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Scoring Artistic Performance: Rhythmic Gymnastics

Ikuko Uratani
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Sports philosophy

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Challenges in scoring artistic merit

Rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, synchronized swimming, and women’s floor gymnastics are all examples of sports that are scored based on artistic merit, and each has its own particular challenges when it comes to evaluating athletes’ artistic performance.

Let’s take a closer look at rhythmic gymnastics. Anna Bessonova is a rhythmic gymnast who is widely recognized for the artistry of her performances. She executed flawless technique during the 2009 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships, and yet she was beat out by Yevgeniya Kanayeva, whose routine included a misstep. The audience erupted into boos at the decision. Kanayeva was known for the physical difficulty of her routines, and for the exceptional athleticism of her technique. Bessonova, on the other hand, was better on the artistic side of a sport that is judged on its artistry. This example indicates that from the perspective of the audience, evaluations of the technical and artistic aspects of rhythmic gymnastics are unfair.

The history of rhythmic gymnastics

The two movements that primarily influenced the development of rhythmic gymnastics were the gymnastik (gymnastics) of late eighteenth-century Europe and the turnen (German gymnastics) that arose at the beginning of the nineteenth century[1]. These two disciplines are said to be come out of nude exercises designed to improve physical technique—in other words, they were based on a concept of beauty that idealized the symmetry of the human form—which are the starting points for our modern treatment of gymnastics as a sport. Gymnastics had gained popularity by the late eighteenth century, when it took on the name modern gymnastics and began to incorporate the apparatus. Today’s rhythmic gymnastics had been born[2]. The sport celebrated the beauty of movements that harmoniously integrated rhythmic and expressive gymnastics, and continued to develop through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as gymnastik[1].

Rhythmic gymnastics was first recognized as an official Olympic event during the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, though it was then only open to individual competitors. Group competition was not recognized until the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta—making rhythmic gymnastics a relatively new sport. Today in Japan, for instance, only a scant twelve universities have rhythmic gymnastics programs (these are the only schools that entered the group competition during this year’s All-Japan Intercollegiate Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships).

Technique and artistry in rhythmic gymnastics

People are familiar with rhythmic gymnastics as a sport where athletes compete in terms of both technical and artistic achievement. This unique characteristic means that judges must evaluate the artistic value of a performance while still treating it as an athletic event.

In the current Code of Points (2013–2016), artistic penalties are included as part of the execution. This means that execution judges must simultaneously look for execution penalties (loss of the apparatus, imprecise form in body difficulties, incorrect handling of the apparatus, etc.) and artistic penalties (absence of harmony, music and movement, body expression, use of space, and so on)[3].

Detailed point reductions are set forth for each artistic penalty, with a maximum deduction of 3.5 points in individual events. Because there can be up to 6.5 points in technical penalties, the ratio of technical to artistic deductions in rhythmic gymnastics is clearly weighted towards the former.

Shift towards technical evaluations

Victory or defeat in any sport is determined by a specific purpose. The aim of sports like soccer or volleyball is to score goals or points, while the aim of track and field events is to achieve record times or distances. Rhythmic gymnastics, on the other hand, brings together two separate purposes (technique and execution, or execution and artistry) to determine the winner. Technique in rhythmic gymnastics includes body difficulties like jumps (e.g. jumping with the legs open at a 180º angle), balance (e.g. balancing in a Y formation), and rotation (e.g. pivoting on one leg) as well as apparatus difficulties (skillfully manipulating the apparatus). It should be apparent that these elements are things that can be easily converted into scores the way that the goals or records of the other competition sports mentioned can.

The Code of Points for rhythmic gymnastics has undergone significant changes since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In addition to the standard review that occurred every four years, the code was also greatly revised to address the excessively slim point margins separating competitors. At the time, the smallest point discrepancy was 0.017. To rectify this, the judges began focusing more on body difficulty elements that were easier to score. Body difficulties that required more flexibility were scored higher, and extreme flexibility began to be seen as something beautiful.

The beauty of flexibility

Though athletics are considered to have elements of beauty, most people would not consider them to be an art form. This might lead us to conclude that while rhythmic gymnastics can be evaluated on artistic merit, they are not actually art. The confusion here most likely arises from the fact that we cannot quite pinpoint the essential nature of the artistry in rhythmic gymnastics. Perhaps this is why what is considered beautiful in the world of rhythmic gymnastics has become the excessive flexibility that evokes amazement and exoticism rather than things that would generally be regarded as beautiful by an average observer. Some obvious examples would be backbends where the gymnast’s head touches her rear, or where the legs are opened wider than a 200º angle.

The beauty found in rhythmic gymnastics has therefore become unique to the sport, increasingly removed from common conceptions of beauty. Personally, the notion that excessive flexibility is beautiful is one of the reasons I find artistic evaluation in rhythmic gymnastics so perplexing[4].

The 2016 Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro this year. Japan has decided to participate in both the individual and group events for the first time in a while (individual performers have not entered the last three competitions). I hope that many people will watch the Olympics on TV to discover the beauty and art of rhythmic gymnastics, which may also become an opportunity to learn more about the Code of Points, giving you a fresh perspective of the sports.

Reference

  1. ^Inagaki, Masahiro (1981) “European Culture and Gymnastics [Yoroppa bunka to taiso].” Physical Education [Taiikuka kyouiku]. Volume 29, Issue 1. Taishukan, pp. 40–41.
  2. ^Japan Gymnastics Association 60th Anniversary Project Committee (1995). Sixty Years of the Japan Gymnastics Association [Nihon taiso kyokai 60 nenshi]. Japan Gymnastics Association, Tokyo.
  3. ^The Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (2013). 2013–2016 Code of Points. (Translated in Japanese by the Rhythmic Gymnastics Committee Japan, Gymnastics Association, Tokyo).
  4. ^Uratani, Ikuko (2012). “Criticism against Scoring Rules for Rhythmic Sportive Gymnastics: Focusing on Physical Flexibility [Shintaiso no saiten kisoku hihan: Junansei ni kansuru naiyo wo chushin ni].” Bulletin of Nippon Sport Science University [Nippon Taiiku Daigaku Kiyo]. Volume 21, Issue 2, pp. 117–123.
Ikuko Uratani
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Sports philosophy
Professor Uratani was born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1985. She graduated from the Tokyo Women’s College of Physical Education in 2008, going on to complete the Master’s Program at the Graduate School of Health and Sport Science, Nippon Sport Science University in 2010 and withdrew after partially completing Doctoral Program in 2015. Between 2010 and 2013, she served as an assistant professor for the Physical Education Principles (now the Sports Philosophy) lab at Nippon Sport Science University. She took up her current position as Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Law at Chuo University in 2015. In terms of personal athletic achievements, Uratani was event champion (both in all-around and on individual event) at the Japan National Inter-High School Championships and the High School Invitational Competition. She also took second and third place in all-around and individual event at the Intercollegiate Championships, respectively, and fifth (both in all-around and on individual event) in the Japan National Championships. After sixteen years as a competitor, she now trains young athletes and participates in judging activities. During her time at Nippon Sport Science University, Uratani established a rhythmic gymnastics club and served as its first coach. She is an official category I judge for women’s rhythmic gymnastics under the Japan Gymnastics Association.