The 30th Olympic Games held in London this summer marked the 100th anniversary of Japan’s participation in the Games. Japan’s first Olympic appearance in Stockholm in 1912 consisted of team captain Jigoro Kano (the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee), manager Hyozo Omori, and track and field athletes Yahiko Mishima and Shiso Kanaguri. One hundred years later, Japan sent a team of 519 people, including team officials, who won a total of 38 medals: 7 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze. Three current students and two former students of Chuo University were among the participants. London 2012 had some incredible drama but also some problems such as incomprehensible judgments, intentional losing, and political coloring.
A number of traditional events have been held uninterruptedly since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. One of these is men’s gymnastics. The Japanese men’s gymnastics team first appeared at the Los Angeles Games in 1932 where they finished fifth (out of five teams, so they were last!) Later, the grueling toil of Japan’s sporting pioneers paid off with the birth of a golden era in the 1960s that lasted for two decades. Then this summer we drew worldwide attention, which is still fresh in the memory. Here I would like to describe the history of change in the sport’s setup and the trends in skills in men’s gymnastics, as well as the issues that became evident as I watched the London 2012 Games.
Changes to the setup
There are six events in men’s gymnastics: floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. Until the 1930s, however, the number and types of events changed at each championship. For example, the parallel bars and high bar events included two required elements of strength and swing, while sometimes certain events were not even held. Furthermore, men’s gymnastics was a more general competition long ago and included some of today’s track and field and swimming events as well as rope climbing and other events. The current six events have been fixed since the Berlin 1936 Olympics.
Until the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, there were required elements and elements of the athlete’s choosing. All gymnasts performed the required elements announced by the International Federation of Gymnastics, in which their precision and practical skills toward attaining a certain ideal were judged. This was abolished for various reasons such as extended careers, improved skills among competitors, and falling numbers of spectators.
Many years ago, gymnastics competitions were held outdoors on lawn squares or athletics stadiums. While the number of events was being whittled down to the current six by the removal of track and field, swimming, rope climbing and so on, the competitions started to be held indoors. At the same time the sport was moved indoors, a gymnastics podium was introduced on which the apparatus was installed. The original purpose of this podium was to give spectators a better view, but it also had the effect of raising the springiness of the equipment.
Some problems occurred at the London 1948 Olympics. The first was confusion about the scoring. This was because there were still no unified judging standards. Following this, in 1949 the first Code of Points was drawn up and the following year applied at the World Championships. Since then, the Code of Points has been regularly revised. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was awarded a score of 10 in women’s gymnastics. In those days, 10 was a perfect score and the highest scores awarded were 9.80 or 9.90. Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the scoring system was significantly changed. Now, a gymnast’s score is open-ended, being the combined total of his/her D-score (or Difficulty score), calculated by adding certain points, and E-score (or Execution score), which is calculated by deducting points from a base score.
The other problem was the apparatus. The apparatus used during competitions varied widely, with some gymnasts using the items provided by the organizers but others using the apparatus that their team had brought. Although later than the Code of Points, the standards were unified in 1956. The apparatus has remained more or less the same in appearance since then, except for the vault which was changed to its present form in 2001. However, there has been a continuous trend toward increasing apparatus springiness.
Trends in skills
Between the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens and the 1930s, men’s gymnastics moved from the basics to becoming rhythmical (or dynamic). First of all, through the many Olympics and World Championships, a shared awareness of gymnastics was formed which spread from Europe to the rest of the world. Next, the 1930s saw the birth of today’s rhythmical and dynamic style of gymnastics. But further development in gymnastics was held back for more than a decade as a result of the Second World War. The sport’s setup was upgraded after the war, and by the late 1950s pre-war technique had been restored. From the 1960s to the 1970s, the technical trend was described as monotonous because of the appearance of the seemingly stable power relationships (Japan’s golden era). Then came the high-level skills displayed by gymnasts from the then Soviet Union and other East European countries, which took a hold worldwide and have now become commonplace in the world.
