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The Casual Olympic Viewer’s Guide: Rhythmic Gymnastics

Evgeniya Kanaeva of Russia competes in the Individual All-Around final held at the University of Science and Technology Beijing Gymnasium on Day 15 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 23, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Evgeniya Kanaeva of Russia, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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: rhythmic gymnastics, explained.

Like clockwork, every four years, America pays attention to gymnastics: Landings are dissected in bars and living rooms across the country, and stars like Shawn Johnson (and now Gabby Douglas) become household names. This enthusiasm has its limits, though: Rhythmic (as opposed to artistic) gymnastics, which showcases routines set to music with props, might catch the casual Olympic viewer off guard. Expecting flips and twists and instead seeing a gymnast twirling a ribbon to music in a bedazzled leotard can be a shock, but it can be argued that the strength and coordination required in a rhythmic routine are on par with those required in an artistic gymnast’s floor routine. And while it’s doubtful we’ll ever see a rhythmic gymnast on a Wheaties box, it has been an Olympic sport since 1984. Here’s how it works.

Event Format
Rhythmic gymnastics, which is only open to women, consists of an individual and group event. Twenty-four women have qualified for the individual event: They compete in two days of prelims, performing four routines, each with a different prop or “apparatus.” The top ten advance to the final, which consists of four routines with the same apparatuses. Routines in the finals are generally unchanged from the prelim round.

The group event pits twelve teams of six gymnasts (who generally do not also compete in the individual event) against each other. In each routine, five of the six members from each team perform simultaneously. There is a prelim round of two routines; the top eight teams advance to the final and perform the same two routines.

Competition Area
The gymnasts compete on a carpeted performance mat marked with a square performance area with thirteen meters on a side. Stepping or accidentally throwing an apparatus outside the marked area results in a deduction.

Rhythmic gymnasts wear leotards in competition, though they are given a little more room for bling than artistic gymnasts: Sequins and skirts are common. Competitors in the team classification must wear matching outfits.

The gymnasts must perform routines using four apparatuses: the ribbon, ball, hoop, and clubs. Each competing nation supplies its own apparatuses, and they’re often coordinated to the competitors’ clothing. A fifth, the rope, is being slowly phased out of the sport and will not feature in the 2012 Games.

• The hoop is made of either plastic or wood, may be between 80 and 90 centimeters in diameter, and must weigh more than 300 grams (about two-thirds of a pound).

• The ball must be made of rubber or a synthetic material, be between eighteen and twenty centimeters in diameter, and weigh 400 grams, or just under a pound.

• The clubs, used in sets of two, should each be 40 to 50 centimeters long and weigh 150 grams, about one-third of a pound.

• The ribbon, typically made of satin, must be at least six meters — almost twenty feet — long and four to six inches wide. It is suspended from a one-centimeter-thick stick that is 50 to 60 centimeters long.

How Someone Wins
Twelve judges score each routine in three separate panels. The first four score the “artistic” merit of the gymnast, assessing her “expressiveness” and relation to the music. The second quartet evaluates difficulty of both body movement and the apparatus, while the last four judges evaluate the execution, subtracting points for any flaws. Some guidelines apply to all events, like requiring the apparatus to constantly be in motion. However, each apparatus has different expectations and characteristic flaws: For example, a knot developing in the ribbon, or gripping rather than lifting the ball, can mean a serious deduction. All three panels evaluate with a score of one through ten, so a 30 is a perfect score.

In the individual event, in both the prelim and the final, each gymnast completes a separate routine between 1:15 and 1:30 long with each of the four different apparatuses. They usually use the same routine in both rounds, and medals are awarded based solely on the score in the finals.

The group event also consists of a prelim and final round. In both rounds, five gymnasts perform at the same time. In the first routine of each round, the groups perform with five of the same apparatus. In the second routine of each round, the five gymnasts perform a routine with two of one apparatus and three of another. The apparatuses used in the group competition rotate every two years: In this year’s Olympics, the first routine must be done with five balls and the second with three ribbons and two hoops. Each routine must be between 2:15 and 2:30. Like the individual event, the groups generally use the same routines in both the prelims and finals, and medals are awarded based on final round scores.

When to Watch
The first two routines for each gymnast in the individual event take place tomorrow, August 9, beginning at 7 a.m. New York time, and the first routines for each team in the group event will follow at 9:50 a.m. The entire event will stream live on

The next two routines of each gymnast in the individual-event preliminaries begin at 7 a.m. New York time on Friday, and they’re followed at 9:50 a.m. by the second routines for each team in the group prelims. A selection will be aired on NBC in New York on a tape delay from 1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. (though the schedule of the local affiliate could potentially differ in other markets).

The final of the individual event is on Saturday, August 11, starting at 8:30 a.m. New York time. The event will stream live on and a portion will be broadcast on a tape delay from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on NBC in New York.

The final of the group event will begin at 8:30 a.m. New York time on Sunday, August 12. It will stream live on There are currently no plans to broadcast the event, but NBC has yet to announce substantial blocks of its Sunday coverage.

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Olympic Viewer’s Guide: Rhythmic Gymnastics