Acrobatics: Life as one big balancing act

Andrew Baker enters the bizarre, at times breathtaking world of acrobatics
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The Master of ceremonies at the World Sports Acrobatics Championships spotted a friendly face in the crowd at the Manchester Velodrome. Clutching his lurid yellow microphone, he homed in. "Here's the father of one of the competitors," he boomed. "What do you think of things so far?" "I think we could do with more seats on bums," the gentleman replied. They could have done with more bums on seats as well.

But this was Thursday afternoon, early days in an event which did not really pick up speed until the weekend. First of all there was the opening ceremony to be staged, a chance for local dignitaries to say their bit and for officials from the International Federation of Sports Acrobatics to express their dreams, which centre around Olympic recognition for their sport, they hope as soon as 2004.

The usual paraphernalia of opening ceremonies complete, the first competitors marched into the arena. There are two main disciplines in sports acrobatics: tumbling, in which competitors run into a series of somersaults, twisting somersaults and combinations of the two, and balance, tempo and combined exercises, a more graceful, less exciting scenario.

There are two ways of describing a sports gymnastics event. Looking on the bright side, it is like gymnastics only without all the equipment that so clutters the place up, and open to people of all sizes, not just pre-pubescent midgets. On the gloomy side, it is like a circus in which all the acts are depressingly similar. And there are no clowns.

No deliberate clowns, anyway. Rick Schwarz of the United States thundered down the tumbling track, launched into an elegant parabola of twisting somersaults, and landed on his head. Luckily, he has a strong neck, and he was straight back up on his feet, stretching a little gingerly and grinning sheepishly at the judges, who will have knocked off a mark or two for technique but may have added one for chutzpah.

Over on the square competition floor, things were less dramatic. Group sports acrobatics is all about picking people up, throwing them around, and balancing them. Who is to do what in each group is immediately apparent when the athletes walk gracefully into the arena.

In the women's trios event, for instance, two women of slim, strong build and average height would accompany one of slim, slight build and less than average height. In a typical routine, the three would do some Pan's- People-esque stuff to the music for a few moments, before the two slim, strong and average build types linked arms to form a platform. The slim, slight and less than average height type would hop up on to this and be catapulted into the air, performing one or two somersaults with or without twists before landing on her compatriots. Repeat with variations.

The men's pairs competition was similar, but different. Here a slim, strong chap of medium height performed a number of graceful balancing manoeuvres on and around a slim, very strong chap of considerable height. Balancing on one hand on the partner's head was a favourite number, as was a particularly uncomfortable set-up that is probably best described as the splits squared.

Britain's Martyn Smith and Mark Flores were the 1995 world junior all- round champions, and are one of the best bets for home success this weekend. Their opening floor routine was elegantly choreographed and smoothly accomplished, in particlar the manoeuvre in which Smith (the "base") slowly settled from a standing into a sitting position while Flores (the "top") balanced on his head on one hand. "That was all right," Flores said after their routine. "A good start," Smith agreed, pointing out that "I'm the one that has to do all the hard work."

There are tougher jobs in sports acrobatics, both of them to be found in the men's fours. Here most routines are variations on a theme of "How high can you go?" and the tough roles are at the very bottom of a four- man tower and at the very top.

For the spectators, this discipline is a matter of suspense: will the little guy make it to the apex of the pile? Will he manage to stay there? And will he, while he is up there, be able to balance on one hand on the head of the man below him? When it works, it is breathtaking; when it doesn't, it is frightening. Say what you like about sports acrobatics, it's tough at the top.