Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Evolution of Artistry in Women's Gymnastics: 1969-1972

OMG! That routine was so artistic!

FML! Artistry has died, and the sport is so ugly now!

Artistry is all about having lovely balletic lines!

There are many opinions about artistry on the gymternet, but no one has looked at how the Code of Points has defined the term "artistry" over the years. So, in a nutshell, that's what I'm doing. This week, it's the 1968 Code's turn to be scrutinized. As always, we will look at the Code, and then, we will look at how the Code manifested itself in the routines.

As with all Code of Points, the 1968 iteration opened with a brief explanation of the components of a floor exercise. In their explanation, the Women's Technical Committee noted that "The sequences must be varied, original and make the grace, suppleness, and dynamism of the gymnast stand out."

Pretty standard language for the Code of Points. The real kicker, though, was that the sequences were meant to be in accordance with:
  • the level of difficulty throughout the exercise
  • the "morphology of the gymnast"
  • the "temperament of the gymnast"
Last week, I discussed the temperament/personality issue extensively, so I'm going to put that on the back burner. Instead, I want to highlight the phrase "the morphology of the gymnast," a phrase that will make many of my readers' blood boil. Yes, you're reading that correctly. That's an erudite way of saying "body type."

In other words, back in 1968, the issue of body type was not simply reserved for ignorant comments; it was inscribed into the Code. That is to say, on floor, gymnasts were supposed to do movements that fit their body types. I can only imagine what the judges would have said about this video:

More on the issue of "morphology" below…


1968 was the year of rhythm. Both the men's Code and the women's Code emphasized this idea. And just as the men were looking for a variety of rhythms, so were the women. Here's what the Code said:

"The necessity of varying the rhythm is indisputable, for a better execution, and it must appeal to the feeling of the gymnast."

Of course, with the women, it is easier to understand the concept of rhythm in a floor routine because of their music selections. The women needed fast parts, as well as slow parts. To this day, many routines are organized around this principle. So, for me, that part is fairly easy to understand.

The confusing part appears at the very end of the sentence. There needed to be a relationship between rhythm and the "feeling of the gymnast." Hmm… For coaches, the relationship between rhythm and feeling is obvious. Coaches know their gymnasts, and they know that certain types of music, certain types of rhythm suit a gymnast better than others. But how is a judge supposed to determine that?

This raises a perennial question: When a gymnast steps onto the floor, is she supposed to perform with some kind of authenticity, that is, some kind of authenticity to herself and to her personality? Or is she allowed to perform and become someone else? In 1968, the FIG believed it was the former, that there needed to be some kind of authenticity. Don't believe me? Read what they said about expression…

Expression: One of the gymternet's favorite buzzwords

Here's the quote from the Code:
"Forced and artificial expressions must be avoided, they must be left to the area of modern choreographic attitudes, which under the pretext of originality, often detract from the aesthetic beauty of the exercise."

In other words, no emotional constipation face.

Save that for modern dance. From 1969-1972, gymnastics was all about the smile…

…because smiles are never forced or artificial, right?

A few more words on music:

In the 1968 Code of Points, the word "art" or "artistry" or "artistic" appeared only one time in the floor exercise section:
"[The music] is an aide for the gymnast, not only on the artistic plane, but also intended to retard fatigue.
"The loud background music is to be rejected.
"The composition of a floor exercise necessitates a close collaboration with the pianist who constructs (the ideal) the melody according to the parts of the exercise."

Just as we saw in the 1964 Code, the gymnast's movements were supposed to carry the routine--not the music. However, the music assumed a more prominent role in the 1968 Code. No longer a passive figure in the background, music was supposed to help on the "artistic plane." Whatever that meant. Furthermore, music was supposed to work like a Red Bull, in that it was supposed to give the women energy.

P.S. One of my favorite moments of prescriptivism was this one: "The loud background music is to be rejected." Keep in mind that the gymnasts were using live piano music. I'm trying to picture a gymnast performing to a piano rendition of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." Just LOL.

In terms of execution, what were the judges looking for?

Here's the judges' checklist:

  • Sureness of acrobatics
  • Sureness of turns
  • Sureness of balance
  • Amplitude of movements
  • General posture of the body
  • Coordination
  • Lightness
  • Suppleness [Synonymous with flexibility in the Code]
  • Relaxation 

Unfortunately, when you look at this Code of Points, it's not surprising that women's gymnastics passed through some dark ages. To require gymnasts to perform skills in accordance with their body types--that, in and of itself, is controversial. But to require a universal lightness on top of that--well, that is a recipe for disaster.

A sampling of the deductions:

  • Fall on the floor… 1.00
  • Musical accompaniment not regulation… 1.00
  • Music not adapted to the exercise… 1.00
  • Fault in rhythm during the course of the exercise (each time)… 0.20 

Can you imagine if current gymnasts received a two tenth deduction every time they had a "fault in rhythm"?

Added bonus: A rule for the judges

  • "Do not smoke in the hall of competition."

It's every gym nerd's favorite time: It's time to look at some old school routines! This week, we will look at how the Code manifested itself in the 1972 floor routines in Munich. First up, Tamara Lazakovich, who took bronze on floor at the Olympics:

What an opening! The routine didn't open with a tumbling pass, and could I love a shoulder roll anymore? Seriously, why isn't Lazakovich a gymternet hero?

Next up: Ludmilla Tourischeva, who took silver:

Like Vera Caslavska, who won the gold in Mexico City by dancing to the "Mexican Hat Dance," Ludmilla Tourischeva pandered to the German crowed by dancing to music from the popular German movie Die Frau meiner Träume. While there has been a long history of crowd-pandering music selections, this would not be Tourischeva's legacy to women's gymnastics. She is the woman who perfected the "stand close to the corner and pose" technique.

Sadly, most of today's elites probably do not know who Tourischeva is, even though their floor routines are modeled after hers.

And finally, we have Olga Korbut, the sweetheart of Munich, who took gold in the floor exercise:

Ludmilla Tourischeva had arguably harder tumbling passes, but Olga Korbut had the Code on her side. The music, the pigtails, the incessant dance, the smile--everything about Olga screamed, "SPRITELY YOUTH!"

Ultimately, this is what the Code wanted. The Code demanded that gymnasts perform skills that fit their body types at the same time that it demanded that gymnasts perform with "lightness." And who could perform "lightness" better than pixie-framed Olga Korbut? Yes, Lazakovich and Tourischeva displayed lightness in their dance, but the Code demanded "lightness" from their tumbling, as well. Compared to the inimitable spryness of Olga, Lazakovich's and Tourischeva's tumbling passes simply looked labored.

Thankfully, the words "lightness" and "body morphology" were removed from future iterations of the Code, but as we all know, the gymnastics community never forgets. Through the Code, the coaches and gymnasts of this time period had been inculcated with the idea that they needed to pursue "lightness," and Olga's success in Munich cemented the notion that being younger and of a smaller order of architecture was an advantage--one that the judges rewarded and one that the crowds loved.

And as we all know, after Munich, the pixie gymnast and her inimitable "lightness" would become the unwritten norm for years to come.

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  1. If you don't mind my asking, where are you finding copies of the older Codes? I've been wanting some from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s for some research of my own and they don't seem to be anywhere on the Internet

    1. I have several of them from my days as a gymnast, and the others I collected from gyms that I've worked at. Unfortunately, I'm missing a few copies myself.