By Isabella Connata
To a casual observer who only watches gymnastics every four years, the evolving nature of the sport may not be apparent, but it has undergone substantial changes in rules and style.
Up until the late 20th century, female Olympic gymnasts worldwide were typically of very small frame in order to maneuver lightly through the air, and to complete all elements with a precise grace. Gymnasts worked unremittingly to perform with extreme flexibility and elegance come competition. There was heavy emphasis on integrating balletic elements in order to attain winning scores. Floor routines were traditionally complemented by classical music, while combining graceful pirouettes, leaps, and flips. Each element was to be done with an effortless elegance, as gymnasts landed on the floor after each skill with ease. Maintaining a form with good lines was often applauded and looked for by the judges.
Up until the late 90’s, scoring contrasted vastly to the expectations of gymnasts today. Currently, any individual with basic knowledge of the sport is familiar with women’s artistic gymnastics icon Nadia Comaneci, who defines this feminine, elegant style. During the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Nadia Comaneci made Olympic history by receiving the first perfect ten; not once, but six times. Gymnastics scoring historically ranged from one to ten, based on how well the gymnast performed his or her routine. According to Vice Sports, as an aftermath of Comaneci attaining a perfect ten, the standards for evaluating performance level intensified. Instead of a female gymnast being judged based upon how gracefully she completes her routine, each gymnast was deciphered to have a different start value depending on the difficulty of the individual routine. A separate score is used to evaluate how flawlessly the routine was executed. In essence, a gymnast’s score was based upon a combination of difficulty level and execution, which drastically increased the pressure to try to be the very best. With the bar set high, gymnasts around the world began altering their routines in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
One common theme, especially among American artistic gymnasts, is having a prominent focus on strength and power, as an alternative to the classic, original, and elegant style. A prime example of this phenomenon is Olympic gold medalist and 2017 all-around champion, Simone Biles. Following the Olympic Games, Biles was renowned by National Broadcasting Company News as the best female gymnast, if not one of the best female
athletes of all times. What sets Biles apart from competing gymnasts is her extremely high difficulty levels. Standing at only 4 feet and 8 inches tall and having an intense background in strength training, Biles is able to gain the momentum and power to complete moves that most gymnasts cannot replicate.
As another differentiator, numerous gymnasts, like Biles, incorporate modern music to complement their fast-paced, strength focused floor routines. Although, this is not to say that the classical focus of women’s artistic gymnastics is no longer prevalent. 2008 American Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin took a drastically different approach than Biles to winning her gold medal title. Liukin has stated in an interview with USA Gymnastics that she has never trained with weights, but instead capitalizes on her flexibility and balletic practices to prepare for competition.
Although the standards of gymnastics are constantly evolving, the timeless, polished style is still practiced among world-class gymnasts of this era. Nowadays, gymnasts have the luxury of choosing whichever style plays into their strengths while maintaining a high difficulty level in their routines.