Almanack: Leaps and bounds take a scream test

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The Independent Online
BIRMINGHAM was Squeal City on Friday night. Take That were playing the NEC, and the world's finest gymnasts were in town for the Birmingham Classic. You don't associate the demure grace and concentration of gymnastics with screaming fans, but the audience at the National Indoor Arena kicked up a fuss that Robbie and Co would have found familiar.

'C'mon Zeeeeta]' yelled impromptu choruses of young females as Britain's Zita Lusack took her place on the run-up to the vault. 'Go Zeeeeta]'. Zita went, at high speed, leapt, bounced, twisted, landed, wobbled, fell on to her bottom. Everyone cheered anyway. The atmosphere was relentlessly upbeat, jollied along by a jaunty commentator who requested rounds of applause for everyone remotely connected with the tournament: the competitors, the coaches, the judges (all fair enough). The managing director of Interflora, the sales director of Crosse & Blackwell, 'and let's give a big hand for Councillor Bird]' Sporadic clapping; then the screaming broke out again. 'C'mon Annika] C'mon Svetlana] Go Elena]' Gymnastics fans are not particularly partisan.

The competition was essentially Great Britain versus Eastern Europe: ie, no contest. Romania's Lavinia Milosovici dominated the women's event, and the world and European champion, Ivan Ivankov from Belarus, ran away with the men's title.

From high in the Arena's banks of seating it was a bit like watching a three-ring circus: there was always something going on. Milosovici on the vault, Elena Grosheva on the asymmetric bars, Evgeny Gukov on the horse, all at the same time, all competing for the attention of the twittering, pony-tailed, sweet-sucking, screeching crowd. Seeking peace and quiet, we moved down to the Arena floor.

Good grief. You don't quite get it from high in the stands, and you don't get it from television. It's common knowledge that women gymnasts are on the small side, but this was ridiculous. They're minute. And the men - so powerful straining away at the rings, so imposing in the floor exercises. They're tiny. Not one of them above 5ft 6in. There's something funny about their faces, too. The men are sort of pinched, scrunched, pallid, often spotty. And the women - especially the eastern Europeans - are quite bizarrely over-made-up. It might have been for the television cameras, but still the blusher and mascara on those tiny faces with their haunted eyes was a bit disquieting. They could have come straight from the pages of Lolita.

The other disquieting thing is the danger of it all, so much more tangible close up. Watching the beam exercises you have to hold your breath. They flip, and land, and the little feet writhe for purchase on the slim piece of wood. Then another flip and - where are the hands? She'll hit her head] - oh, how was that done?

The men are just as impressive, but it is strength that counts here as much as precision and grace. Dmitri Karbonenko gave a terrific show on the parallel bars, finishing with a spectacular dismount. 'Stoi]' shouted his team-mates. It means 'stick', the gymnasts' watch-word: everyone wants a landing that sticks, doesn't wobble.

Britain's Craig Heap was next on to the parallel bars, and came slightly unstuck. He didn't quite connect with the bars on landing from a somersault, and hung on by his elbows. But he regained his concentration and completed the rest of the routine successfully for a decent score, a 9.15. 'Ow,' he said, trotting back to his team- mates. 'Everything's battered.' He's 21, from Burnley, with close- cropped ginger hair and a sharp, cheeky face. Was he hurt? 'Oh, it's a bit of a knock, but that's always happening.' He knew he'd finish nearer last than first, but was delighted to be competing in such a field. 'I'm so happy to be here,' he said. 'Just to show me face, like. It's brilliant, isn't it?' Yes, it was.

(Photograph omitted)