Gymnastics has never been a sport for the faint of heart: Not every athlete would willingly sign on to do double backflips over a steel pipe (as in men's high bar), run full tilt and then dive headfirst toward an inanimate object when vaulting, or attempt twisting flips on a balance beam that amounts to a wooden plank.
But when the world championships start Friday in Tokyo, gymnasts will be taking these tricks to a whole new level. In the past five years, the elements have become increasingly difficult and the athletes are pushed to do harder ones all the time, even if they can't perform them well or even safely. While injuries have always happened, now they're a given: Between the start of the U.S. nationals on Aug. 17 and the start of Worlds on Oct. 7, five top American female gymnasts have been injured. Each of the five could have been a big asset to the world team, but instead, Olympic veterans like Alicia Sacramone and Chellsie Memmel are on the sideline. (See sidebar for more on the U.S. team's injuries.)
Why is it that so many gymnasts are finding themselves in the MRI machine instead of on the medal stand?
The short answer is an out-of-control judging system. Gymnastics scoring has always been controversial, but at the 2004 Olympics, it was downright scandalous. American Paul Hamm won the all-around, but a judging error later came to light that made his victory questionable. During the rings event finals, silver medalist Jordan Jovtchev performed what was generally considered to be a better set than that of the gold medalist Dimosthenis Tampakos. Then, on high bar, the crowd stopped the meet for upward of 10 minutes after Russian Alexei Nemov's improbably low mark of 9.725 came up. (The score was later raised to 9.762.) Gymnastics fans had had enough.
And so had the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG).
In 2005, the FIG announced it was introducing a new code of points. The new scoring system would abolish the perfect 10, but the federation claimed it would also eliminate the cheating and gray areas that had caused the scoring problems in Athens. A gymnast would now have two scores -- difficulty and execution -- combined to form the total. The difficulty score would start from zero and increase with each difficult trick the gymnast performed, with theoretically no maximum. The execution score would start at 10.0 and go down, deducting for mistakes such as a fall, a form break or a step on a dismount.
Gymnasts, coaches, officials and fans all came out of the woodwork, calling the decision a mistake. Some said that the open-ended scoring would derail the sport and take it to dangerous levels of difficulty. Others pointed out that the perfect 10 was one of gymnastics' best-known brands. Ukrainian Olympic champion Rustam Sharipov wrote a letter that blasted the proposed scoring system, and Olympic gold medalists Shannon Miller, Vitaly Scherbo and Peter Vidmar were among those who signed it.
Now we're five years into this code, and the sport has started to morph into a circus, where difficult tricks are rewarded above all else. As a result, gymnasts are throwing skills that they haven't quite mastered and risking injury along the way.
"There's too much of an emphasis on difficulty and not enough on the artistic side of the sport for both the men and the women," said NBC gymnastics analyst and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett. He points to the popular Amanar vault on the women's side as an example. The vault, a round-off entry Yurchenko with two and a half twists, is valued at a 6.5, while the double is valued at only 5.8. "There's a gigantic incentive to upgrade to that level," Daggett said. "With such a big jump [in difficulty value], it encourages reckless behavior."
That reckless behavior may well have been on display at the European championships earlier this year. Russia's Aliya Mustafina is the 2010 world all-around champion, and, not surprisingly, she does the Amanar vault. But her Amanar was not looking good in the practices leading up to the meet. She showed terrible form on the vault and wasn't landing it well. Still, she went for the Amanar in competition, with horrible consequences: She tore her ACL and is still rehabbing the injury. She won't be in Tokyo to defend her title.
Sure, responsibility lies with the coaches. But if the code deducted more heavily for the major execution errors Mustafina was making, the vault wouldn't have been worth attempting. Under the current system, it makes numerical sense to throw the more difficult vault, no matter how poorly it is performed.
On men's floor exercise, roll-out skills are highly rewarded and very dangerous. It's easy to see how a roll-out -- in which a gymnast performs multiple flips, lands on his hands and literally rolls from his hands to his head and shoulders -- could go catastrophically wrong. Former world champion Elena Mukhina was paralyzed attempting a roll-out skill.
While roll-outs are now banned for women, most men still do them. At last year's worlds, six of the eight event finalists on floor attempted at least one. "They shouldn't be allowed. It doesn't make sense," said Daggett, citing the potential for a head or neck injury if a gymnast is tired or has an off day and doesn't complete the flip. Not only is the skill allowed, it's valued so highly that even less-powerful gymnasts are tempted to do roll-outs to maintain competitive difficulty scores.
