent of falling off the uneven bars, albeit less fun to watch.
And dropping happens. You can't just keep a death grip on your clubs the whole time. These things must remain in constant movement throughout the routine, and many moves involve gymnasts tossing the apparatus way up into the air and doing a series of acrobatic dance movements before catching it again. What happens if you're so amped you throw it too high…maybe it gets stuck in the ceiling? Haha, I'm joking! Except I'm not. The Code of Points has a section just for this problem:
5.4. BROKEN APPARATUS OR APPARATUS CAUGHT IN THE SMALL BEAMS OF THE CEILING
5.4.1. If the apparatus breaks during an exercise or gets caught in the small beams of the ceiling, the gymnast or the group will not be authorized to start the exercise over.
You read that right. Hit the ceiling, tough shit. Rhythmic gymnastics may look like it's wrapped in glitter and Swarovski crystals, but these judges are not messing around.
That includes the uniforms too. When it comes to the very strict rules on apparel, rhythmic gymnastics doesn't want to acknowledge its ballet roots. In the "Dress of Gymnast" section you'll find this passive-aggressive rule in parentheses:
"(The look of 'ballet tutu' is forbidden)"
Put those tutus away, ladies. This ain't The Nutcracker.
Which reminds me, rhythmic gymnastics is one of just two Olympic sports where only women take part. (Synchronized swimming is the other.) Men's R-Gym does exist, but it's far from widespread enough to earn IOC inclusion.
For the individual competition, the women try their hand with each of the apparatuses. But the groups only perform two routines, with the apparatuses rotating every two years. In London, they'll complete a routine using five balls (hold the giggles please), then a second one with both ribbons and hoops. No clubs for the groups this year, and no rope for anyone, ever again.
If rhythmic gymnastics is the black sheep of the gymnastics family, then rope is the black sheep of the apparatuses. Poor rope is currently in the process of being phased out of the sport altogether. Word on the street is "Scarf" will be taking its place. So if you were looking forward to seeing some rope manipulation in these games, you're outta luck. If you get off on scarfs, just wait a couple Olympiads.
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Who's good at this?
For starters—America is NO good at rhythmic gymnastics. As a former artistic gymnast, I don't even know where you would go to learn this sport . The USA didn't qualify a single athlete for Beijing. This year we managed to squeak one in, a 22-year-old named Julie Zetlin who spoke to Time about what it's like to be an American in a sport dominated by the Russians.
"In Russia you see rhythmic gymnasts on billboards because they're the most famous athletes."
So what's the logical next step when a sport gets super-huge in a country? Juicy gossip. Gymnasts of all kinds are mega-celebs in Russia, and are followed by rumors like movie stars are here. In 2008 reports emerged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was having an affair with 26-year-old Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabaeva. Putin denied the rumors and in no way overreacted when he closed down the paper that broke the news. Kabaeva went on to be Vogue Russia's first cover girl, holds a cushy government job, and allegedly gave birth to Putin's love child. Awesome.
She also happens to be one of the most successful rhythmic gymnasts of all time, with two Olympic medals and 14 world championship medals. Here she is in action:
At its best, this is what you can expect to see from rhythmic gymnastics: peerless artistry, jaw-dropping choreography, and unreal body control. At the very least you'll see Russian girls fight to hold off tears after they drop their ribbon. Everybody wins.