Fans don’t REALLY want more artistic gymnastics

Before I lose you at the title, bear with me through the post. I’ve had some interesting thoughts on this topic lately that I haven’t really seen addressed elsewhere.

Background: artistry is currently a very hotly debated topic in the women’s artistic gymnastics world. Opinions range from “artistry cannot be consistently quantified and judged, as it is subject to personal taste” to “well, it is ARTISTIC gymnastics”, and everywhere in between. As if this weren’t confusing enough, within the subgroup that does want some form of artistry to be mandated within the sport, there is much disagreement about what qualifies as artistry, if artistry is nothing more than great execution, and how artistry ought to be required and/or rewarded by the code.

Additional posts on artistry that may be very helpful in immersing yourself in this issue may be found here:

The Development of Artistry – from The Couch Gymnast

The Artistry Dilemma – from GymnasticsCoaching.com

The State of the Art and The Artistry Fallacy – from Rewriting Russian Gymnastics

How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies in Code – from Deadspin. This article really gets into the varying opinions as to what constitutes “artistry” and how some may be unfair and restrictive to certain gymnasts.

OK. Now that we’ve established some background in the topic, I’d like to examine an angle that I haven’t seen discussed, and in doing so, prove the seemingly absurd claim in my title.

First, let’s talk for a moment about what artistry is. According to the Dictionary.com entry, artistry is defined literally as the following:

1. artistic workmanship, ability, or quality
2. artistic pursuits
3. great skill

Digging a little further, the term “artistic” is defined as:

1. conforming to the standards of art; satisfying aesthetic requirements: artistic productions.
2. showing skill or excellence in execution: artistic workmanship.
3. exhibiting taste, discriminating judgment, or sensitivity: an artistic arrangement of flowers; artistic handling of a delicate diplomatic situation.
4. exhibiting an involvement in or appreciation of art, especially the fine arts: He had wide-ranging artistic interests.
5. involving only aesthetic considerations, usually taken as excluding moral, practical, religious, political, or similar concerns: artistic principles.

From this definition, it seems apparent that artistry is subjective. The sayings “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” certainly apply here. Wildly varying tastes account for much of the debate over what exactly constitutes artistry. Additionally, the dilemma over fairly and consistently scoring something so subjective and elusive is now clearly highlighted.

So now we’re back to square one: artistry is confusing, opinions vary over what it really is, and most people really want to see it make a comeback.

Or do they?

By most or all of the definitions of the word “artistic”, power tumbling could be considered an artistic sport. Power tumblers definitely “show skill or excellence in execution”, and yet one thing many complain about related to the lack of artistry in floor routines is the number and difficulty of tumbling passes. Clearly, the artistry that most are looking for in women’s artistic gymnastics is more than just excellent tumbling, or Simone Biles would be considered today’s most artistic gymnast.

So what is it?

My theory is that, although people term it “artistry”, the vast majority are not looking for more “artistic” gymnastics.

By and large, people are looking for more elegant gymnastics.

“Elegance” is a much narrower subset of artistry about which many, many more people would agree. For example, all dance may be considered art, but pointe is unquestionably elegant while few would give such a label to breakdancing. Many who say they are searching for the return of “artistry” are actually looking for elegance to make a comeback, especially those who long for “the good ol’ days” or point to the Russians as an example of what should be nearer to the standard.

To further this point, let’s look at some real world examples.

Exhibit A: Viktoria Komova vs. Lloimincia Hall – floor routines.


(Floor routine starts at the 6:00 minute mark)

Examining these routines: Viktoria’s routine showcases the more “classic” side of both women’s floor and Russian gymnastics. This routine would be typically considered “artistic” to the majority of people, although some state that Viktoria seems disconnected from the music and doesn’t sell the routine well.

Lloimincia’s routine is very bold and different, yet I have seen it used as an example of “alternate” or “unorthodox” artistry on more than one occasion. She is definitely enjoying herself on the floor and works well with her music and the crowd. Her execution is excellent, definitely fulfilling definition #2 of “artistic” as listed above.

Both of the routines may be considered artistic, yet few would claim that they wish to see WAG trend in the direction of Lloimincia Hall, while many use Viktoria Komova as an example of the direction our artistry should be headed.

Why is this? Again, the real difference here boils down to elegance. Viktoria has a very classical, elegant routine, and Lloimincia’s, while arguably equally artistic, can hardly be characterized as elegant.

Exhibit B: Nastia Liukin vs. Shawn Johnson – Beijing beam routines. Nastia vs. Shawn in Beijing may very well be the most well-known case in the “artistry vs. power” debates.

Examining the routines: dissecting artistry in a beam routine is quite different from and perhaps much more difficult than doing the same with a floor routine. For most, it’s simply a case of “I know it when I see it”. Because there is no music and no real possibility for actual dance outside of dance elements (leaps etc.), artistry in beam is much trickier to define and judge than that in floor. I think the BBC commentators in these particular videos do an excellent job in contrasting the routines and examining each’s strengths and weaknesses.

Liukin’s strengths in this routine lie in her fluidity and flexibility. Again, we see a routine that is more “old school” than its more powerful counterpart, containing less tumbling and more dance elements. Liukin executes this routine very well, with few or no visible errors aside from the dismount. One weakness may lie in her upper body carriage during parts of the routine, as some criticize her for having claw-like hand positions and stiff shoulders, head and neck during leaps and choreography.

