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Olympics 101: Men's gymnastics
Men's gymnastics is a sport involving six apparatuses: floor exercise, horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings and vault. The difficulty of a gymnast's routine determines its highest start value and once the gymnast's routine on an apparatus is finished, he is given a score by a panel of judges. His routine usually will have some deductions — some of them are major, some are minor. The team with the highest overall score wins the team finals. There is also individual competition on each apparatus. "Sticking" the landing — the end of the routine where he lands on his feet — is closely judged. A gymnast taking an extra step after a dismount will receive a deduction.
Floor exercise is a series of tumbling runs on a mat. The gymnast must stay within a marked area and show agility, flexibility, strength and grace in his routine. On each of his tumbling runs, the gymnast will usually perform a series of handsprings that lead to a difficult skill such as a double-twisting somersault. He must stick the landing on each run and he must stay inbounds.
Horizontal bar, or high bar, is a bar that is supported by a frame. The gymnast's routine on the horizontal bar must contain required elements such as a release move. He must also display various grips on the bar, such as overgrip, undergrip or mixed grip. The gymnast performs giant swings over the bar and is judged on his form (straight body, pointed toes) and his dismount.
The parallel bars are two bars at the same height supported by a frame. The gymnast performs handstands, swings, and strength skills using either one or both bars. His feet must not touch the ground until his dismount.
The pommel horse is similar in shape to the vault apparatus but has two handles — the pommels — that the gymnast uses to keep his body above the pommel horse. With his hands on the horse, the gymnast uses his legs to swing in either single leg movements or double leg movements while moving around the pommel horse.
The last apparatus is a pair of rings attached to straps that are suspended from a frame. The gymnast's hands use the rings to perform swings and strength moves. The stillness of the swings is vital for a good score. The iron cross is one of the more difficult strength skills — the gymnast's arms are outstretched and parallel to the ground while his torso is completely straight in a "T" position.
Vaulting is an acrobatic skill which requires a gymnast to run down a mat (called the "runway") toward the vault (a padded structure also called a horse) and use a springboard to launch himself over the vault while doing an acrobatic skill before landing in a specified area, feet first.
On the women's side, there are three types of Olympic gymnastics competition: artistic, rhythmic and trampoline. Artistic gymnastics is what most Americans are familiar with and it remains one of the most popular Olympic sports. Each team goes through four rotations of competition on an apparatus — the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise.
The rhythmic gymnast performs a floor exercise, but with props: rope, hoop, clubs, ball and ribbon. Rhythmic gymnastics, like synchronized swimming, is one of those "sports" that isn't fully appreciated by American sports fans but it can be very entertaining — how often do you get to see a gymnast juggle clubs while doing the splits? Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have dominated this sport, which is probably why most Americans don't watch it.
The trampoline is the newest addition to gymnastics so its popularity is still growing. The gymnast bounces on a taut fabric that is attached to a metal frame by springs. The gymnast's routine requires ten bounces (called contacts) in which she does tucks, twists, pikes and flips in the air while trying to keep centered on the trampoline bed. The gymnast also gets one additional contact for her final landing — she must hold her feet for three seconds and the bed must not be moving when she is finished.
Why should I care?
For starters, Olympic gymnastics is the one of the few sports that crowns a new American pixie. Who can forget Kerri Strug's vault that gave Team USA's "Magnificent Seven" a team gold medal in the 1996 Games in Atlanta? Or Mary Lou Retton's mega-watt smile in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles? Then there's this — gymnastics dominance by a country seems to mirror its ranking among world powers, so there are bragging rights on the line here. The Soviet Union, Russia, Romania and the United States have all been gymnastic powers but China has come on strong in the last twelve years.
The American men have made remarkable progress in a sport that has been largely dominated by the Russians, Japanese and Chinese. In the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, the Americans won a bronze medal in team competition.
OK, so who should I watch?
In the men's competition, the Chinese team, overall, is incredible, but Team USA has some gymnasts who could pull off some surprises. Paul Ruggeri (vault, horizontal bars) and John Orozco (horizontal bars) both qualified for event finals at the 2012 World Cup in Germany.
The US women's team won't be announced until July 1, but keep your eyes on Americans Jordyn Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas. There is also a possibility of Nastia Liukin (2008 Individual, All-around Olympic gold medal winner) returning to Team USA. The sentimental favorite will be Oksana Chusovitina, a vaulter for Germany — she will be attempting to compete in her sixth Olympics at 37 years-old. Chusovitina was born in Uzbek SSR, USSR (now known as Uzbekistan) and competed for both Uzbek and the Soviet Union. She moved to Germany to get advanced medical care for her son Alisher, who was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1999 as a toddler.
What chance do the Americans have to win?
Does Team USA have a chance to win medals? Anything can happen in women's gymnastics — even the best fall off the balance beam once in a while — but anything less than a handful of medals will be disappointing. The real battle will take place between China and USA for the team gold medal.
A team gold is probably a little out of reach for the men, but Team USA should still be very competitive.