Summer Olympics: All About Gymnastics

All About Gymnastics

Gymnastics is the Summer Olympic games’ answer to the Winter Olympics’ obsession with figure skating. It’s a popular event that launches (mostly) young women into national stardom through a mixture of athleticism, artistry, and shiny costumes. Even more than with figure skating though, there’s a depth to Gymnastics beyond the gold and glitter.

How Does Gymnastics Work?

Gymnastics demands that its practitioners demonstrate a high level of artistry while doing insanely difficult physical feats. All of gymnastic is scored by a panel of nine judges who watch everything and basically decide who made the hardest thing look easiest. Gymnastics is a prop-based medium. There are eight different apparatuses on which gymnasts perform. The floor is the most minimalist of the apparatuses. It’s a 12 meter square mat that gymnasts perform 70 or 90 second tumbling routines on. In the vault, gymnasts sprint down a narrow mat before launching themselves into the air to bounce off of a solid chest-high structure, spin, twist, and tumble in the air, and then land on their feet. The pommel horse is a similar structure to the vault with the addition of two raised handles. Instead of leaping off of it, gymnasts hop on top of it and do a routine of tricks, all while touching the pommel horse only with their hands. The rings are like an inverted version of the pommel horse, except there are only two handles — no horse at all — and they are suspended from the ceiling by cords whose strength is tested by the gymnasts as they do tricks on them. In this discipline, watch for moves that pause — any pause requires immense strength from a gymnast in mid-air. The balance beam is a four-inch wide elevated strip upon which gymnasts do wildly difficult tricks. Imagine the fearlessness (and practice!) one needs to flip backwards and plan to land on something only four inches wide. The remaining four apparatuses are all variatons of thin, rounded bars. There is a single bar, two parallel bars, and two bars of different heights called uneven bars. On all of these, gymnasts plan routines that have them speeding up as they rotate a bar, only to release the bar, tumble through the air, and catch a bar again before hitting the ground. It’s pretty wild!

Why do People Like Watching Gymnastics?

NBC, the channel that’s televised the Olympics in the United States for as long as I can remember, has made an art out of its gymnastics coverage. Each gymnast seems to have an equally compelling personal back story. You get to know them and then, of course, you want them to succeed in their routines and events. This is kind of the pattern for all Olympic coverage, but it’s most obvious with the glittery gymnastics events, especially the women’s events. There’s nothing wrong with watching gymnastics this way, but if you want to concentrate on the more purely athletic aspects of the sport, there’s a lot there as well. Gymnasts pack an enormous amount of strength into bodies sculpted for elegance and flexibility. Gymnastics events are won by fractions of an inch. An inch over or under rotated during a tumble lead to a wobble on a landing and a deduction of points by a judge. An inch miss on the balance beam or one of the bar apparatuses can be equally disastrous. Plus, there is so much variety in gymnastics, it never gets boring.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Gymnastics has individual events for each apparatus as well as combined individual events and team events. In a combined individual event, gymnasts perform in a number of apparatuses and have their scores on each one combined. In a team event, teams of gymnasts perform on a series of apparatuses and have all of their scores tallied.

How Dangerous is Gymnastics?

Every Olympic junkie remembers Kerry Strug finishing her routine on an injured ankle to win an Olympic gold for her and her teammates. That is an exception, but it’s one that proves the rule. Don’t be fooled by how beautifully gymnasts complete their routines most of the time. What they are doing is amazingly precise and the consequences for any error can be big. Gymnastics is dangerous!

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Gymnastics?

Gymnastics is a confusing sport when it comes to gender equality. Men perform on more and different apparatuses than women. Men do the Vault, Floor, Pommel Horse, Rings, and Parallel Bars, while women do the Vault, Floor, Uneven Bars, and Balance Beam. You can argue that the women’s apparatuses are better, but they’re still different and fewer than the men’s. They also emphasize raw strength less than the men’s apparatuses. On the other hand, the women are much bigger stars than the men, although there’s a vague prurience in the coverage of women gymnasts that takes away from any honest celebration of this fact. Gymnastics is a messy world gender-wise.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Gymnastics is from Wednesday, August 3 to Wednesday, August 17.

Read more about gymnastics on the official Rio Olympics site.