Gymnastic entrances are all about smoke, fire and bagpipes

October 29, 2015

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) The prim days of gymnasts marching onto the floor like well-muscled, elaborately ponytailed robots are gone.

Now there's billowing fire. Dramatic smoky entrances. Thumping music. A podium swathed in pink and covered in chalk that kind of makes it look a well-lit rave. The judges who hardly bothered trying to hide in plain sight are now safely and anonymously out of the way. The stands full of fans giving off a giddy vibe that is part world championship gymnastics meet, part pop concert.

''This is how gymnastics should have been presented at every competition,'' 1976 Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci said, pointing inside the darkened SSE Hydro last week. ''It's fun. It's a show. It's gymnastics. It should be appreciated for being the hardest sport out of all of them.''

That doesn't mean it has to be a drag. When two-time defending champion Simone Biles, reigning Olympic gold medalist Gabby Dougals and the rest of the 24-woman field in Thursday night's all-around final are introduced, they will walk up a set of steps, through pillars of smoke and onto a stage while the flags of their respective countries are projected onto the screen behind them.


No wonder Douglas is so fired up. Standing backstage with Biles and the rest of their U.S. teammates before qualifying last Friday, it was all Douglas could do to keep herself from chest-bumping everyone in sight as music blasted through the speakers.

''I felt like I was at a football game,'' Douglas said. ''I was like, `Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!'''

Things will get even more elaborate as the stakes rise. Before Tuesday night's team final there was a preshow that included bagpipes, dancers and a pair of emcees trying to out Ryan Seacrest themselves.

It's not the first time meet organizers have tried to switch it up - there were cheerleaders in Tokyo four years ago - but it certainly is the boldest. And it's exactly what host Britain and the International Federation of Gymnastics had in mind when they started planning the 2015 worlds, taking the model that worked so successfully during the London Olympics and expanding on it. Every session at the 02 Arena three years ago was preceded by a video introduction and a brief exhibition underneath the spotlight. It was pretty and proper and created a sense of impending drama.

Then again, it's the Olympics, which comes with a built-in audience trained to pay attention to non-mainstream sports every four years. Creating even a fraction of interest in events like the world championships are a bit of a harder sell. That challenge also presents a bit of freedom to try new things.

In search of atmosphere and ticket demand, they put the worlds at the intimate Hydro, a trendy concert venue that looks like the Star Trek Enterprise's little cousin. Unlike most major meets, often held in rectangular arenas, the Hydro is more like theater-in-the-round. The capacity was chopped to around 6,000 for worlds, though that number seemed considerably higher when the British women's team topped Russia for bronze in the women's team final Tuesday night.

''Gymnastics as a sport needs to evolve,'' said British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen. ''It was the dream of FIG marketing and competition commissions to modernize the competition, to put on center stage the athlete and to show the public what magnificent athletes we have.''

Part of the plan was to get rid of some of the clutter on the podium, namely the sea of blue-blazered judges who didn't exactly blend in. FIG technical directors Nellie Kim and Steve Butcher have been campaigning for years to get the judges off the floor to an elevated spot, a move Kim believes gives them a better vantage point while also taking away a highly visible distraction.

It does seem a little strange. The Chinese women's team struggled through qualifying, with coach Xiong Jingbin placing some of the blame on the fact the judges were sitting side by side - with a panel in between them - in the front row of seats rather than in chairs on the floor next to each apparatus.

While the gymnasts know critical eyes are still fixated on every little misstep, there's something to be said for not having to see them right in front of your face.

''I like it better because you can't see the judges so it's like you're doing it by yourself,'' said Canada's Brittany Rogers. ''That's good because the judges kind of scare me. I like that they're away from it all to be honest.''

You can't miss the gymnasts, and that's the point. The sport has never been more athletic or more daring. Yeah, there's a lot at stake. Remember, though, that at the end you're still just out there with your friends, flipping and twisting and soaring in arguably the greatest game of ''Can You Top This'' ever.

''Usually you walk out and it's very serious,'' Canada's Elsabeth Black said. ''But it brought a little bit of a lightness of the competition.''

It's all part of the show.


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