Unsung Sports: Rhythmic Gymnastics

Evgeniya Kanaeva (RUS) performs with the hoop in the individual all-around gymnastics rhythmic competition during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Arena. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

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By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

In what setting might you see a hoop, a ball, a ribbon and a pair of clubs?

A yard sale? Your child’s toy box? A bag filled with the tools of a professional juggler who got bored of tossing up identical items?

Yes. Also, at the Olympics, which includes a lesser known form of gymnastics than artistic.

Rhythmic gymnastics is less physically taxing and more balletic than its ever-popular cousin. It evolved out of phys-ed classes in Europe that used the apparatus to hone hand-eye coordination.

Athleticism is required. Participants must pull off 180-degree splits. Ouch.

Among other reasons, rhythmic can thanks its Olympic presence to the international committee striving for gender equality. It shares a distinction with synchronized swimming as the only exclusively female competitions.

HOW IT WORKS: In the solo phase, participants perform brief routines to music using a wood or plastic hoop, a rubber or soft plastic ball, a ribbon consisting of satin or a similar material and two bottle-shaped clubs made of wood or plastic. The apparatus must be moving constantly. The five-person groups stage one routine with only balls and another with three ribbons and two hoops. Their “field” is a square floor, 13 meters per side.

Judges grade the displays based on difficulty, artistry and execution. Athletes must complete their routine within a designated time limit.

HISTORY LESSON: Rhythmic’s birth date falls somewhere in the 1930s. It took three decades for the sport to be recognized by the Olympic movement — gee, what took them so long? — and a world championship was conducted in Hungary.

In 1980, rhythmic was added to the L.A. Games as part of a push for more women’s athletes. For the first two Olympics, competition was limited to individuals. The team segment was introduced in ’96.

FIRST OF ALL: The sport’s debut in 1984 was spoiled slightly by the Eastern bloc boycott that kept the Soviet Union’s outstanding gymnasts home. But Canadian Lori Fung provided a memorable storyline. Coming off a 23rd-place finish in the World Championships, she went to train with the Olympic favorite, Doina Staiculescu, in Romania. The move paid off with Feng winning. The runner-up? Staiculescu.

Lesson learned: Be careful about saying yes when an inferior opponent asks to train with you.

REMEMBER THAT?: There was some comic relief in L.A., though the athletes were not laughing. Blasts from the arena’s air conditioner caused ribbons to flow excessively. Some performers suffered automatic point deductions because their bra straps were visible to judges.

At the following Games in Seoul, Marina Lobach of Belarus was taking too much time with her clubs routine when her observant piano player accelerated the pace of the music. Belarus caught up and ended with perfect scores, as well as a gold medal. Maybe Lobach broke off a piece of it for the pianist.

STAR-GAZING: Yevgeniya Kanayeva has lost nothing off her fastball since wowing the judges in Beijing enough to win gold. She wheeled away a record six golds at the 2009 World Championships, then repeated the feat last year. Under the upgraded scoring system, she is the only athlete to score a perfect 30 in ribbon.

WHO’S GOT THE POWER: Russia, maybe. Since Spain took the first group gold, it has been all Russia ever since, and the nation’s foremost individuals rank 1-2-3 in the world. Kanayeva’s chief threat is in-house; Daria Kondakova one-upped her teammate at the 2010 Worlds and was second in the other two since Beijing.

Yet, Italy has put a halt to Russia’s reign of group World titles, winning the last three.

U-S-A, U-S-A: The Americans’ cupboard is bare of medals. They have missed out on of qualifying for the team competition since 1996, and the drought continues in London.

They will be represented individually by Julie Zetlin, daughter of a Hungarian rhythmic gymnast. Zeltin might be last in a line arranged alphabetically, but J.Z. hopes to slip into the middle of the standings. She plans to retire after these Games.

AND THE NUMBER IS … 13. The age of Celine Degrange of France in 1992, the youngest rhythmic gymnast in Olympics history. The oldest: 28.

OLYMPIC DATES: Individual all-around, Aug. 9-11; group all-around, Aug. 9, 10, 12.

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