I wanted to lay out some of the basics for casual viewers, just in case you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of obscure Olympic events or something. Sorry this post is so long! I’m only covering individual competition here (group is more or less the same but with the addition of like, apparatus exchanges) and I’ll also name some gymnasts to watch in Rio.
Most people think of the ribbon when they think of RG, but gymnasts also use clubs, hoops, and balls, performing 90 second routines with each apparatus for the individual competition. (Group competition is longer and comprises of 5 athlete teams performing two routines, one with all the same apparatus and one with two different apparatus mixed in the group.)
Russia dominates this sport, but Ukraine and Belarus also have very strong programs. Russia tends to win a lot on the strength of their superior apparatus handling, and also rampant judging favoritism. Yeah, I said it. With the notable exception of Yana Kudryavtseva, who is an exceptional rhythmic gymnast, I don’t really prefer the Russian style. It’s more tricksy than dance-y compared to Ukraine or Belarus, but while the dance elements are crucial to RG, apparatus handling is very important and you can’t get by if it’s inconsistent.
Disclaimer: I am not a rhythmic gymnast. I’m just a fan. I’ve been watching the sport for a while and I’ve read the code of points but I’m not an expert by any means! Please comment if I’ve messed anything up here!
Gymnasts can earn a D (Difficulty) score of up to 10 points by building their routines to include various skills, and then there is a 10 point E (execution) score from which penalties are deducted, for a total score out of 20. (This is slightly different from artistic gymnastics because I don’t believe there is a max D score imposed for their routines?) The top rhythmic gymnasts in the world tend to score in the 17+ range, and medalists are scoring in the high 18 to 19 range.
According to the code of points, gymnasts are expected to interpret their music and convey a theme with their routines. They will be deducted if their routine appears as a series of D elements and has no relationship or connection to their music.
The big D (score)
So let’s talk about what goes into the D score. Gymnasts must perform between 6-9 “body difficulty” elements (there are 3 types: jumps/leaps, balances, and rotations i.e. “pivots,” i.e. pirouettes and turns). A minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 skills must come from each of those 3 types of body difficulties, worth between 0.1 - 0.5. There must also be a minimum of 1 dance combination, and between 1 - 3 “dynamic elements with rotation or throwing” (aka throwing the apparatus with a high degree of risk while rotating the body). Finally, the gymnast must demonstrate as much apparatus fundamentals, originality, and mastery as they can pack in.
Rotations/pivots are scored based on how many rotations you perform, with a minimum of 360-degree rotation. You’ll see elites performing an insane amount of rotations, these girls can turn.
The higher scoring rotations have the working legs (as opposed to the standing legs) extended far above horizontal and they do it without “help” (i.e. holding their leg up with their hands). You can hold your leg, but you don’t earn quite as much for the skill.
You’ll notice the gymnasts in these gifs all have a very high releve (the heel is up very high), however you may perform rotations on a flat foot. These are also lower earning rotations than if they’re performed with the heel up. (Ballet dancers everywhere are cringing.)
Because you cannot get credit for more than 9 body difficulty skills, for bigger scores you can connect at least 2 different shapes or change levels. This counts as one skill but you get to add up the credit for performing both as long as you do not put your heel down during the connection or hop down and back up into the subsequent shapes. (The exception to this is fouettes, a type of pirouette with an intentional plie between each rotation.)
Balances are another kind of body difficulty. This is where you see some of the stunning flexibility and strength these gymnasts have. The position must be a “defined and clearly fixed shape” according to the code of points (i.e. you have to hold the position). This usually means putting your legs up near the stratosphere. They can be on a flat foot or releve, and they can use “help” by holding their leg with their hands. Not all balances are static. A gymnast can perform a “slow turn” of at least 180 degrees while holding a balance to earn a bonus. (In dance we call this a promenade.) These are different from a rotation in that they are not using momentum, they are very controlled. (I couldn’t find a gif of one, sorry.)
Another non-static type of balance are fouette balances, or gymnasts can connect different shapes or work an acro element into their balance for a bonus, for example doing a front walkover but pausing in a layout position at the end of it.
Leaps and jumps are the third kind of body difficulty. Adding over-splits, rings (where the back leg touches the back of the head) or torso bends to leaps that do not already require them give bonuses to the base value of those leaps. In my opinion there has never been a better jumper than Anna Bessonova of Ukraine (now retired, also RG no longer uses rope).
So basically, that’s body difficulty. You can add connection bonuses by performing mixed difficulty, i.e. performing two or more of these elements in succession with no superfluous steps in between. You also get credit for both skills combined, fitting more into your routine when you can only technically have 9 skills.
Another required element of the D score is the one dance step combination which must be 8 seconds long. There’s a nice one in Grace Legote’s hoop routine (sadly, she isn’t in Rio because…nonsense is why but anyway, so sad because I love her).
She starts with a balance, then we see a leap at 0:21. There’s another balance at 0:25. And then she goes into a sassy sort of hip swinging section of choreography that lasts, you can count them, 8 seconds. Boom. There’s your requirement. The apparatus must be in constant motion during this combo, which Grace does (including my favorite hoop-on-the-floor thing).
