Quiz question for all non-gymnastics nerds. In five seconds, name the winner of the men's all-round individual title in Rio. First, like a gymnast's shaky landing, there will be a mental fumble. If you watched the highlights you may vaguely remember - guy in red-and-white? Japanese, right? Name starts with a vowel. If you came up with Uchimura, that's eight on ten; Kohei Uchimura gets you full marks and proves you sat up and watched television at a very weird hour of the night in India.
The women's all-around individual winner? Simone Biles, and that's not even a question.
In Olympic gymnastics, the men must always play second fiddle to the flexible flying nymphs. For a week every four years, the wider sporting world watches in open-mouthed astonishment as women play tricks with our eyes. They race along, backflip, somersault and jump on and off a beam the width of a picture postcard. And then, in a series of contortions, swing between the uneven bars, separated by anything between 5 and 6 feet - a gap far wider than the gymnasts' height.
It's not that the male gymnasts are not watchable; they are, with their combination of speed, power, strength. It's just that the women disguise theirs behind slighter frames and pixie faces, performing their routines as if boneless, as if cast in a magical spell of more memory, less muscle. The truth is nothing of the sort.
" In Rio, Biles made the headlines, and rightly so, but Uchimura became only the second male gymnast in Olympic history to win all-round titles back to back. He is also a six-time all-round world champion. Oh, the injustice."
Women gymnasts compete over four apparatus, the men six, with two in common - the vault and the fundamental starting point of all gymnastics, floor exercises. The women don't get to do the roman rings or the parallel bar because male upper body strength is far greater than that of women. The men don't bother with the uneven bars because it is considered far too simple for their musculature but it's not clear why they won't try the beam.
This fundamental gender divergence in strength and power means that, even in their shared apparatus, the points value of routines vary. It is why the front handspring double somersault, aka the Produnova vault, offers a greater points value in women's gymnastics (7) than its closest counterpart, the Roche (points value 5.6), does in the men's competition.
The floor exercises, however, which every gymnast starts out on, offer a completely different take on la difference. For the men, the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) rule book describes the floor exercise in 42 words, talking about acrobatic and gymnastic elements like strength and balance, flexibility and "choreographic combinations all forming a harmonious rhythmic exercise" to be carried out over the entire floor area. All without any music.
To describe the women's floor exercise, the rule book requires 500 words (plus 160 words for the rules about the CD requirements) among them "artistry" and "musicality". It also states that the gymnast is to be awarded points for, among other things, "expressiveness." What is judged is the gymnast's "ability to play a role or a character throughout the performance. In addition to the technical execution, artistic harmony and feminine grace must also be considered. It is not only "what" the gymnast performs, but also "how" she performs her routine."
" In order to grab their audience, women participants in more than one sport are told they must glamour up their sport for television. Wear skirts/ bikinis/ make-up or not wear quite so much clothing.
Do something, anything to get TV numbers."
So on the floor in Rio, not only did Biles launch into her high-speed, gravity-busting tumbling passes and her signature move, now called the Biles - the "double layout with half-twist" - she also was required to indulge in mandatory coquetteishness. It looks a bit silly today because women's gymnastics has changed considerably since its first showing at the Olympics in 1952. The Nellie Kim-Comaneci era sylphs have now turned into pocket rockets, and, when abiding by the rules, have turned their music from Strauss to the Sex & the City theme.
Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman described it best; the women's floor exercises she said, were becoming, "more like the men's version, with its umpteen tumbling runs and awkward poses between them... the music seems to be less and less connected to the gymnast's movements, while simultaneously pandering more and more to the crowd."
India's Dipa Karmakar is not a fan of the pirouettes and hip-twitching either and says, "It's not that I don't like it [floor exercise] but I'm not very good at dancing on the floor. When I don't do it properly I kind of feel bad and cry that it's not turning out like it should."
Borrowing from elements of balletic dance may have made sense in the early days of women's gymnastics. In the new millennium however, the dance moves are often left looking so 20th century. But, many WAG (women's artistic gymnastics) fans would argue, why fix something that works and that the audience loves?
It is men's gymnastics that looks for traction and eyeballs. Yes, we do remember the great male gymnasts - Dityatin , Nemov, Scherbo, Li Ning - and chant names like Tsukahara when describing gym elements; but at an Olympic Games it's the ladies who will always lunch on the attention. In Rio, Biles made the headlines, and rightly so, but Uchimura became only the second male gymnast in Olympic history to win all-round titles back to back. He is also a six-time all-round world champion. Oh, the injustice.
For women athletes in almost every other sport, such disproportionate spotlight - in reverse - is a given. In order to grab their audience, women participants in more than one sport are told they must glamour up their sport for television. Wear skirts/ bikinis/ make-up or not wear quite so much clothing. Do something, anything to get TV numbers.
Since we know the women's rules will never change, maybe men's gymnastics could be advised to try something as radical along the same lines - how about some music on the floor, guys? Give your explosive but fairly regulated floor exercises a touch of individual pizzazz? So that, to borrow from the WAG rule book, the gymnast can "transform" the floor exercise from a well-structured composition into an "artistic performance."
Maybe that way we could instantly remember the gymnast who won the individual all-round Olympic gold by introducing a bit of Travolta's Bus Stop in his floor routine? In order to get their genuinely admirable skills a little bit extra attention, surely male gymnasts wouldn't mind adding a bit of posterior-wiggling into their sport, now would they?