Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Evolution of Artistry in Women's Gymnastics: 1981-1984

Yeah, yeah, yeah… It has been a while since I last wrote about the evolution of artistry. But I have good reason. I take my holiday baking very seriously, and since my inner fatty was busy baking roughly 500 cookies, I just didn't have time to think about artistry.

But now that I've consumed about 52% of those cookies, I'm back, and I'm going to continue looking at how "artistry" evolved over the years. Our next victim is the 1979 Code of Points.

Once again, there's no mention of the word "artistry" in the Code of Points. So, for those of you looking for a "return to artistry" in the Code, well, that's darn near impossible on the women's side because the term "artistry" was largely absent from the first versions of the Code of Points.

Instead, what the Women's Technical Committee regularly discussed was the idea of "elegance." In her introduction to the 1975 Code of Points, Ellen Berger, the FIG WTC President at the time, stated:

"The explosive development of Women's Artistic Gymnastics, not only making the sport feminine-elegant, but also technically complicated, has caused the FIG Women's Technical Committee to revise the current Code of Points."
Clearly, it took a while for the women's liberation movement to reach the International Gymnastics Federation. The phrase "feminine-elegant" stems from the essentialist notion that there is one way to be a woman, and you can bet that the FIG's ideal of femininity was not of bra-burning women. Why do you think women like Nelli Kim still want to see servile, smiling young girls on the competition floor?

That said, despite the emphasis on "feminine elegance," there was some progress in the early 1980s. After Olga and Nadia, we moved out of the era of pigtailed school girls, and we started seeing a larger variety of music choices and dance styles. More on this below.


But before we discuss the routines from the 1981-1984 quad, we should look more closely at the 1979 Code of Points. Today, the Men's Technical Committee frequently borrows from the Women's Technical Committee. But in 1979, the opposite was true. The Women's Technical Committee borrowed heavily from the men's side. For instance, the women's Code appropriated the term "virtuosity."

For the men, the term "virtuosity" was a tenet of artistry. According to the 1968 MAG Code of Points, "The virtuoso exhibits an unusual talent for artistic execution." The men's Code then goes on to explain how virtuosity is based on feelings, emotions, one's soul: 

"A musician becomes a virtuoso when his brilliance rises above the level of technical accomplishment and so deeply impresses us that our very souls are moved. To do this, he must put his own soul into his work."
On the women's side, virtuosity was stripped of its soulful subjectivity. The 1979 WAG Code defined virtuosity as a "complete mastery (domination) of the technique of artistic gymnastics." Then, it went on to go on to list the characteristics:

-Gymnastic performance from a high starting position to a high ending position (full of amplitude)
-Gymnastic performance with stretched arms on the uneven bars and during strength elements on balance beam and floor.
-Exactness of phrases during turns around several axes.
-Somersault turns, combined turns, or turns around the longitudinal axis in the highest possible point of the flight trajectory or on the uneven bars during elements with grasp near the handstand position.
-Optimal extension and posture.
-Lightness of movement--stylish performance
-Special Techniques beyond the frame of what is known
-Absolute sureness of performance
When many gymnastics pundits discuss artistry today, they are discussing the idea of virtuosity. They long for the days when gymnasts (typically Soviet gymnasts) had "optimal extension and posture" because of their ballet training.

Interestingly enough, on the men's side, virtuosity was bonus. On the women's side, however, virtuosity was required. In fact, four whole points were dedicated to the categories of "virtuosity" and "execution." In other words, if a female gymnast were hunched over like Quasimodo or if she were heavy on her feet like Frankenstein, there's no way she would end up on the medal stand. Ultimately, that's what the gymternet's nostalgists miss about the 1980s.

Floor Requirements

When it came to floor exercise requirements, you'll probably recognize some of the language. Today's rules about artistry draw heavily from the 1979 Code of Points. The key phrases are in bold.

Compositional deductions:

-Last series not corresponding to the difficulty level of the exercise (at least "B")… 0.2
-Exercise without high points (peaks)
          Absence of composition (building) of gymnastic high points 0.1
          Absence of acrobatic high points 0.1
-Monotony in presentation
          One-sided choice of acrobatic elements and connections… up to 0.20
          One-sided choice of gymnastic elements and connections… up to 0.20
-Monotony in the direction of (forward, sideward or backward) body movement.
          Insufficient use of the floor area… Up to 0.20
          Predominance of straight directions… Up to 0.20
          Lack of one passage covering great distance… Up to 0.20
          Insufficient change of elements near to or far from the floor (level change)… Up to 0.20
-Monotony in rhythm
          Music and movement not in harmony… Up to 0.50
          Music and movement not in harmony in a part… Up to 0.10
-Elements with "theatrical" character… each 0.10

Do the bold parts look familiar? You should recognize similar deductions in the 2013 Code of Points:

It's everyone's favorite time! It's that time when we look back at some of the old floor routines and discuss them. This time, let's look at floor routines from 1981, starting with Natalia Ilienko, the gold medalist on floor at the 1981 World Championships.

You can blame Nastia Liukin all you want for the butt shelf…

…but the move dates back to at least 1981…

From Ilienko's butt shelf, we move over to Elena Davydova, who took the silver on floor at the 1981 World Championships.

Before you watch this routine, please remember that the women could compete roll-out skills. I don't want you to crap your pants watching Elena's first tumbling pass.

"Davydova, now approaching 20, can just put in the correct amount of sex appeal."
I'm not going to lie. I live for the sassy finger-wagging at the 0:36 mark. And I'll always have a special place in my heart for the hip swaying at the 1:10 mark, as many a drunken gay man has tried to woo me with those same moves. Really, Davydova may have been the first gymnastics gay icon.

Next, we turn to Zoya Grantcharova, who took home the bronze in Moscow. Had there been online message boards in 1981, they would have been full of catty remarks about Grantcharova's music selection.
At the time, gymnasts were allowed to use "musical accompaniment with orchestra without song" and "musical accompaniment with piano or one other instrument." I'm surprised that the FIG allowed Grantcharova use this music. How… progressive? of them.

Honestly, though, when gymnastics pundits talk about artistry from this era, they do not turn to Natalia Ilienko's, Elena Davydova's, or Zoya Grantcharova's routine. They turn to Maria Filatova, who took the silver in the all-around at the 1981 World Championships. Here's her floor routine from a 1981 USSR exhibition:

The disappearance of walkovers from floor and beam routines may be the greatest travesty of modern gymnastics. As Maria Filatova's floor routine shows, walkovers fit so well into floor choreography because they have built in shape changes. More importantly, walkovers are easy to control, and as a result, gymnasts could easily change the tempo in the middle of a walkover. Not so with a tour jeté-full or a double-double.

Back to Maria Filatova… Really, her routine is gorgeous--if you ignore her double straddle at the end of the routine.


  1. where do you find the old codes?

  2. Great post, this blog is very informative.
    mens gymnastics