The first thing you have to understand about rhythmic gymnastics is that it’s always, always happening. Not just every four years, not just during those fringey late-Olympics afternoons when you turn on the TV and are annoyed to find sparkly girls doing elfin dances with ribbons, but constantly, right here on Earth. Every week, give or take, there’s a high-level competition. Tickets are sold. Hotel rooms are booked. Competitors in RG’s sanctioned disciplines — clubs, ball, rope, hoop, ribbons, and free, which means performing without an apparatus — submit entry forms, make travel arrangements, descend on the host site with parents and coaches and teammates. Tiger-striped neon-cerulean leotards are donned. Glittery sleeves are pulled down forearms, grimly. Hair spray is applied in force, as is makeup — designed, in the case of this year’s Japanese team, “to give the impression of fluttering fairy wings.” One by one, sometimes in groups, the contestants perform elaborate and frequently jaw-dropping routines to music heavy on both synthesizers and castanets. Spines bend and legs whip in ways legs and spines were never intended to whip and bend. Ribbons hang in weird cursive shapes in the air. Mistimed hoops go shearing off into the crowd. There is crying. There are medals. There are banquets.
Again, this is happening all the time. And we’re only talking about the high-level meets. Underneath, there is a whole hierarchy of junior events, local RG competitions, and exhibitions, fed by hundreds of clubs and gyms, each with its own coaches, training programs, traditions, rickety tables with CD players on them, etc. RG won’t start up at the London Olympics till August 9, but it’s likely — is indeed certain — that somewhere, RG is taking place right now.
The structure here is not easy for the lay viewer to decode. RG has its own language, which non-RG initiates mostly perceive as a series of ultrasonic clicks and emoji hearts. What, for instance, is the precise distinction between the tournaments Miss Valentine 2012 (Tartu, Estonia, February 10-12), Pearls of Varna 2012 Academic (Bulgaria, July 2), and the 4th International Waves Cup (Germany, March 24)? I have read the rulebook in effect for the Olympics, the 125-page Code of Points: Rhythmic Gymnastics 2009-2012, and let me tell you — you thought football had a lot going on. Between the aggro-ballet terminology (fouetté, entrelacé), the extensive use of pictograms, and the radical linguistic uncertainty (“The French version is the official text,” the front cover proclaims, in English), this thing reads like Finnegans Wake as drafted by the unicorn debate team. It’s atavistically beautiful, like middle school cave art, until you realize that all the squiggly shapes represent positions to be assumed by the human body. At which point it becomes extremely terrifying.
My own interest in RG is of long standing, dating back to last Friday, when I remembered a promise I’d given my editors that I would “totally write something about the Olympics.” For a lot of extremely sound reasons, none of which was that I am lazy and it presumably wouldn’t take very long, I thought I’d pick one of the sillier-sounding Olympic sports — race walking, maybe, or trampoline — and fire off something quippy about what it was like to watch. “After all,” I said to myself, “the Olympics are all about briefly getting passionately mixed up with sports you don’t normally care about. And who doesn’t love a good trampoline quip?” I did my usual vampire cackle and adjourned to YouTube.
The problem my little plan almost immediately ran into is that when, as part of my research, I started watching RG videos, I found that I actually liked it. I mean, I think you’re not supposed to say that if you’re an American sports fan with pretensions to red-bloodedness, but fuck it: These women are amazing.1 If you care about sports on any level beyond box scores and regional rivalries, if you love watching a wide receiver make an acrobatic catch or a striker score an off-balance goal, if you ever feel astonished by, just, like, the incredible things people do with their bodies — then I defy you to watch a few minutes of RG and not think it’s pretty cool.
Men do RG, too, and men’s RG is crazy and emphasizes martial-arts elements and is supposedly getting more popular, but it’s not yet on the level of women’s RG, and isn’t contested at the Olympics.
And yes, you’re going to find no shortage of blog posts harrumphing that it’s “not a sport” and “they’re just ballet dancers,” etc. Dude, do you realize fox hunting used to be considered a sport? The point being that the definition of “sport” is big and porous and fabulously imprecise, and there’s no reason for it not to be, and RG great Evgeniya Kanaeva, who’s one of the favorites in London, can do stuff like “throw a ball 40 feet in the air and catch it on the small of her back while balancing on the tips of her toes on one foot with the other leg in the air.” I have no time for anyone who would rather defend the silos and find a reason to exclude RG than just shut up and marvel at it. Also, I have seen how ballet dancers train, and if ballet dancers decide to call themselves athletes well, as far as I’m concerned ballet dancers get to call themselves anything they want. The top RGers work as hard as, and with as punishing and disciplined a perfectionism as, any elite athlete. Bro, trust me: That shit is unreal.
