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The Casual Olympic Viewer’s Guide: Trampoline

BEIJING - AUGUST 19:  Lu Chunlong of China competes in the men?s trampoline final in the gymnastics event at the National Indoor Stadium on Day 11 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 19, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) Lu Chunlong competes at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Not all Olympic events are as familiar as basketball or as straightforward as the 100-meter dash. But that’s no reason not to check something out during the Games. Throughout the Olympics, we'll outline the basics of various sports for viewers who may not know what they're looking at. Today: trampoline, explained.

Some Olympic sports — like fencing and archery — are interesting because they’re exotic and use unfamiliar equipment. Others, though, are just backyard games like running races and badminton that happen to be played by athletic freaks of nature: It’s part of the fun to imagine how badly you'd get schooled by a gold-medal table-tennis player at the bar this weekend. In this vein is trampoline, which was added as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games. World-class gymnasts turn a backyard toy into a 30-foot spectacle of flips and twists, but they’re not just bouncing around. Here’s how this sport works.

Event Format
32 gymnasts (sixteen male, sixteen female) have qualified for the Olympics. Both the men's and women's competition follow the same format: Each begins with two qualifying rounds, with the eight highest-scoring athletes over these two rounds advancing to the final. Medals are awarded based solely on the score in the final round.

Competition Area
The trampoline is functionally similar to the one in your backyard, but is far more powerful, able to boost top athletes close to 30 feet in the air. Regulation trampolines are fourteen feet long and seven feet wide; an X marks the center of the trampoline, and red square marks the edge of the performance area, which about three feet by six feet. The trampoline is surrounded by safety pads and spotters, though it is uncommon for these to be necessary in top-level competition—stepping on the frame results in a serious deduction.

Equipment
The gymnasts wear typical gymnastics clothing: leotards for women, and a singlet with long gymnastics stirrup pants for men. Unlike other gymnastics events, however, competitors may not go barefoot: Socks or slipper-like gymnastics shoes are mandatory.

How Someone Wins
Routines take the form of ten consecutive maneuvers. Scores are composed by adding a difficulty score, scores for execution from three different judges, and a score for total airtime.

The difficulty score is determined by which elements the athlete performs. Maneuvers are composed of flips and twists, and are executed in three positions familiar from diving: tuck, with the knees pulled into the torso; pike, where the legs are straight and pulled in; and straddle, when the gymnast grasps his ankles and forms a sort of triangle. Each maneuver has a pre-determined score for difficulty based on these factors. The gymnasts submit their routine to the judges ahead of time and, provided they successfully complete their planned routine, are awarded their full difficulty score. In the first prelim round, every athlete must execute an identical routine with relatively low difficulty. In the second prelim and the final, the gymnasts are free to devise their own routine with as much difficulty as they like; they generally perform the same routine in both of those rounds.

Execution is determined by five judges. The gymnasts begin with ten execution points; points are then deducted because of errors like imperfect position, taking an extra bounce with no maneuver, or stepping off of the marked performance area of the trampoline. The routine must end immediately after a final straight jump, requiring the gymnast to land on the trampoline in a standing position without bouncing. Five judges score the routine; the execution score is composed of the middle three scores.

The score for time of flight is simply the gymnast’s hang-time in seconds: the higher the gymnast jumps, the higher the score. For the first time in the Olympics, the time of flight score this year will be determined automatically: A series of sensors connected to a computer are placed on the frame of the trampoline and are able to compute the length of each jump by detecting its beginning and end.

When to Watch
Men’s trampoline is on Friday, August 3. The qualifying rounds begin at 9:00 a.m. New York time, and the final follows at 10:26 a.m. Both will stream on nbcolympics.com. The event is also being carried live on MSNBC; the TV broadcast starts at 9:00 a.m.

The women’s competition is the next day, Saturday, August 4. Like men’s, the prelims begin at 9:00 a.m. and are followed by the final at 10:26 a.m. The condensed finals of the Women’s event will be broadcast on a tape delay from 11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. on NBC in New York (though the schedule of the local affiliate could potentially differ in other markets).

Previously:
The Casual Olympic Viewer’s Guide: Dressage
The Casual Olympic Viewer’s Guide: Double Trap Shooting

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Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images