Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why you should root for China

Much of the reason why I love Chinese gymnastics boils down to amplitude and extension. Thankfully these days we are seeing more expressive floor routines and much more effort being put into choreography. This is a direct and welcome result of the heavy artistry deductions in the code. Likewise the skill cap (i.e the exact opposite of the bars and beam routines from 2005-2008 giving these gymnasts a weighted advantage) and the devaluing of vault (goodbye 6.5 amanar of the following quad after that giving USA a huge boost) has meant that execution is more important now in holding on to valuable tenths. Not that the race for higher d-scores or racking up connection bonus are no longer things, but certainly there is a greater emphasis now on cleaning up routines than there has been in the past under this code. You tend to hear a lot more 'getting back into the gym to clean up my routines' now than 'I'm so happy I hit 4 for 4'. Several countries such as Netherlands, Belgium etc. are making names for themselves for expressive, intricate choreography and there is beautiful execution to be found in abundance in every federation, even the *gasp* power gymnast strongholds of the USA and the UK. But amplitude and full extension as a trait is harder to find. Thankfully, that's where China step in.

Of course, there are several gymnasts with great amplitude on vault. And floor. Simone Biles exemplifies this, driven from the technical perfection she displays. And there are gymnasts with flighty bars elements and nice, high beam layouts. McKayla Maroney of all people had an extremely high and flighty geinger which was a thing of beauty. But many powerhouse gyms and gymnasts fall flat when it comes to amplitude on beam and bars. Too often we are seeing beams with difficult tumbling ruined by weak leaps, low landings and bad toepoint. Bars with release moves and difficult transitions in combination can often suffer from flexed feet and legs apart that quickly destroy the overall beauty. A routine that has it all is to be prized.

Back to beam; there are many beam layouts in particular as a skill example worthy of devaluing. If it's not piked down and legs are together I'll like it but if it flairs or opens out I LOVE it. Similarly, I'll take a springy well-executed leap series with a wobble than a perfectly landed one with anaemic leaps. BHS-LOSO-LOSO is one of my favourite beam series and its popularity and popularity in the past does not in any way diminish it for me. If the legs are straight and toes pointed I am delighted but it's so much better if the chest is upright between landing skills and if a split or near-split is achieved. It seems that these days the emphasis in a series like that is solely on keeping it clean and in line with the beam and quick enough for credit but that the emphasis on making those skills individually beautiful or noteworthy is gone.

Jordyn Wieber BHS -
Deng Linlin BHS - from decencybedamned tumblr
Deng Linlin layout - copyright inside gymnastics
Ragan Smith layout - copyright ocregister
Tan Sixin YOG 2010 is poetry in motion. Beautiful leap miles above the beam and what a line on bars. Taken from pinterest
Seeing Kui Yuanyuan lose sight of the beam and wobble slightly on a layout full in combination because she had flown into the rafters with it is an absolute joy to me. That is a skill that to this day is rare and even then with questionable body position. And of course, the beam of the 80's and 90's was less springy than it is now. Think about the hype that Nia Dennis, Morgan Hurd, Gabby Douglas and Viktoria Komova get/got for landing their standing fulls/arabians in an upright position. It just looks so much more impressive. But it's not just the acro, I live to see leap series, straddles especially, with big amplitude. Leaps are of course where things like extension become more noticeable too.

Yep, the beam final that Gina Gogean won
There are pretty layouts and then there's this

Russian gymnasts can show some beautiful extension but pale in comparison to the overall extension-amplitude-form-execution of China. Flexed feet are not as glaringly obvious as they have been in quads gone by, existing for the most part on bars and mid-leap. Certainly some countries who are the worst offenders are placing emphasis on toepoint and maintaining it throughout the routine which is obviously great as flexed feet are very jarring and break the line. But true and proper extension cannot be tacked on at a later stage and must be cultivated from a young age. i.e programmes must incorporate it from the very beginning.

copyright - getty images
Olga Mostepanova had extension in spades. The reason why her split handstand sequence at the beginning of her beam stands out so much and also looks markedly different to other variations of it we have seen since is because it is perfect. Her toes are not just pointed, they are in a perfect line extending from the hips and through the knee. This is of course most often seen in ballet where it is essentially a requirement but was gloriously common in gymnastics throughout the 80's and 90's. Olga fully deserved that perfect 40 for the sublime perfection she brought to the sport.

Fan Ye extension for days - copyright getty images
Extension extends (haha..) itself to bars too. A perfect bodyline is most obvious in handstand with the dead straight line going from wrists through shoulders, hips and knees to toes. It should stay the same throughout giants excepting clearing the bar or tap swings and pirouetting skills. Most gymnasts have a straight upper body by the virtue of being in the handstand position at all and straight legs/toes but the vast majority are not fully extended at the hips. This can sometimes be obvious as a slight pike position is seen in profile or less so in that the position seems straight but is nevertheless not fully extended so the line isn't as good as it could be. Note the 2008 bars final as a classic example. He Kexin and Yang Yilin had perfectly extended pencil-like straight form throughout their routines. Liukin also exhibited a beautiful bodyline and showed it especially through her pirouettes just like the other two but her line is lacking the tension and total core tightness of the others.

He Kexin - copyright intlgymnast
Nastia Liukin - taken from alibaba
The extension is what makes sets Chinese barwork apart. It will always have that edge over Russian or any other standout routine as a result even if it has other flaws (we all really love dead hangs). It adds a cleanness, precision and sharpness to each skill. Watching a shaposhnikova with arms extended regrasp and turn precisely into the next skill is thrilling, as is seeing a pirouette snap back into position after the rotation. It's as noticeable to me compared to a less-tight routine as the difference between Madison Kocian's and Viktoria Komova's inbars i.e. they look like different skills.

It's not that I don't see the absolutely massive flaws and problems Team China is dealing with. They overemphasise bars and beam to the detriment of other events, they are still dealing with filtering for body type, they don't have the conditioning of certain other federations and they will never challenge for gold without being able to field solid DTY's and strong floors. There are no Cheng Fei's climbing through the ranks and although they do have talent on vault/floor it's not enough and it's not present in their AA gymnasts. I will enjoy watching a floor routine with beautiful leaps, turns and execution but if it's coming from a top 4 nation and it's another triple full-double tuck-2.5 twist derivative....I have no patience for that. I can't root for 5.3 or worse floors being fielded as some of the best on offer and never will. god do they do the other events in such style. I can't not be excited at seeing such dedication to the form and the finesse of the skill that they have always and continue to show in their work. Not that there aren't form issues amongst their ranks but as a whole they are carried by beautiful extension, amplitude and execution. China need to go more mainstream. We know the names of the top gymnasts in the rest of the top 4/5 countries and it's not just language barrier/different social media that's the issue. There's a general lack of interest or some inherent dislike and when these gymnasts are performing such beautiful gymnastics it's a crying shame. The age scandals (which I absolutely could not care less about as they only rear their head when there's a significant threat of the US being beaten) seem to have cast a lingering shadow over Team China. More accessible than ever on youtube, these girls need to be celebrated more. GO CHINA!!

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