So I got unexpectedly taken with the world of RG, the beauty of it, its weird controversies,2 its popularity in Russia and Eastern Europe,3 the mere fact of its continuous existence. Which more or less did in my trampoline quips. I spent hours, actual hours, watching videos of old competitions and reading RG message boards (these exist). Only then I started thinking, in that highly focused “it’s four o’clock and I still have to write something” way: Why do some sports seem silly, period? Like, why is it not embarrassing for a certain type of fan to love and know about pro wrestling, a staged sport that dresses grizzled muscle freaks in feathers and sparkles, but very embarrassing for said fan to love/know about RG, a totally non-staged sport that dresses graceful young women in feathers and sparkles? What gives there?
For example, the case in which the Great Britain team was nearly excluded from the London Olympics because it apparently misunderstood a memorandum from its own gymnastics federation about when it needed to post certain qualifying scores, leading to a whole fraught appeals process during which the evidence kicked around by the (tiny, expert) RG media included at what moment the whole team started crying, a story I spent an enjoyable three hours retracing to its roots.
Because it began as a competitive sport in the Soviet Union, and Russia and the Baltic countries still dominate the international circuit. Trivia: Of all the Olympic sports, RG has the lowest national GDP per medal winner, meaning it’s the sport in which rich countries have the least competitive advantage.
Obviously — I mean, obviously — gender has something to do with this. RG is often not just girly, it’s aggressively, in-your-face girly; it’s an h-bomb of girliness.4 Looking at the overall culture of the sport, you sometimes get an impression of an ancient, complex civilization made up entirely of 12-year-olds named Bethany. The core aesthetic of RG is well, there are leotards on which the sequins have sequins. There are pinks that cut your brain. Words like “butterfly princess” and “Euro Disney halftime show” and “the crime scene after the Easter bunny is beaten to death with a vintage Patrick Nagel print” flutter into the mind. If you’re a fan who’s got the least bit of insecurity about the sports you are watching, it is really, really easy to feel like, OK, at least pro wrestling involves smashing things. It is really, really easy not to give RG a chance.
E.g., the program of the recent PGSE Rhythmic Gymnastics Cup, held in Budapest from February 10 to 11, called for an optional third day during which the competitors spend “the morning of the Westend City Center shopping mall, then spends an afternoon in the Szechenyi thermal baths [sic, I think].”
And is this not in some way essential, the deepest weirdness of RG? The fact that it’s about taking ultra-talented young women and driving them, through relentless pressure, daily sacrifice, and scrutiny, to fulfill a standard of beauty that, I’m sorry, could only make sense to small children (such as they were when they first took up the sport)? I mean, I’m an idiot, let’s take that for granted, and I’m certainly not looking to speak for women or tell anyone how to feel.5 But it strikes me as at least compellingly problematic that this Ariel-Aurora pageant ideal is the image offered up by one of just two Summer Olympic sports that are open only to women.6 Because it folds back on itself: You want to support RG, because you want to support women’s sports — but then why, really, should world-class athletes have to put on makeup to win a medal?
TUGS COLLAR FRANTICALLY.
The other is synchronized swimming, which is also no picnic.
I don’t think RG is out to demean anyone. It’s more that, like all insular civilizations, it’s evolved in a certain direction, it’s developed hard-and-fast attitudes about what’s beautiful and proper, and a corresponding need to defend those attitudes. It’s putting on a show, and it does what it knows how to do. The result is that it feels a little unbalanced to outsiders, in the same way as, say, ice dancing, or dog shows, or a lot of judged activities. I can imagine an RG in which the leotards were unadorned and the ribbons were white and the apparatuses were simple and gray. I think I would still like that sport.
At the same time, I can’t swear that it isn’t its odd cultural stuntedness that makes RG, in its current form, so moving. There is, in the contrast between the poise and seriousness of the athletes and the princessy kitsch of the setting, something really kind of dark and wonderful. Just imagine it: devoting your life, mercilessly and with absolute commitment, to the task of dancing with little twirly clubs to a synth-folk soundtrack while wearing a spangled bathing suit designed to look like ladybug wings. Imagine doing that as well as it can humanly be done, being the person who embodies that accomplishment. I’m not making fun of anyone; I find it strangely noble. You get a lot of head-spinning incongruities in RG, mash-ups of extreme gravity and extreme absurdity, like this, my favorite moment in any Olympics piece I’ve read this year, from a Reuters article headlined “Japanese Gymnasts Put Game Face On“:
Japan also has an extra incentive to win for a country that just a year ago was reeling from a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated its northeast coast and caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
“I’m also from the northeast and my memories of it are really strong,” said Natsuki Fukase, 18, wearing the team’s pink musical-note themed uniform.
Intense, right? That’s RG. The world is meaningless and tragic, and we can navigate it in our pink musical-note-themed uniforms. What else do we have? One of my favorite RG stories might not have even happened. According to persistent rumors, the Russian RG great Alina Kabaeva, who won the all-around gold in Athens in 2004, had a long love affair with Vladimir Putin, between his orca-hunting trips or whatever. There were press reports, quickly denied, that they were engaged. She allegedly bore his love child. Now she’s a member of the Russian parliament, serving since 2007. The story is sad, hard to interpret, and kind of badass, and maybe a little inspiring. Like everything related to RG.