I don’t know the circumstances within the Japanese team, but they were taught a lesson by the Chinese in competitive strategy under the current rules in the Team competition. The fact is that the Japanese team was heavily dependent on Kohei Uchimura and strongly affected by his highs and lows. There were also many failures by the other gymnasts. The tenacity of the Chinese gymnasts in somehow holding their performance together was nothing less than a strategy or tactic in line with the Code of Points, for which they received high D-scores and ensured E-scores with few deductions. This was not trickery, it was perfectly straightforward. The gap between success and failure on the big stage of the Olympics is massive when seen as the outcome of an athlete’s progress all the way up until that point. Watching the live broadcasts, I felt that the Japanese team had started to shift ever so slightly off track during their day and night training as they aimed for a Team gold medal, and in the end, in their actual performances, perhaps they went off the rails.
The only clean landing that Uchimura achieved was in the vault, but he demonstrated his true strength as an all-rounder of three successive World Championships. To put it another way, he failed to compete in an orthodox way based on the Code of Points in the Team competition but succeeded in doing so in the Individual All-Around competition. Although he still didn’t appear to be at his best, he was the only Japanese to hold himself together in all six events.
The future of men’s gymnastics
The new Code of Points to be announced after the Olympics will be the guidelines in the run-up to the next Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. If the basic policy is the same as until now, a high level of difficulty and a high level of execution will be required. Coaches and gymnasts will quickly adapt to the new rules while looking ahead to four years’ time. Judging also has to be done more strictly and carefully than in the past so that Difficulty scores are calculated without error and qualitative differences in skill of movement are properly reflected in Execution scores.
The infrastructure also needs to be further enhanced. Aside from critical opinion that the countries currently advanced in terms of sport have inherited the state amateur system of former East European countries, the importance of the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) and the National Training Center (NTC) is becoming ever greater. They form a basis of generous comprehensive support in securing a training environment for athletes as well as scientific analysis and even covering food and daily lifestyle.
However, fully upgrading infrastructure and science alone is not enough. Rather, we should place greater importance once again on the attitude and awareness of individuals. In both muscle strength training and technique training, what is needed is quantity, which can be reduced to time spent and frequency. Is that all there is to it? No. Some things cannot be physically measured. Athletes review their previous attempt and, based on that, plan what to do next. They train by such endless repetition in order to actually acquire the muscular strength required and cultivate their movement or individual skills. That is to say, the seemingly quantitative work of investing in frequency and time is in fact an advanced mental action that improves the quality of how the body is used or moved via the brain. Japanese, that is to say, the Japanese men’s gymnastics team, are very good in this area. Superhuman skills are just human skills realized by the accumulation of down-to-earth activities to which individual athletes have devoted themselves completely.
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Sport Kinematics, History of Sport
Born in Ogawara-machi, Miyagi Prefecture in 1957. He graduated from Miyagiken Shiroishi Senior High School in 1976. He graduated from the Faculty of Education, Tokyo Gakugei University in 1981 and gained a master’s degree from the same university’s Graduate School in 1983. From 1986 to 1993 he studied at the University of Tübingen in West Germany. From 1993 he became a full-time lecturer and then Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Commerce at Chuo University before taking up his current position in 2004. He gained a PhD in sociology in 2002 from the University of Tübingen. His area of research is the transformation of sports technology with a focus on gymnastics. He is also has a keen interest in the history of sport. Even now he continues to compete in amateur gymnastics events. He also appears from time to time at sports festivals in Germany and Austria.
Kunstturnen der Männer, Lit-Verlag 2002 (International Gymnastics Federation prize)
An Introduction to Sport Kinematics [Supootsu Undougaku Nyuumon], (co-translated, Fumaido, 2003)
Südwestdeutsche Turner in der Emigration, (co-authored, Verlag Karl Hofmann, 2004)
Sports and Humans [Supootsu to Ningen], (co-translated, Sekaishisosha, 2004)
Men’s Gymnastics [Danshi Taisou Kyougi], (Chuo University Press, 2005)
Jujutsu and Judo that Crossed the Seas [Umi wo Watatta Jujutu to Judou], (co-authored, Seikyusha, 2010)