SMIAliya Mustafina is carried off the mat after injuring her knee on the risky Amanar vault.
In both men's and women's gymnastics, the emphasis seems to be on cramming more difficulty into the routines instead of performing them well. The difficulty score can always go higher, so there's a "keep up with the Joneses" mentality, said John Geddert, coach of U.S. national champ Jordyn Wieber.
Though Wieber seems to be able to handle the difficulty required in today's gymnastics, other athletes are struggling. At this year's senior women's nationals, there were many missed routines and some scary crashes. World team member Alexandra Raisman took several frighteningly low landings on her Amanar vault in warm-ups, while Gabrielle Douglas and McKayla Maroney, two up-and-comers also on the American team at worlds, had six falls between them on night one. World silver medalist Rebecca Bross dislocated a kneecap on her vault and will miss worlds altogether. These are some of the most talented gymnasts in the United States, and the U.S. is one of the best teams in the world. If these athletes can't complete their routines safely, who can?
The code gives no incentive for these athletes to water down their routines and do skills that they know they can perform cleanly. In fact, if they do, they probably won't be competitive anymore. Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist, goes one step further, saying, "The overwhelming emphasis placed on difficulty … has caused the outcome of competitions to often be determined before the meet begins, because various gymnasts have an insurmountable mathematical head start."
The 2008 Olympic vault finals are a prime example of this. Sacramone performed two clean vaults, one valued at 6.3 and the other at 5.8. Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei's two vaults were both worth 6.5. Cheng nailed her first one, but crashed to her knees on her second vault. Still, with a nearly 1.0 advantage in difficulty, she edged Sacramone for the bronze medal. Cheng is a tremendous vaulter -- she has won three world titles on the event -- but she, in essence, failed the vault. And yet she earned a bronze medal over someone who hit both vaults.
Finally, it seems, even the FIG sees the problem. Eccentric president Bruno Grandi, once a strong proponent of the new scoring, has done an about-face. On May 1, Grandi wrote an open letter to the gymnastics community, saying, "The Code has mutated into a time bomb that we are wholly unable to contain." He went on to urge, "The time has come for us, the technicians, judges and leaders in sport, to gather round a single table and revisit the Code..."
The code of points is typically revised every four years, after the Olympics. Maybe this time, the situation is so dire that some pre-Olympic edits can be made. High on the wish list: an increase in execution deductions. How a skill is performed should be of utmost importance, for safety's sake if nothing else. If an element is done in a dangerous way, the gymnast must be penalized so heavily that it is not worth attempting.
But it's not just about deducting for poor form; gymnasts must be rewarded greatly when they do something beautiful -- something that's higher, cleaner or just different than what everyone else is doing. This should decrease the urgency to always add more difficulty, because doing the simpler skills well will pay off. Moceanu's Olympic teammate Miller said it succinctly: "Artistic gymnastics should be more than just throwing gravity-defying skills."
That's easier said than done, though. In the late 1980s there was a scoring category called ROV: Gymnasts were rated on how well they showed risk, originality and virtuosity. "I firmly believe that the code was best when there was ROV," Daggett said. "Right now it's just the risk part. We need to add the other two back in."
Some say this would invite cheating by judges, because attributes like "originality" are not easy to quantify. But gymnastics, like all judged sports, will be subjective no matter what the rules are. "If you're on a judging panel now, it's absolutely simple to cheat as well," Daggett said. "Simply say you saw a 0.3 deduction instead of a 0.1 one."
The number of elements counted toward the difficulty score should be decreased, as well. For men, it's currently 10; for women, eight. "Packing so many skills into a 90-second routine is incredibly tough," Miller said. "I think there is a happy medium between the difficult skills and dance." She also points out that the choreography and dance on beam and floor -- which have plenty of crowd appeal -- provide a critical rest time during a routine.
If the routines were even a little less physically demanding, it follows that injuries from repetitive pounding and injuries that occur because of exhaustion would both go down. And with fewer skills required, gymnasts would have more time to perfect the ones they choose to do.
Pushing the difficulty envelope is not an inherently bad thing. It's a good thing, in fact; and it's why gymnastics is constantly evolving. But the code must stop giving gymnasts incentive to try skills that they can't do well. It's clear a change is needed and soon. "We're headed down a path of self-destruction," Moceanu said. "We've seen too many of our stars get injured since the inception of the current code, and it's hurting our sport."