Why women gymnasts at the Tokyo Olympics perform to music and men don’t

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Simone Biles performs her floor routine during a US gymnastics competition (Getty Images)
Simone Biles performs her floor routine during a US gymnastics competition (Getty Images)

USA Gymnastics has confirmed that Simone Biles has withdrawn from the women’s floor exercise final at the Tokyo Olympics.

In a brief statement, it said the four-time gold medalist will make a decision on whether she will still compete in the beam finals later this week. “Either way, we’re all behind you, Simone,” the statement said.

The news marks Biles’ fifth withdrawal out of the six finals she had qualified for after she pulled out of the individual all-around, vault and bars to focus on her mental health.

“I say put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles said in a press conference on Tuesday, 27 July.

“So it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it,” she added.

The 24-year-old has been applauded by mental health charities, athletes and celebrities alike, with Mind describing her as a “role model for women and girls everywhere”, while Mental Health America said the decision “is just one more thing that makes her the #GOAT”.

It is not the first time a female gymnast has taken a stand at this year’s Olympic games. Ahead of the opening ceremony, Germany’s women’s gymnastics team debuted full-length unitards in a statement against the “sexualisation in gymnastics”.

Team member Elisabeth Seitz said she hopes the move will set an example “to all gymnasts who may feel uncomfortable or sexualised in normal suits”, and show women they “should be able to decide which type of suit [they] feel most comfortable in”.

While both of these events point to progress towards equality for female gymnasts at the Olympics following a long history of sexism, there are still fundamental differences between the way both men and women compete.

As the individual floor competitions get underway this weekend, women will perform a meticulously choreographed routine to the sound of music, while men’s routines will be 20 seconds shorter and accompanied by silence.

Here’s a breakdown of this contrast in men’s and women’s routines and why.

Why do women perform to music?

Women’s gymnastics first appeared at the Olympics in 1928, almost three decades after women were allowed to participate in the games in 1900.

According to Georgia Cervin, a former gymnast and author of Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace, music was included in the women’s routines because they were expected to be graceful, while men’s gymnastics were focused on strength.

“When the sport was developed for women, they adapted the men’s sport to make it ‘appropriate’ for women,” Cervin told CNN.

“Women were expected to do soft, rhythmic, flowing, graceful movements that emphasised beauty and flexibility. This is why they perform to music, and the men don’t. Men’s floor routines were expected to emphasise strength instead,” she said.

The almost-century old regulation, which only permits music that has no lyrics, still exists today.

Does music impact the way men and women are scored?

As outlined by USA Gymnastics, there are significant differences between the way men’s and women’s routines are scored.

While men are scored on acrobatic skills, women must also exhibit a “quality of grace” and a “dancer-like command” of their chosen music.

“[Women] can even receive an artistry deduction for failing to connect [their] body movements and dance harmoniously to the character of the music,” Tabitha Yim, the head coach of the University of Arizona’s gymnastics program, told Insider.

In its guidelines for men, USA Gymnastics says acrobatic elements should dominate men’s routines, with one non-acrobatic element included, such as a “static strength move” like balancing on one arm.

“The best routines will include difficult tumbling passes with connected bounding skills and will look near-effortless to the spectators,” the governing body says.

In comparison, the women’s guidelines open by stating that the floor exercise gives gymnasts “the chance to express their personalities through their music choice and choreography”.

There is no mention of needing to express one’s personality in the men’s outline.

Additionally, women’s guidance states: “The quality of grace may be disguised by movements of playful theatrics, but look for a dancer-like command of music, rhythm and space.

“The gymnastics elements should flow freely into each other while the leaps cover impressive distances and the pirouettes and turns add excitement to the routine.”

Almost a century on from the first time women competed in gymnastics, the expectation of femininity is still implied in the regulatory language.

According to USA Gymnastics, women will be scored on “beauty, strength, power and stamina”. The requirement of “beauty” does not appear anywhere in the guidelines for men.

How does the requirement of music impact women gymnasts?

As the responsibility of finding music for their routines falls on the gymnast and their coach, it can be an additional pressure and stress on women that doesn’t affect men.

Three weeks before the Tokyo Olympics, Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova was alerted that she would have to change the choreography she had been practicing for months due to an issue with securing the rights to the music she had chosen.

“It affected me mentally because it’s not easy at all – you’re enjoying your floor immensely and then before the Games, the most important competition of your life, half of it is changed,” Melnikova told Gymnovosti.

“I even cried a bit when I heard the new music, to be honest,” she added.

Melnikova said her routine is not as ready as she hoped it would be at this stage due to differences between her original music and the new music.

“I worked really hard on the second part of the routine because three weeks is very little for training floor, especially since the tempo is a bit different there and I changed the turns a bit. So I’m 100 per cent sure my floor is not fully ready, not what I’m capable of,” she said.

Are there any other differences between men’s and women’s routines?

Women’s routines are also 20 seconds longer than men’s.

Men must perform for 70 seconds, while women’s routines are 90 seconds long.

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