LONDON -- We’ve almost reached the end of these Olympic games, and that means it’s time for the purest and most traditional sport of all, the sport that has been part of the games since the very first Olympics were held in Greece nearly 3,000 years ago: rhythmic gymnastics.
This is a sport that demands everything from an athlete: agility, balance, grace and the ability to twirl a ribbon while wearing vast quantities of makeup. Yet at the same time it is a sport that literally anyone can participate in, except of course men, or women who weigh more than 80 pounds.
Unfortunately, the United States is not very good at rhythmic gymnastics. The dominant world power is Russia. There were many Russians on the media bus I took to watch the competition at Wembley Arena, which meant I got to listen for nearly an hour to a Russian photographer shouting into his phone in Russian. For some reason, foreign photographers who sit near me on Olympic media buses are always very angry about some issue that can be resolved only via an interminable phone conversation with some other foreign person who apparently is both hard of hearing and stupid.
Anyway, after many heated Russian words we finally got to the arena, where an enthusiastic crowd was cheering for the rhythmic gymnasts - perky young women who wear skimpy, extremely sparkly costumes and who appear to have fallen, moments before entering the arena, face-first into a vat of rouge.
The gymnasts perform routines with an “apparatus” - a ball, a hoop, a ribbon, or clubs. The official rules state that “there must be an ongoing relationship between the gymnast and the apparatus.” This sounds kinkier than it is. Basically, the gymnasts prance around while doing clever things with the apparatus. From time to time they throw the apparatus into the air; while it’s up there, they do a series of gymnastic moves, and then - this never fails to amaze and delight the audience - they catch it. Then the ongoing relationship resumes.
Each routine is judged according to the official rhythmic gymnastics Code of Points, which is roughly the length of the operating manual for a nuclear submarine, but more detailed. Section 5.4, for example, devotes more than 300 words to the topic of “Broken Apparatus Or Apparatus Caught In The Small Beams Of The Ceiling.” After all the routines have been judged, the points are tallied up, and the medals go to the gymnasts with the highest scores. Then everybody cries until the floor runs black with eyeliner.
There are those critics who say that rhythmic gymnastics should not be an Olympic sport. Well I have a message for those critics: I agree with you. I’m not saying rhythmic gymnastics does not require great skill. And I’m not saying it’s not impressive. I’m just saying that it’s not as impressive - to me, anyway - as people in the circus who juggle five clubs that are on fire while riding a unicycle and balancing a ball on the end of a stick perched on their nose. Maybe THAT should be an Olympic sport.
No, I take it back; the Russians would dominate that, too.
Anyway, if they’re going to keep rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympics, I think they should spice it up by introducing a new element, which I would call “The Mystery Apparatus.” The way it would work is, the gymnast would be led out blindfolded for her final routine. Just as her music started, the blindfold would be removed, and a judge would hand her some object never before seen in Olympic competition - a spatula perhaps, or a trombone, or a sleeping bag, or a live chicken. “Here!” the judge would say. “Let’s see you have an ongoing relationship with THIS!”
I’m just trying to help.