Pro Gymnastics Challenge Night 1 Recap: Sport or Circus?

Professional gymnastics is a tough sell, but the fight is worthy. We should all be in favor of increasing opportunities for those in the post-college age groups to compete gymnastics outside of the limited elite realm. Compete is the operative word there. All other non-elite, non-NCAA incarnations of gymnastics, like the post-Olympic tours and the Skating and Gymnastics Spectaculars, go squarely for circus value. Frankly, I don’t see how that kind of event appeals to anyone over the age of seven, nor do I see it as the ideal path for professional gymnastics events.

Even though those circus events continue to exist, the post-Olympic tour is an arena-specific, little girl-based showcase. It’s not a grown-adult thing or a TV thing. As for the Skating and Gymnastics Lacklusters, they would never exist without the skating part. Sashaying around a balance beam near a wind machine to some pop knockoff like “We Are Under No Circumstances Resuming This Relationship” by Saylor Twift is not exactly what I would call “TV material.”   

For this professional event to be an enjoyable viewing experience, it must allow gymnastics to be a sport, not an exhibition activity. It’s never not going to be horribly cheesy, don’t even hope for that, but I want to see less of a “Valeri Liukin in a cowboy hat,” “John Macready trying to get people pumped” atmosphere and more of a “gymnastics is an enjoyable sport to watch, so stop shouting” atmosphere. I think this competition mostly succeeds in that respect and certainly falls on the sport side of things.

Let’s take it from the top. We open on a fertile plain. No wait, that’s Steve Legendre’s body. Good start, broadcast.

After the customary dramatic, talking-head introduction in which the competitors do a surprisingly good job with their lines, we arrive in the arena where upwards of several people are waiting for the event to start. The female competitors stand on the podium in their team-colored sports bras, doing a little dance-y, introduction-y, high-five-y thing. It’s all a little Wild and Crazy Kids.

Our commentators for the evening are John Roethlisberger and . . . Bonnie Bernstein? Oh hey there, Bonnie, what have you been up to? Are you OK? John introduces some of our featured competitors, some old friends that we have been missing lately. Chellsie Memmel waves hello, Brandon Wynn looks scary, and Oksana Chusovitina is still alive and vogueing. Well done on the uniforms all around. I have nothing against instituting this in all international competition, nor does anyone sane.

Bonnie tries to explain this mostly bizarre format. Good luck. I’m skeptical about how interesting skill-for-skill competition will be because it loses the momentum and presentation of routine and performance. Describing it as “the gymnastics version of HORSE” doesn’t help. You know that boring thing where everyone mostly stands around instead of playing basketball? It’s like that.

The rules graphic calls the judges “referees.” Because “judges” would be too . . . gymnastics? This is pandering. Stop trying to be a different sport. There will be seven rounds, and the first team to six points wins each round.

We send things down to Suri Serano on the floor with Nastia and Blaine Wilson. Holding notes in your hand during an interview may work for a gymnastike video, but not for television. Get rid of them. You don’t need them. Nastia repeats the question like a good pageant contestant. If you can understand what Blaine was talking about, you are a better person than me.
The first rotation (or “round” now, apparently) will be tumbling passes. “Team USA starts on offense,” says Bonnie. I don’t know what that means. I suppose it means “Words from other sports! Recognize them!” Rod floor and no hard landings here, so I assume height will be the main factor.

Stellar Paul Ruggeri opens with a strong layout double arabian, and the world team has no one who does that skill, so they sacrifice poor little Jade Barbosa, who is six-packing serious weapons, like she’s some Daiane Dos Santos now. Well done by her in that she mostly gets it around, but that wasn’t exactly a fair fight to open. We see that again later when Sam Oldham and Zam do piked double arabians and when back-from-oblivion, spunky Lisa Mason and Jake Dalton do triple fulls. The idea of men competing against women is a nice one from a gender equity perspective, and I like the theory, but in practice it’s not an interesting comparison, especially if amplitude is such a key factor. I do give Zam credit for getting pretty good height on that piked arabian and landing securely, though. Where has that skill been my whole life?

Chellsie Memmel and Marissa King do DLOs. This is a much closer, more interesting battle, and Memmel wins, I presume for having a better landing position. It was a usual Memmel DLO, which is impressive considering her absence and considering that King is still in competition form. Oh Marissa, we miss you already.

Next, we have a little sports-science interlude with Jessica Lopez, talking about energy, velocity, and momentum in tumbling. I’m not opposed to this segment, but they keep saying she’s performing a double full when she’s doing a 2.5. Fact check! It kind of undermines any potential accuracy in the segment, the point of which seems to be “Please realize how hard gymnastics is!”

Elsewhere in the round, lovely Josh Dixon gets a point with a nice piked double front, but mostly we just realize how strange these rules are. There are wildcards popping in and double-or-nothing skills and retries and none of it has a reason for existing. Nastia has to explain all the rules to her team. Good job at understanding, Nastia. I take back any “You mean you’ve never been to a real school before?” I’ve ever said about you. I appreciate the emphasis on lineup strategy (NCAA coaches could stand to focus on this more), but all these extra rules shouldn’t have to be necessary. They feel a little arbitrary, as if the organizers are scared people will think the event is boring so are throwing in whatever complications come to mind.

Coming back from commercial, Paul Ruggeri explains that this isn’t about pleasing the judges, it’s about guts. That’s where you lose me a little. I like gymnastics. I like the pleasing the judges and the quest for exact form and minute perfection even on simplicity. Give me Rheagan Courville’s sissone any day over Aly Raisman’s Amanar. Precision is more interesting to me than the big skill, and this event is about the big skill. I may not be the audience they’re going for.  

