Lots of people, mostly dudes, were puzzled by the rhythmic gymnastics qualifications that aired on NBC Thursday. "LIVE BALL DANCING ON NBC RIGHT NOW," Steve Kovach tweeted. "So rhythmic gymnastics is basically people dressage right?," Adam Serwer said. "ok i am officially convinced that rhythmic gymnasts are actually felexible wizards in hiding," the tumblr fly like an arctic puffin said. Rhythmic gymnastics is really a lot more impressive than it first seems with all the terrible music and appalling sequins and skin-colored mesh. But allow your gymnastics experts at The Atlantic Wire to explain see through the sparkle and understand why this is all a lot harder than it looks.
This gymnastics isn't the Gabby Douglas kind. Rhythmic gymnasts compete on the floor, their events are the ball, the hoop, the ribbon, the clubs, and the rope. To make sure the sport doesn't turn into "regular gymnastics with accessories," rhythmic gymnasts are not allowed to do flips. That narrows the way they innovate to bring in higher and higher scores. There's a nuclear arms race of hyper-flexibility.
That flexibility is on display with Russia's Daria Dmitrieva, who qualified in first place.
Or in Ukraine's Alina Maksymenko, who qualified in seventh place for the all-around.
The gymnasts show speed by throwing their hoops (or whatever) high into the air and doing leaps and rolls underneath before catching them. They show agility by catching and handling the hoops with different parts of their bodies. When you combine all that with an event like the ball, the effect is sort of like Harlem Globetrotters meets Cirque du Soliel. Here's Ukraine's Ganna Rizatdinova, who placed 11th in qualifications.
If you're not used to watching it, it's easy to miss some of the more impressive things they do. Russia's Evgeniya Kanaeva throws the hoop and recatches it while she's turning on one leg and spinning the hoop.
Kanaeva was the favorite, but she made some mistakes in prelims. She missed catching the hoop with her foot here. It doesn't look hard until they mess up:
They have to show incredible balance during all this spinning and twirling. Here's Bulgaria's Liubou Charkashyna, who qualified third.
I don't know how Korea's Son Yeon Jae does that with her back. How does she hold herself up that high, with her back arched so much, without using her hands?
They also have to have incredible timing. A major part of their routines is throwing the equipment high in the air and then doing a bunch of stuff underneath, then catching it again at just the right dramatic moment. It's hard to see on TV, because you can't pick out the hoops in the rafters. Here's Son Yeon Jae again, catching the hoop with her leg exactly as she hits a split in the middle of her leap:
Look at her timing here, showing incredible flexibility as she extends her back leg just as she catches the hoop:
Bulgaria's Silvia Miteva hulas with her feet.
The sport doesn't do a lot to expand its fan base. The women keep themselves very thin, making them look like flexible Jack Skellingtons. They heighten this effect by exiting the floor walking on their tippy toes:
Rhythmic gymnastics is dominated by countries that were part of the Soviet Union, plus Bulgaria. The U.S. only qualified one rhythmic gymnast to the games, Julie Zetlin, and she didn't qualify to the all-around competition.