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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Good Reforms of Women's Gymnastics:

It isn't all bad reforms.  In many ways, women's gymnastics has improved compared to the past.  It used to be that women vaulted twice, and they could keep their best score of two.  Sports don't work like that.  Every moment is supposed to matter.  We aren't supposed to coddle our athletes but test them, and this ridiculously forgiving attitude just doesn't make sense in a competitive sport.  Can you imagine if the first goal in soccer were 'forgiven' every match and you were allowed to go with a second chance to keep it a shutout?  I mean come on.

The same is true in the team competition.  They had an overabundance of athletes in the team competition, which watered down the quality of the field.  As cool as the magnificent 7 were, seven is way too many members per team.  The current maximum of five is much better, but honestly even this is too many.  Teams should only be composed of three members, because only three scores are counted in each team event.  In the past, the system was incredibly forgiving, in that you could simply strike out your worst performance on each event.  That was changed, and greatly for the better considering this is supposed to be a sport, not a hand-holding session, such that every score counted and if you failed you brought the whole team down with you.

By having five members, the team can fill itself up with individual apparatus specialists.  But the sport is not called 'vault,' or 'bars.'  It's called gymnastics.  A gymnast is someone who can perform well on all four apparatuses.  Everyone should have to do all the events, and all their scores should matter.  Again, this five members but only three have to perform rule is just another hidden way to coddle the athletes and give them free passes on events they're no good at.  If a soccer player is no good at heading the other team doesn't agree to just not contest headers against that player, they ruthlessly take advantage of that weakness.  Only in gymnastics would you let people skip necessary skills to compete in their own sport.

Gymnastics is turning into a competitive, cutthroat sport, like every sport is and the way it should be.  In the past more members of the team had to perform per event, in 1996 I believe it was six members, five of whom counted.  So actually this three gymnasts out of five competing system isn't any more ruthless than what we had before.  It needs to get even more ruthless and either cut the team size down to three or increase the requirements such that all five members have to compete on every apparatus and all of their scores count.  Even cutting the team size down to four, or requiring four people on the team to compete each time would be a step in the right direction, but they haven't even done that.

Besides that, giving more points to women who perform more difficult maneuvers was a needed reform.  You could do an incredibly simple vault, like flipping or twisting once in the air, and get a 9.95 out of 10 in the old difficulty system.  It was a very stale contest where women could get away with doing virtually nothing and still get scored full points for their efforts.  The only thing that livened this dreary reality up is that many female gymnasts were too proud to conform to this scoring system and deliberately added in more difficult moves into their routine even though it didn't benefit their score in any way.  The USSR girls especially had enough pride in themselves that they always tried to not only win, but also win in a brilliant manner that would leave no question as to their superiority.  This was a nation that won 10 gold medals in a row, from 1952, the first time it competed, until 1992, the last time it competed as the Soviet Union.  The only time it didn't win gold was in 1984 when it boycotted the games.  They were an invincible team and they showed it by winning with moves they didn't even have to do but just because they could do them.  With the breakup of the Soviet Union, their talented gymnasts were scattered to the four winds of fifteen newly created countries, and the quality of their team dropped off to the point that they could no longer realistically compete with the USA anymore.  Thus, our victory in 1996 wasn't really the miracle on ice it was portrayed as.  It was more like an inevitability after crippling Russia so thoroughly.  We never did manage to beat the real Soviet team, they died unbeaten, a flawless streak of 10 golds in 10 tries over 40 years.  It's comparable to the 300 Spartans who all stood and died to the last at Thermopylae.  Technically, yes, they fell, but can anyone really say they were defeated?  I don't think so.

Relying on the good graces of female athletes to go above and beyond the call of duty is not a sensible system though, and the refinement of the scoring system to actively encourage people to keep improving and innovating the sport was a necessary change moving forward.

Many more reforms were welcome to this sport.  Compulsories were this weird preliminary event where everyone had to do the exact same moves, which couldn't be more boring as a spectator sport.  Also, the whole point of gymnastics is to express yourself by doing a new and interesting routine.  I don't mind a few compulsory moves being embedded into every event, like difficult moves that are good at divining the wheat from the chaff, but making an entire routine compulsory defeats the entire purpose of gymnastics, at least as far as the viewer is concerned.  These compulsories were eventually abandoned and all gymnasts were allowed to do mostly whatever they pleased, which is a step forward for the sport.

In addition, it used to be that all of your scores across all of your events were averaged together.  This is about as sensible is simply declaring the winner of the world series to be whoever won the most regular season games in baseball.  Sport is supposed to be about thrilling, edge-of-your-seat suspense and tension where every moment counts.  If you can simply average out your accidents by counting four or five or six repetitions of the same routine all into one lump sum, it gets rid of 90% of the drama right out the gate.  Whoever is well known to be the best gymnast at the time will inevitably end up with the predictable result as the winner, you may as well not even hold an Olympics and just crown the gold for whoever does best in practice or across the world circuit in the previous year.  There wasn't even an all-around event, it was simply an award given out to whoever on average had scored the highest over the course of the team competition.

All of this was gotten rid of with the new life rule.  After you qualified your team for the event finals, all scores were reset.  In addition, after you qualified for a slot in the all-around, your score was reset and you actually had to compete in an all-around tournament in order to win the gold.  The same was true of individual event finals.  Your results in qualifications and the team competition were wiped clean and you had to actually perform the event in order to win it.  This is the sane and obvious policy that all sports have in all championship matches.  It doesn't matter what you did before the game, it only matters how you play it on the day of.  That's what the intensity and thrill of sport is all about, anything can happen on any given Sunday.

Many obvious, common sense measures have been adapted over time which you're simply amazed ever had to be reformed in the first place they're such an obvious improvement to the game.  I'm thankful for that.  But breaking up the Soviet team, upping the age limit in a completely unjustified, non-merit based ruling, and reducing the number of athletes who could compete from a single nation in the all-around final, thus eliminating some of the best athletes from even getting a chance to compete for gold, are all bad 'reforms' that have hurt the game just as much as these other reforms have helped.  There's still a lot of rules changes, and geopolitical changes, that need to be made before we can make gymnastics great again.

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