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Your Guide to Olympics Gymnastics: Balance Beam

Turns may not look as flashy as flips, but they can be just as difficult. The reigning Olympic beam champion, Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, gets much of her difficulty value from intricate pirouetting.

  • A garden-variety pirouette is done with the nonsupporting leg in passé or a similar position. A full turn is rated A, a double turn is rated D and a triple turn, named for Betty Okino, is rated E.

  • In an L turn, the nonsupporting leg is horizontal, forming a 90-degree angle with the supporting leg. A full L turn is rated C. A double L turn, named for Wevers, is rated E.

  • In a Y turn, the nonsupporting leg is vertical. A full Y turn is rated C and a double Y turn, named for Aiko Sugihara, is rated E.

  • The illusion (D) is an unusual full turn in which the gymnast, while spinning, kicks her leg up into a split and touches the beam with one hand.

  • Often wobbly and almost always ugly, wolf turns — done in a squat with one leg to the side — are a subject of derision among gymnastics fans and gymnasts alike. Unfortunately, because a double wolf turn is rated D and a triple wolf turn is rated E, they’re a great way to increase your difficulty score, so every gymnast and her mother does one. Or two. It’s the wolf turns’ world; we just live in it.

Most gymnasts dismount with a roundoff (basically a powerful cartwheel in which both feet land at once) and/or a back handspring, followed by a double back flip. The difficulty value depends on body position and whether the gymnast adds twists, which very few can.

The most common dismounts are the double tuck (D) and double pike (E). Only a handful of gymnasts can do a full-twisting double tuck (G). So, naturally, Simone Biles went and did a double-twisting double tuck (H), which no one else will probably ever do because it would need to be an I or a J to be worth it.

Some other gymnasts do single back layouts with two (C), two and a half (D) or three (F) twists.

Forward dismounts are much rarer, both because they’re risky (you can’t see the ground when you land) and because doing them means forfeiting the connection bonus that comes with doing a backward dismount out of a roundoff.

Gymnasts’ final marks are the sum of a “D score” (difficulty) and an “E score” (execution).

The D score has three components.

  • Composition requirements: Each of the four requirements — an acrobatic series, a dance series, acrobatic skills in multiple directions, and a turn — is worth 0.5.

  • Skill values: Gymnasts receive credit for the difficulty of their eight hardest skills, with an A-rated skill worth 0.1, a B-rated skill worth 0.2 and so on.

  • Connection bonuses: A large part of the difficulty score comes from connecting skills in accordance with formulas. For instance, a B acro skill + an E acro skill is worth 0.1 in bonus, and two D skills are worth 0.2. You can leave the number-crunching to the judges, though. Just know if a gymnast is supposed to connect two skills but wobbles after the first, she can lose difficulty value in addition to the penalty for the wobble.

Judges take deductions ranging from 0.1 for a slight balance check to 1.0 for a fall.

Wobbles and unstuck dismounts are easy to spot, but less obvious things are equally important. Jumps and leaps can be minefields, with deductions for insufficient height, unpointed toes and splits short of 180 degrees.

In some cases, execution errors can lead judges not to credit the skill a gymnast intended to perform: If a gymnast means to do a ring leap but the position of her head and back leg don’t meet the definition, she might only get credit for a split leap, worth two-tenths less.

If you want to see what you can expect from the best in the world, the 2016 Olympic medalists were Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, Laurie Hernandez of the United States and Simone Biles of the United States. (Biles won a medal even after almost falling because of her high D score and other gymnasts’ also making mistakes. You can see a more characteristic routine here.)


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