Johnson’s routine is based off of high difficulty and is packed with crowd-pleasing tumbling and acrobatics, an example of a beam style that will become increasingly more popular in the years to come. Johnson also executes her routine admirably, with rock-solid landings on all of her skills. As the commentators point out, she may struggle with flexibility at times.

Although Johnson and Liukin both show excellent execution, high difficulty, and good rhythm, the vast majority of viewers would consider Liukin’s routine to be much more artistic than Johnson’s. Why is this? Besides execution, difficulty, and rhythm, what elusive, unquantifiable “something” does Liukin’s routine possess that many viewers look for?

Again, the answer is elegance. While both athletes perform excellently here, Nastia’s routine is unquestionably more elegant than Shawn’s.

So where does this leave us? What is the point of this post?

Well, I for one find it very interesting that many fans mis-label elegance as artistry. As elegance is a more quantifiable and narrower subset of artistry, it would seem that it would be easier to judge and reward within the code. However, is this really a goal to strive for? Many excellent gymnasts, both those competing currently and those in history, would not be considered elegant; but anyone has the ability to be “artistic”, that is, to present what they view as art. In the case of Simone Biles or Shawn Johnson, their artistry may very well lie in their power and execution of tremendous tumbling and their ability to sell a routine to the crowd. As beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, no one can really look at any gymnast and declare for a fact that they are not artistic.

However, the flat truth is that it generally takes a certain style and body type to be considered “elegant”, and not every athlete possesses this. Should athletes like Shawn and Simone be required to comply with a code that rewards elegance? This seems unfair, but many would argue that today’s code, which rewards high power and difficulty, is unfair in the reverse way to gymnasts built like Nastia Liukin. In addition, no matter what the code rewards, gymnastics is inherently “unfair” to tall athletes. No matter what, a six-foot-two gymnast will never represent team USA’s women’s artistic gymnastics in the olympics.

To me, it seems that after examining all of this, the real question here is: should gymnastics be a sport for everybody? A code trending more towards power and difficulty will reward gymnasts like Shawn Johnson and place those like Nastia Liukin at a disadvantage, while one rewarding elegance would do the opposite. Is the code always inevitably biased towards one type of gymnast, and more importantly, is this alright? It is widely accepted that activities like basketball or ballet require certain features that the athletes themselves have no control over. Few, if any, feel offense that a five-foot-two male would not succeed in the NBA. Is gymnastics a sport like this? Are features outside of the athlete’s control embedded in the requirements for success? Should gymnasts who do not meet the current “ideal” still be able to succeed, or is conforming the name of the game?

Thoughts? I really would love to see a discussion on this. I’m not sure of my position on this entire issue myself, especially on the artistry vs. elegance thing. For instance, I do have a soft spot for the elegance of “the good ol’ days”, but I absolutely love Laurie Hernandez on floor, even though wouldn’t consider her style of dance particularly elegant.

What say you?

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3 responses to “Fans don’t REALLY want more artistic gymnastics

  1. Guy that likes gymnastics

    At first, I had to admit that at the end part when you were talking about gymnastics being judged on looks or body types, I kind of felt offended since “that isn’t how I look at artistry” is what I said to myself. But if I think about some more, you may have a point and maybe its for this reason that I consider the slim and willowy Vika and Nastia as way more artistic as opposed to someone like Shawn or Jordyn or Simone. You’re right in a sense that I should be more careful about how I would score artistry since if this is how I would think, it wouldn’t be fair for someone like Shawn or Jordyn. I feel that the code should just reward difficulty and execution (how a routine is done) and no points for artistry (which can fall into bias). Although I really feel that bonus points should be rewarded to gymnast if they are able to captivate you with the composition of their routine but if I would give points to a certain gymnast due to artistry and another person wouldn’t then this isn’t fair at all. There really has to be a fairly objective way of scoring to even out the composition. Anyways maybe the gymnasts who you guys consider as being artistic are being rewarded in some way. From time to time I would look at some of Nastia or Ana Porgras’ routine in youtube. For these ladies that have captivated me with their own gymnastics, I’ll never forget them

  2. Viola Roadkill

    “For example, all dance may be considered art, but pointe is unquestionably elegant while few would give such a label to breakdancing.”

    …And yet, Voinea is considered one of the most artistic gymnasts of the 80s…

  3. I’d rather see routines like Hall’s, to be honest, than like Vika’s. College gymnastics, in my opinion, is more of what I like to see in terms of “artistry” than most elite gymnastics. But, my view on artistry is that it’s a marriage of the music and the movement, that the tumbling fits in with the music and the dance (which, lets be honest, it really doesn’t with most classical, balletic music), and that it draws in the audience. My favorite routines are inevitably the ones that I can’t look away from, that have dynamic music, dance, and tumbling, and that have the crowd clapping along. Almost all of the college gym floor routines are FUN, while the only current elite routines I can think of off the top of my head that I LOVE are those of Claudia Fragapane, Giulia Steingruber, and Flavia Saraiva. Artistry is more than ballet, IMO.
    And please, no more techno music! I’m talking to you, Gabby Douglas.

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