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Olympics Primer: How to Watch Gymnastics

Your cheat sheet for watching gymnastics at the Olympics

By Emily Feldman
|  Tuesday, Jul 31, 2012  |  Updated 11:14 AM PDT
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Olympics Primer: How to Watch Gymnastics

Getty Images

John Orozco, a rising star on Team USA, executes a strength hold on the rings. He and the men's gymnastics team are in the running to medal at the 2012 Games.

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When it happens:
July 28 to Aug. 7

How it became a sport:
Artistic gymnastics (tumbling; no ribbons) has been a staple of the Olympic Games since 1896 and traces its roots back to ancient Greece where gymnasts were lauded for their mind-body balance and control. Back in the 1890s the sport included events that have since been scrapped, like rope climbing.

What it takes:
Gymnastics takes extraordinary strength, balance, flexibility, power, grace and control. Consider balance beam: While most people have some degree of trouble walking in a perfectly straight line without looking down, women jump, spin and perform tumbling passes (flips, handsprings) on a 4-inch wide platform that stands 4 feet off the ground. Or consider the rings, which require men to maintain muscle-shaking strength poses. (Check out the photo above and think about holding that pose for two Mississippi.) All events demand an incredible amount of strength and also have to look pretty, which means, in addition to concentrating on not falling to their death, gymnasts also have to remember to smile and keep those toes pointed.

How you win:
Three sets of medals are awarded in both men's and women's gymnastics. First, there are medals for the top teams. Second, there are medals for the top gymnasts on each apparatus (gold medal for balance beam, for vault, for uneven bars, etc.) and then there are the cream of the crop medals for best all-around gymnasts—the gymnasts that dominate all of the events.

In team competitions, four athletes compete across all events and the top three scores per event are tallied for a team score. The team with the most points overall wins. For individual competition, the same rule applies—top scorers advance to the medal rounds and eventually to the podium. Athletes are awarded points for the difficulty of their routines and lose points for things like not sticking landings, moving out of bounds on the floor, falling off an apparatus or forgetting to have those toes pointed and legs together.

Every event is scored by a panel of judges on a scale from 0 to 10. Half the judges begin at zero and add points for difficulty, while the second half start at 10 and deduct for execution and artistry. At the end of a routine, the two scores are added together. Most gymnasts score between 13 and 16.

Lingo:
Bars: Women compete on uneven bars, flipping between a lower and higher bar before dismounting. Men compete on parallel bars and a high bar, executing flips, strength moves and release moves, in which they let go and have to catch the bar again. All these routines end with a dismount.

Beam: That 4-inch wide platform in the women's competition.

Dismount: The way an athlete exits an apparatus. This usually involves flips and athletes aim for a solid landing (no movement, no stepping, no falling!)

Floor: This is the one event set to music. Gymnasts complete tumbling passages and a bit of dancing without stepping out of bounds.

Horse:  A men's apparatus that has two handles that gymnasts grip as they swing their bodies around, do handstands and other strength maneuvers before a dismount.

Rings: Another mens' event. (See photo above.) This event showcases pure strength. Men have to hold various poses that require supreme strength and muscle control. This event also includes a dismount.

Vault: Here's where pure powerhouses dominate. Gymnasts approach this chest-high apparatus via full sprint and pound onto a springboard at the foot of the vault. The object is to clear the vault with as much height and skill as possible. Gymnasts do flips and twists over the vault, using the apparatus for an extra push, and are supposed to make a clean landing on the other side.

For more information:
For more lingo, see NBC Olympics' handy glossary.

For schedules and results see London2012

And for viewing schedules see NBC Olympics

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