When Olympic gymnasts compete Sunday and Monday in the individual floor exercises in Tokyo, viewers will notice a key difference between the events.
The women will leap and flip and tumble to recorded music. The men’s routines will be accompanied by silence.
The reason for the disparity dates back almost a century, when female gymnasts competed for the first time at the Olympics and rules for their events were established. Experts in gymnastics say expectations for female athletes were different then.
But even though women gymnasts today are more powerful and athletic than their counterparts from the mid-1900s — sometimes even doing things men can’t do — elements of dance, choreographed to music, remain a required component of their floor exercises.
In other words, women must perform their floor routines to music.
Some say it’s time to do away with that rule.
Women gymnastics were traditionally expected to highlight grace and femininity
Male gymnasts competed in the Olympics for the first time in 1896. Women’s gymnastics made its debut more than three decades later, in 1928.
When women started competing, the sport was tailored to fit the preconceived gender roles at the time, experts say.
Back then, men’s gymnastics routines were expected to highlight strength while women’s routines emphasized grace and femininity, said Georgia Cervin, a former international gymnast and author of “Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace.”
“When the sport was developed for women, they adapted the men’s sport to make it ‘appropriate’ for women,” Cervin said. “Women were expected to do soft, rhythmic, flowing, graceful movements that emphasized beauty and flexibility. This is why they perform to music, and the men don’t. Men’s floor routines were expected to emphasize strength instead.”
Female gymnasts also started competing in the Olympics at a time when competitive sports were overwhelmingly seen as masculine.
Between the 1910s and the 1960s, vigorous exercise was considered bad for women and their reproductive health, said Jane Rogers, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“Even physicians thought strenuous exercise was bad for women since women were supposed to become wives and mothers,” she said. “Sports might physically injure women and leave them unable to perform their housework. Women competed, but were not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”
Women’s floor routines are scored on artistic as well as athletic elements
The rules governing gymnastics state that women’s routines must last 90 seconds — 20 seconds longer than the men — and feature music throughout.
Over the years, the music has evolved. In the 1960s, the rule was only one instrument could be used, so teams brought in their own live pianist, Cervin said. Then in the 1980s, cassette tapes were allowed, which expanded the types of music gymnasts could use in their floor routines.
One rule hasn’t changed, however: The music may not include any recognizable words.
“Lyrics have never been allowed, which is why we don’t see gymnasts dancing to popular songs very often,” Cervin said. “Or if we do, they’re covers without the words.”
Judges award points to women gymnasts for artistry, musicality and choreography, while the men are scored mostly on their acrobatic skills — giving them no incentive to add artistic elements to their routines, said Jason Woodnick, vice president of the men’s program for USA Gymnastics.
Because scoring is tied to choreography, women can get points deducted if they finish their routine before or after the music ends.There have been attempts to have men perform to music, like the Soviet team at a 1978 invitational meet, but they never really took off, Cervin said.
“For the men, music isn’t allowed for their floor routines,” said Lindsey Ayotte, the head female gymnastics coach at the University of New Hampshire. “There really isn’t a need for it since there isn’t any dance component to it. Their routines are mostly based on high-flying tumbling, strength and power. It’s not an option for them to use music.”
Mark Williams, head coach of men’s gymnastics at the University of Oklahoma, said he thinks it makes sense for women to have music as part of their floor routines.
“Men’s events focus on the upper body of the human anatomy, while women focus on legs and running techniques,” he said.
Women’s gymnastics now puts more emphasis on strength and athleticism
In 2021, some long-held expectations for female gymnasts are being challenged. For example, the German women’s gymnastics team in Tokyo has shunned bikini-cut leotards in favor of unitards in a statement against the “sexualization” of female athletes.
There’s also a lot less dance and artistry now in elite women’s gymnastics and a lot more power and strength, said the University of New Hampshire’s Ayotte.
“There is still more dance, leaps and jumps in women’s gymnastics that you don’t see with the men, but a lot of the females are doing the minimum in dance and doing a greater amount of higher-level tumbling,” she said.
Hyperathletic gymnasts such as Team USA’s Simone Biles are pushing boundaries and bridging gaps with their male counterparts.
Biles is doing things that even men can’t do, said Williams, the University of Oklahoma coach.
“Simone is continuing a journey for women gymnasts that really started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they started to do more tumbling to accompany their dancing, and that tumbling was rivaling the men’s in terms of its difficulty,” Cervin said.
“Simone goes further than that … and she’s doing it while also having to expend her energy on dancing and leaping and turning and smiling throughout her routine.”
Cervin said she’d like to see “gendered expectations” eliminated in gymnastics to make the sport more inclusive and progressive. That way, men can include music in their routines if they want to — and women can opt to perform in silence.
Until that happens, female gymnasts will continue jumping and flipping their way into the record books. And they’ll do it to the rhythm of music.
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