Saturday, July 13, 2013

But it's called artistic gymnastics!

I know I promised that I would stay away from discussions of "artistry," that oft-abused word in gymnastics but I just gave up taking easy potshots (see this post) at misogyny in Orthodox Judaism so forgive me this return to earlier form.

In the last couple of weeks, I've been fortunate enough to meet a couple of gymternet denizens (who I connected with on Twitter). It's really so fantastic to have in person conversations with people who love and understand the sport and can speak about it with great insight. Inevitably, our conversations turned towards artistry and what we thought of it and how we thought it should be taken into account or whether it should be taken into account at all. Should it be factored into the score or is it simply something nice to see when a gymnast can produce it but should not be mandatory? Do you even try to measure it?

As anyone who has read my posts, you probably know my answer--no. Artistry is undefinable just like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity. It can't be measured or quantified. And the more we've tried to bring it into scoring, the more we've quashed the creativity in floor routines. Now the "choreography" is all leap passes and complicated turns.

Take Afanasyeva, whose 2012 Olympic floor routine was my absolute favorite of the quad--funky, offbeat, filled with moves that were chosen especially for her and that piece of music. The 2013 version of that routine, while still good, had been changed to accomodate new turn bonus opportunities. Gone were many more of the unique touches that made it such a standout in 2012. The very mode that we've chosen to reward artistry has actually destroyed it.

And her new floor routine contains virtually no choreography whatsoever. The only moves in it that can't be counted towards the start value are arm flourishes in the corners. While her previous two routines had been memorable and performed with such verve, I wouldn't be able to tell you about one specific dance move from that routine if a gun was held to my head. She's gone from being original on that event to forgettable.

Afanasyeva is hardly alone. Mustafina was my favorite gymnast of the last quad and remains one of my favorites. I love her competitive attitude, the composition of her routine on bars, and her flourishes and posture on beam. But on floor, she performs her tumbling, her leap passes, turns, and a few arm waves. Her choreography is almost exactly the same as at the Olympics but set to different music.

I do not mean to beat up on the Russians, who are still elegant. My point is that the Russians are held put up on an artistic pedestal and yet this is what they're doing because of the direction of the sport. We've been bemoaning this slide to athleticism for a long time now yet our handwringing has done little. This is the way gymnastics is going and has been going and it's time to accept it.

But it's called artistic gymnastics!

That's the sort of response you hear when you suggest that we stop trying to reward "artistry" and let nature run its course. Nevermind the fact that our attempts to reward it (as we have the last few Codes) have seemed to backfire. Nevermind that even the stylish Russians rarely rise to the occasion. Nevermind that most gymnasts fall ridiculously short. The sport remains artistic in people's memories or imaginations, but very rarely in reality.

So maybe it's time we stop calling this sport "artistic" gymnastics. Let's just call it gymnastics. After all, the mainstream public has no idea that their is a prefix of sorts attached to the sport. To them it's just gymnastics.

Gymnastics should still be clean and well executed and done with proper technique. I want to see good form. I find beauty in textbook form and perfect execution. But no more feeble attempts to quantify "artistry," to reward it (especially if "artistry" means really hard leaps and turns)

If we dropped "artistic" from the name, we still would see some great floor routines. A gymnast like Sydney Johnson-Scharpf will still give a great performance because that seems to be her preference. What makes her performance "artistic" (if you agree that it is artistic) isn't being incentivized under the rules. She clearly loves to perform and has a knack for it. Ditto for Afanasyeva in 2012 (and 2011). She did a funky floor routine cause she wanted to. I don't think that those gymnasts who really love performing and dancing are going to want to do it less. Heck, they're not being rewarded for it now regardless of what the sport is called.

But a new name would be a whole lot more honest about what we can reasonably expect, incentivize, and measure. It would acknowledge the direction of the sport, which will not be changed by artistry moralizing (the same way that "family values" moralizing hasn't decreased the divorce rate). We can continue to applaud gymnasts who demonstrate artistry (according to our own personal definitions of the term), but we can also enjoy those gymnasts who bring athleticism (albeit with clean form and execution) without demeaning their accomplishments for failing to live up to a term we can't even define.

Or we could just get rid of music on floor exercise. 

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