Also, Svetlana Boguinskaya’s pronunciation of strategy is my whole world. Marissa King’s hair in these interviews is my other world.

The tumbling round finishes with another unfair fight of double double tucks with Prtichett and Kosmidis. Pritchett just manages to get hers around, having never done it in competition, while Kosmidis can do the skill easily all the time. Remember when they were pretending that there was a chance Pritchett would do that skill this season? No. Finally, the gem of Ireland competes a 3.5+front full and is outdone by Paul Ruggeri, who does the skill absolutely brilliantly, to give the US the round victory.

The problem with this round (and this format) is that, in gymnastics, everyone’s repertoire is so different that legitimate, competitive battles on a single skill are rare. There were only about two in that round. This trend continues in the second round, the parallel bars/uneven bars portion of the pageant. The World team forfeits a point to Brandon Wynn, then Ramos and Gafuik perform skills that no one on the US team does. Orozco and Ruggeri attempt to mimic but can’t. It’s nice to see them try, but it’s not a competition when they don’t even do the skill.

On the uneven bars, Zam competes for the US. I had expected her chosen skill to be holding a handstand for 35 seconds but apparently not because she goes over on two of them. What is this? Where are the Zamstands we know and love? She comes off the bars and does a silly presentational flourish. That almost makes up for it. Jessica Lopez (“Venezuela’s version of J-Lo.” Give me a break) wins by actually doing the shaposh to bail.

Chuso also goes on bars. (How long has it been?) She does a hop full, which is her skill, and a tuck full dismount. The form is crazy, but whatever. For the US, Nastia is chalking the bars. Just get up there and do it. Brie Olson goes instead and once again is trying to mimic skills she doesn’t do. She has crazy legs and comes off. KJ would be having none of it. Just let her do a DLO full.

Finally, Petrix Barbosa comes off on a peach back flip but hits it on a retry. Once again, no one from the US has the skill. He does a great job in his interview with Suri, getting by in English. He’s basically more eloquent than the American gymnasts. Nathan Gafuik proceeds to be charming.

In all, it’s a fairly fun event for what it is attempting to be, and I enjoy the opportunity to see all these people competing again. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of full routines as much as I thought I would be. That part worked (though at times it did feel disjointed). The event also clearly emphasized sport over circus, which was another positive, but there were so few actual battles between equal skills. They don’t perform the same elements, so the idea of a skill-for-skill battle fundamentally doesn’t work, even with all the crazy, purposeless bonus rules. We’re not comparing anything. I can make an origami swan, can you? No. I can make a chocolate souffle, can you? No. So, we tied?

We’ll see how tomorrow goes with vault. This whole concept and event has potential, but it needs a lot of tweaking.

What did you think? Did you enjoy it or have reservations?


2 thoughts on “Pro Gymnastics Challenge Night 1 Recap: Sport or Circus?”

  1. I wasn't sure if Sveta said “strategy” or “stragety.” I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoyed that. Overall I enjoyed the competition format and it gives me a chance to cheer on gymnasts who in college were arch-rivals.

    The main complaint I had about the format is the men vs. women tumbling. I like the idea of having them compete against each other on an event like tumbling, but honestly the men get so much more power and amplitude that it isn't a fair fight. The 3.5 to punch full battle was awesome, and it was men vs. men. The Marissa/Chellsie battle was good too. Keep the men vs. men and women vs. women format on the rest of the events (I don't want a Make It Or Break It men doing the balance beam show).

    If you watched the entire show you probably got to know some of the rules and coach strageties but they need to do a better job of explaining the arbitrary rules (wildcards, doubling down, all 3 gymnasts have to compete before a gymnast can go again, etc.)

    I was really disappointed by USA's bars. Zam has gorgeous handstands but failed to do simple release moves. I love Oksana as a gymnast, but honestly to lose to her in a bars battle is embarrassing. The uniforms are fine, but have you noticed in every non-traditional meet the men are always shirtless? Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ratings have to come from somewhere…sorry, I got distracted, where were we?

    After day 1 of a brand new gymnastics event I would call it a success. Big names come back, hot names get a little more time in the limelight, and you get to see crazy skills you might never see in a real competition (3.5 to punch full). I hope the ratings justify keeping this around next year. Having another “competition” (rather than a circus show) is good for the sport and great for the fans.

    Great entry, thanks!


  2. ESPN has its work cut out now to determine if there is really a developing niche market for a Pro Gymnastic Challenge of any flavor. And, that should be fairly easy since the TV audience and social media metrics are now or will soon be available for analysis.

    However, the hard part will be to determine if this format detracts from and/or is embarrassing for traditional artistic gymnasts and their fans.

    Leaders of the sport need to come together someplace quiet where Jonathan Horton is not banging on the table ~ screaming ~ and carefully think through the implications of promoting 'guts' as Paul Ruggeri said hopefully, in a weaker moment and the sheer beauty of traditional artistic gymnastics routines.

    How you sell 'beautiful' and then 'guts' within the same sport is going to take time and effort from heavy hitters from the world of marketing and promotional strategy.

    Similar to suggesting the top 100 finalists across the world for the Pyotr Llyich Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow will come together several times each year for a televised Pro Piano Challenge following the 'battle of the bands' format … with audience participation via twitter, of course.

    Wouldn't it be easier to raise a multi-million endowment for Team U.S.A. that would support the athletes during their competitive years and a small pension when they retire?


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