Could Tokyo 2020 be to rhythmic gymnastics what Beijing 2008 was to artistic?
And other commentary on rhythmic gymnastics at the most recent Olympic Games
Just as artistic gymnastics entered a new era after the FIG said goodbye to the “perfect 10” in 2006, rhythmic gymnastics is experiencing the initial effects of a move toward unlimited difficulty. We saw this in a variety of ways in Tokyo: Super fast routines (hello, Averina sisters) that use speed to fit in more difficulty, risky skills that could pay off–or not (think Linoy Ashram’s hoop routine in qualifications versus finals), and a sort of changing of the guard in which only a few top performers from last Olympic cycle held onto their places in Tokyo.
Here are some of my thoughts on rhythmic gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics, presented in bullet point form. Read to the end for my early impressions of the next Code of Points and how it will build off of what we saw during this Olympic competition.
- The change to open-ended difficulty scores made this a major turning point for rhythmic gymnastics. Leaving aside the controversy over whether or not the final results were “right,” one thing is clear: Clean execution alone will no longer get you the gold in rhythmic gymnastics. We’ve entered the age of difficulty. The best routines still need both high difficulty and high execution scores, but it’s impossible to score well without a lot of difficulty. Artistic gymnastics started seeing a similar change toward the end of the twentieth century, and it has continued in recent years.
- Rhythmic is growing in popularity outside of Eastern Europe–but in small pockets in particular countries. Not only did Israel win a rhythmic gymnastics gold medal for the first time ever, but they also qualified two athletes to the individual finals. And look who participated in the rhythmic gymnastics competition in Tokyo overall. Out of 26 total individual competitors, two came from Belarus, two from Bulgaria, two from Israel, two from Italy, two from Japan, two from the ROC (Russia), two from Ukraine, and two from the United States. The rest of the countries participating qualified just one gymnast each. The concentration of the world’s top rhythmic athletes in particular countries points to the greater attention some countries pay to RG than others. And although some nations have more resources than others, I can also see this as a promising factor in terms of the chances various countries have to improve their rhythmic programs. After all, if a nation with a population as small as Israel’s can find enough talented rhythmic gymnasts and coaches, why shouldn’t others be able to in the future if they put in the effort to do so?
- Even though we still haven’t seen the United States on the podium, we did better in Tokyo than ever before. The U.S. sent the maximum number of rhythmic gymnasts to the Olympics this year for the first time since the sport’s Olympic debut in 1984. This could truly be a turning point for American rhythmic gymnastics, as long as enough people in our country continue to devote themselves to growing and improving the program. The better the United States’ results, the more popular our sport may become. I do think Americans prefer the sports we’re good at as a country.
- Leotards are looking a little more spare, but hair accessories are getting more complicated. This is obviously not the most important point, but I know we all notice rhythmic gymnastics fashion trends. Sleeveless and skirt-less leotards have become more popular, and designs are trending toward clean lines over chunky patterns. At the same time, unitards remain an option, and we see bold leotards (did you spot the Rolling Stones lips?) here and there. I like the variety, but I’m not as sure how I feel about the newly popular hair accessories. The Averina sisters pull them off well, but…you know how Coco Chanel said it’s always better to be underdressed?
- Going back to my first point, high difficulty need not mean forgetting about artistry. I know, I know, you may disagree. Many fans and participants have complained that rhythmic gymnastics lost some of its signature artistry this Olympic cycle in the rush to accumulate D points. But hear me out. I have no idea what the next few years will bring, but here’s the argument I’d make for an optimistic perspective on RG remaining the place where sport and art meet:
First, I noticed a number of routines in Tokyo that highlighted musicality and unique choreography–and still scored well. Just one example that comes to mind is Boryana Kaleyn’s ribbon routine, which I think managed to successfully mix Mozart and Metallica and match each element of the difficult choreography to the musical accents. It felt new and creative and definitely didn’t look like just a series of apparatus difficulties jammed together. Athletes at the very top of the world ranking can combine artistry, difficulty, and execution. In fact, I’d argue that a few of the routines we’ve seen this Olympic cycle have been exceptionally interesting compositions, as complex rules push gymnasts and choreographers to think outside the box.
Second, the recently released 2022-2024 Code of Points suggests that the FIG has recognized and tried to remedy issues within the last Code. Like many people, I’m still studying the new rules, but we can definitely already tell that the new COP puts a limit on the total number of DA elements that can be performed per routine and seems to incentivize higher-value body difficulties and risks (dynamic elements with rotation), and it details a number of changes to the artistry score. I’m guessing the goal is to push for more balanced routines. If you want a high D score, you shouldn’t just rush to do as many small DA skills as possible in 90 seconds anymore. Instead, you’ll need to perform the highest-value skill possible for each DA, R, and BD in the routine, adding more of a “wow factor.”
All in all, I predict that we’ll look back on 2020 as a marker of change in rhythmic gymnastics. Whether or not you prefer the style of gymnastics we saw in Tokyo to routines under old Codes that limited difficulty, this Olympics proved that more complex routines are possible. I don’t think there’s any turning back from there in terms of difficulty. The next question is how the sport will evolve in terms of artistry.