The next D score requirement is the “dynamic element with rotation or throw.” This requirement has a base value of 0.2 but additional rotations earn extra tenths. The gymnast must throw the apparatus, rotate her body at least twice (it can be the same kind of rotation, or mixed as in the gif) and then catch the apparatus with risk like a blind catch. If you keep watching Grace’s routine above, the next skill she performs after the dance combination is this dynamic element (she does 3 rotations).
While all of this is going on, the gymnast’s routine must demonstrate what the code calls fundamental and other apparatus technical groups, which is just a complicated way of saying, doing stuff with the apparatus.
The apparatus can never be static during all of these D skills. The only exception is, a risky balance. However, if it were not considered risky, she’d be penalized with a 0.3 deduction to the E score for static apparatus.
Other fundamentals to look for are: throwing and catching, rolling the apparatus across various parts of the body, jumping through the hoop or ribbon patterns, making shapes and patterns with the ribbon that are tight and uniform in size, the aforementioned balancing of the apparatus, and so forth. The code of points has a table that outlines what these fundamentals are for each apparatus, and 50% of the routine must demonstrate these fundamentals. A 0.5 deduction is taken if the D judges determine that less than half the routine consisted of these requirements.
The final part of the D score is apparatus mastery and originality. Basically the gymnasts are expected to come up with some original, riskier variations on the fundamentals of handling the apparatus. These original mastery skills must be submitted in writing along with the other D skill elements prior to the meet.
Here’s a video with some examples of apparatus mastery and originality. You’ll see them bounce apparatus off their bodies multiple times, manipulate or catch the apparatus with body parts other than their hands, catch or throw the apparatus differently, etc. Unless you memorized the fundamentals, it can be hard to discern if a skill falls under mastery and originality or if it comes from the table of fundamentals, so I won’t elaborate on them.
But yeah, that’s the D score.
E (execution) scores start at 10 and go down for artistic or technical deductions. A gymnast can be deducted 0.3 for not using enough of the floor, and for not using varying levels, or not having enough dynamic movements in her routine. Up to a full point can be taken if there isn’t sufficient “unity,” “harmony,” or “rhythm” in the routine. So a lot of the artistic faults are highly subjective, which can be frustrating. Lack of facial expressions can get you a 0.3 deduction. I mean…come on!
Technical faults are a little easier to understand, but there’s still some subjectivity involved with deductions for body difficulties. They can seem somewhat relative or arbitrary, and take some practice to see. But other deductions are easily spotted. For example, gymnast who doesn’t finish with her music can be penalized 0.5.
Apparatus handling is another place where deductions happen. If you drop your apparatus but quickly recover without having to run after it, you get a 0.3 deduction but traveling to retrieve it is up to a 0.7 deduction. Taking steps to adjust to make a catch (like in your dynamic element throw) is anywhere from a 0.1-0.3 deduction. Those aren’t too mysterious for a casual viewer, in that you can usually tell when they happen. But when it comes to correct fundamental apparatus handling, that’s a little more difficult for a casual viewer to identify. I’m not even sure it’s worth getting into it here. You’ll be able to tell after a while what more or less constitutes good handling because the apparatus will flow with the movement like an extension of the gymnast. There will be no hesitation, no disruption to their choreography, no awkwardness.
Bigger handling mistakes, like tying a knot in your ribbon or getting it tangled around yourself, are easier to spot and they do happen! These get 0.3 deductions. But usually these deductions are more subtle, like did your hoop bounce or vibrate unnecessarily in your handling? Did your ball make its roll properly or did you have to help it along a bit, was that bounce intentional? Did you catch your club in the correct part of the handle, are you spinning your mills consistently? Most apparatus handling deductions are 0.1, but if you make a lot of little mistakes with that, they will add up. That’s why Russia is so good. Their apparatus handling is so smooth.
Routines must be performed within the bounds of the floor. There’s a 0.3 deduction for the gymnast or the apparatus going out of bounds. You’ll see spare apparatus placed around the floor in case the gymnast’s apparatus gets away from them or otherwise becomes unusable, but gymnasts receive a 0.7 penalty for using the spares. Using a broken apparatus is not permitted, so if something happens you must use the replacement apparatus. Also, I’ve seen videos of gymnasts chasing their balls off the podium entirely, but if they take too long they risk missing their chance in their routines to do high scoring D elements, so it’s a decision they have to make in the moment. They are also deducted for not performing the D elements they’ve declared before the meet, so they can’t just improvise to make up for it. Basically, hold onto your apparatus.
If you’re still reading, consider yourself a true gym nerd (as the gymternet calls it). To finish up I’ll point out some gymnasts to watch in Rio.
From Russia, Yana Kudryavtseva and Margarita Mamun are expected to win gold and silver. Yana isn’t having the best year after a foot injury but she’s extraordinary in almost everything. Margarita (“Rita”) has the distinction of wearing the absolute most hideous leotard that has ever or will ever be for her clubs routine, so that will be fun.
Also look out for Ganna Rizatdinova of Ukraine, expected to win bronze, and Melitina Staniouta of Belarus, who could potentially win bronze if she has a perfect day. I also really love watching Salome Pazhava of Georgia, her routines are so creative and dramatic. Son Yeon Jae of Korea is very pretty to watch. I’d be surprised for either of these last two to medal but they could do it if they hit perfect routines and the others don’t. Finally, Laura Zeng is representing the United States! If she even makes it to finals that will be a huge win for her.