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Not That Gymnastics

... the other one. Popular in Eastern Europe, rhythmic has been around for nearly 50 years. A brief history

Photograph: Copyright Mervyn Rees/Alamy

First developed as a competitive sport in the Soviet Union following World War II, rhythmic gymnastics has its roots in Northern and Eastern Europe, where athletes and modern dancers developed many of its signature moves as part of their workout routines. In Russia, the sport has always been closely linked to ballet and is revered as both an athletic and artistic endeavor, while in other countries where rhythmic is popular, such as Bulgaria and Romania, it is treated more purely as sport. The Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), gymnastics' governing body, first recognized rhythmic, then called "modern gymnastics," as a unique competitive discipline in 1962 and held the first world championships in Budapest in 1963.

In competitions, the gymnasts, accompanied by music, perform on a 13-meter-square floor area with rope, hoop, ball, clubs, and ribbon. In a typical individual event, a gymnast will perform different routines with four of the five apparatus. In group competition, teams of five perform together, once using all the same apparatus and once with different members using different pieces of equipment. As in artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics meets are scored by a panel of judges evaluating each routine's technical difficulty, artistic merit, and quality of execution. In recent years, the FIG has made a number of adjustments to the code of points used in judging rhythmic gymnasts, placing ever-greater emphasis on execution in an effort to standardize the sport's scoring, which once had the reputation of being largely subjective and highly variable from competition to competition.

Most Americans were not introduced to the sport until 1984, when it made its debut as an Olympic sport at the Los Angeles games. Ironically, since many Eastern bloc countries boycotted these games, few of the world's top rhythmic gymnasts actually competed there.

Since then, rhythmic has remained mostly below the radar of mainstream U.S. sports culture, breaking into popular consciousness only during Olympic years or as the butt of a goofy joke, as in the scene from the movie Old School when Will Ferrell does a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon routine in an attempt to save his fraternity. Rhythmic gymnastics routines, though not really labeled as such, are also an integral part of Cirque du Soleil performances; Cirque recruiters often attend high-level rhythmic competitions.

Because rhythmic in the United States is an entirely female sport, with no comparable male equivalent, school systems and park districts, conscious of Title IX restrictions, generally don't offer public classes or lessons. So it exists here as almost entirely a "club sport," in which partici-pants must pay for all of their own coaching, equipment, and travel. Given these expenses, rhythmic, like figure skating, another club sport, tends to attract mainly middle- and upper-middle-class competitors. This, rhythmic's supporters say, has limited the U.S.A.'s ability to compete with other countries, where rhythmic gymnasts are identified at a young age and drawn from all sectors of society into state-funded training programs.

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