Why Isn’t Rhythmic Gymnastics More Popular?

Rhythmic Gymnastics is marginalised in the television schedules. The only chance I had of seeing it in the UK was in the Olympics, and the terrestrial broadcast changed to prancing horses instead. Even the bigger sister, Artistic Gymnastics, rarely makes it to television and we get a local event once a year, and typically the Europeans and even the World championships in the Olympic year. Artistic Gymnastics too is a minority sport. As a spectator I will assay some reasons on why Rhythmic Gymnastics is not more popular:

1) Negligible participant base. The sport will suffer in many countries from being an individual sport and not using the space of facilities very efficiently. Whilst stretches and some apparatus skills might need much space, the focus in schools ever more tends to be on giving children the real cardiovascular exercise they are nowadays lacking. It’s much easier for a teacher to administer a basketball or netball game with a dozen or more players, particularly if that teacher isn’t a specialist.

Rhythmic Gymnastics also isn’t the kind of thing people tend to pick up anywhere else, either. Only ballet and hula-hooping seems to have anything to do with it. Vanessa Ferrari’s notorious assertion that rhythmic gymnasts were “failed ballerinas” has inverted reality. I’ve seen ballet in real life too and saw that the dancers don’t have the same flexibility, never mind the apparatus skills. Whereas Olympic diving attracts the vicarious, remembering their own fear on the 3-metre board, RG is almost entirely outside their experience.

2) Subjectivity and impenetrable results. Like another sport that rarely makes forays into the schedules, Ice Skating, RG has nearly made itself notorious for judging scandals. Even one of the most famous trainers was involved in one as a judge. Like Torvill & Dean losing to a Russian cabal, such conspiracies alienate the public and make them feel cheated- as if the judging criteria were not already hard enough to understand in themselves. And why would the public understand, since so few have tried anything like RG?

3) Comparison with Artistic Gymnastics. RG will be associated with and compared to artistic gymnastics in the minds of the public whether the community likes it or not. To those used to the wow of tumbles, RG lacks explosive dynamism and boggling somersaults. Realistically, this is necessary, since once tumbles were allowed, an arms race to outdo each other would ensue and the winsome prancing would be left behind. So RG stresses flexibility rather than power. It would be interesting to have an insight into the formulation of the code of rules and its ethos. A new one has been announced for 2013.

To the uninitiated, RG may look like prancing to music. It certainly looked like it to me. Even though I have seen the Olympics and Europeans since 1996, I made no rush towards RG as well.

4) The Sport Itself. Once a viewer does make it past the obstacles of the poor television coverage and their own ignorance and begins to pick up the thread of RG, they can see the sports has its own problems. Just as in Artistic Gymnastics that it’s possible to construe the technical requirements from viewing enough routines, so it is in RG, but the lack of variety is provoked by the unchanging piece of apparatus- the carpet. Yes, though the apparatus the gymnasts hold may be different, many of the moves are directly transferable from one routine to another. The spins, the sequence in vogue of three leg lifts or extensions, and the rolls they fit in on the floor whilst the apparatus is in the air before catching it… even someone not appraised of the code of points can soon from experience get a feeling for what is coming next. This is the classic tension and sticking point in a sport that combines the technical with the artistic. These ladies aren’t just simply playing at being princesses in their sparkling costumes and showing off to us: they would also like to win. If there is a technical code of points as a priority then they are going to play to it.

It simply isn’t given to everybody to have an artistic sensibility, never mind prioritise it. There are those who out of pride or support from a training regime, display routines with some artistic and rhythmic relationship with the music, but there are also those who provoke the question of whether we would notice the difference if the music were changed, so vague is the relationship between what they are hearing and what they are doing. As an example, I link to two routines of a highly esteemed gymnast with the same apparatus, in the same year.

In both routines she uses very much the same moves, but one piece of music suits what she is doing so much better. This rather suggests that someone who knows the performer’s preferred sequences has searched their memory banks for a compatible minute and a half of music, to which the performer has made adjustments. This is in contradistinction to the more obvious alternative method of constructing the choreography following the music to begin with. Whichever means were used, I’d say the latter worked well in an engaging way that everybody could appreciate, with its driving rhythm, and in a way that… the earlier one didn’t. It hasn’t escaped my attention that this gymnast wants to become a choreographer, so I would be curious to know who would get the blame and the credit in this example! I wonder if this engaging lady actually knows how much she has.

The tendency to homogeneity means that the interest of the neutral viewer can certainly flag. By the time I had seen one rotation of 24 gymnasts this Olympics I began to flag even when I was enlivened by predicting the moves from a photographer’s point of view. The sport might easily tax the patience of the naive viewer.

5) Other Distractions in the World. I have been to an RG tournament outside the Olympics amongst the specialist crowd and can tell you that it is almost exclusively female, dominated by young girls who appear to belong to some gymnastics club, and their parents. This might be the reason that the venues are more hall-sized ones than arena sized ones like the O2 and Wembley. Actually the Max-Schmeling Halle was a fine venue for it, more usually host to basketball games. The point is that RG does not seem to have a very broad reach outside those that actually participate or aspire to participate in RG. This would seem fairly small in western europe, and I would expect the participation in all sports to dwindle in the future. All children seem to do nowadays, when they are not constrained to schoolwork, is to check and re-check their messages on their mobile phones, analogous to a feline regularly pacing its own territory. The news media tells us often enough that children are becoming less active and more obese. I imagine it must be difficult to push young athletes hard in the developed world where there are so many distractions, a culture for instant gratification, and where the renumeration does not seem high. I can only assume that when eastern-europe and Russia find their exchange rates more equal to the west, the same western attitude will infect them too.

“Other distractions” also goes for other distractions for potential audiences. With over forty terrestrial stations typical nowadays, RG as minority programming could be lost in the schedules even if it did make it to the screens. It would not likely even attract many males attracted to the “female aesthetic” either. They have already been served by a free diet on the internet of far more immediate material, and figures that do not look as if they are stamped out on a production line economising on plastic. As if that were not enough, there is little in the media that does not attempt to casually titillate as a matter of course as well. In short, Rythmic Gymnastics competes for followers in a crowded market. Unfortunately unlike ballroom dancing it seems improbable it can be rejeuvenated by a celebrity reality show because of the range of mobility required.

Coda

It would seem obvious to the outsider that RG needs to give careful thought to its code of points to encourage routines attractive to the wider public it could broaden its appeal to. No doubt it will also be necessary to uncouple the code of points from the political corruption of those federations who have benefited from technical codes of points in the past. The sport would also benefit from individuals with a special talent and pride in producing engaging routines, in the same way artistic gymnastics benefited from Olga Korbut. Olga of course had certain advantages to the media: she was very young, she was very smiley for someone from a stoney-faced system, and she had groundbreaking routines. It seems unlikely that anyone in Rhythmic Gymnastics can ever have the influence that Olga did on their sport due to the constraints placed on the invention of movement by the codes of the sport itself.

To me, Rhythmic Gymnastics is a fairyland where girls get to choose their own costumes and music and wow us by doing extraordinary things that normal mortals can’t, as veritable princesses. From my perspective as a spectator rather than performer the relationship of the music to the performance is key for my enjoyment of it as a piece of performance art. At the time of writing I find two Ukrainian gymnasts Alina Maksimenko and Ganna Rizatdinova salient in this respect, but even then I do not necessarily like all of their routines. But I like them enough to keep watching!

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