Keith Elliott at Large / Gymnastics: Rhythmic section seeking high notes: The cutting edge of ribbons has bred a sport that reigns in Spain but struggles to find money in Britain

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The Independent Online
WE were ahead of our time at Fryent Junior School. Who would have thought that, years later, one of our favourite playground games would become an Olympic sport?

It only needed long pieces of ribbon. Once you had been tagged, you took the other end and tried to trap someone else, who had to trail another piece of ribbon, until the playground was full of youngsters zooming round in a mad milliner's dream.

Eventually Ribbons was banned. Teachers thought the uninvolved were in danger of being garrotted, while parents refused to decorate their daughters' hair with ribbons that mysteriously got twisted like a Christmas decoration and covered with mud and sticky fingerprints.

I don't suppose rhythmic gymnastics would really want to claim its roots from playground games, but you have to admit that the ball (catching), rope (skipping), clubs (juggling) and hoop (for those who remember the hula-hoop craze) all bring back memories of scuffed knees and inky fingers.

Gymnastics itself dates back a little earlier, to 776 BC. But the rhythmic section didn't join the Olympic party until 1984, and it has only been in the UK for 20 years. Though one of the first sports to sell out in Barcelona last year, it is still treated very much like a small child in the gymnastics pecking order. British team members often have to contribute to their air fares for tournaments abroad, as well as for training weeks at Lilleshall.

Small wonder, then, that the sport is having problems hanging on to some of its most promising prospects. Michelle Smith, British champion at rope and clubs, quit in December. 'I had to make the choice between continuing with it or skipping my GCSEs. But several times I was promised things that didn't happen. In the end, I decided to give it up. Now I think: 'How could I ever have gone through all that?' '

Rhythmic gymnastics is the perfect sport for girls who enjoy dance and ballet but find backwards handsprings beyond them. (The sport's code specifically bans those tumbling elements so beloved by circus acrobats). But, competitively, even the best British youngsters like 16-year-old Debbie Southwick, of Widnes, cannot win a place in the world's top 10. She has to compete against products from the iron regime of the east Europeans, especially Bulgaria and Russia, where promising waifs spend seven hours a day, just practising their routines.

'I made friends with a Russian girl who goes to school just 16 days a year. The rest of the time, she is training,' Michelle said. 'We just don't have a chance to beat girls who train all day, every day.' But recruiting a top Russian coach, Irina Viner, four years ago has made quite a difference. 'She has such a depth of knowledge, picks up on things that our own coaches just wouldn't spot, and pushes you really hard,' Michelle said.

But Viner's involvement in teaching and helping coaches has been a mixed blessing. Jenny Bott, who brought the sport to the UK and spent 15 years as national coach, agrees that Viner's presence has improved the top girls. 'We have got a lot of ideas from her, and learnt from her methods. She introduces exercises and movements new to us.

'But it has become so elite. She has been so selective that she will only work with two or three girls. She won't take more, which is a shame because those she is taking are moving further ahead of the rest. Several very promising girls are not being given the opportunity. This is making them despondent, and it means we are losing girls like Michelle.'

Still, who can blame a 17-year-old for wanting to find out about life outside a gymnasium? Until December, Michelle trained five nights a week, all weekend and every day during her holidays, and ate at her peril. 'I seem to have been dieting since I was 12,' she said. 'In the gym, I was always being told I was too fat, even obese. I developed serious eating problems.' She is 5ft 8in and weighs just over 8st.

That's just the sort of horror story linked more to bell, book and candle than rope, hoop and ball, but there is a fun level to the sport where taking part is more important than winning. The National Group Championships, which takes place at Hinckley Leisure Centre tomorrow week*, is the team side of rhythmic gymnastics, where girls as young as six perform in a sort of unison.

It is easy to mock, but even the country's leading rhythmic club, Northampton, will be delighted if their teams get through their two- minute routine without some mishap. 'The girls have to learn to manipulate each piece of equipment and they all have different characteristics,' Bott, the team's coach, says.

'The rope is flexible, so it needs the right technique to throw it; the hoop can give problems because of its size; you can't grip the ball, but have to balance it; clubs are heavy and hard, and dealing with them is very much like juggling, while the ribbon is 6m long and its movement is unpredictable. Then you've got six girls who are exchanging and catching the equipment, which they've got to do in time to music.'

Even at club level, it's easy to see why so many girls find its combination of grace, teamwork, ballet and dance more appealing than Jason Donovan or Barbie dolls. In Spain, rhythmic gymnastics is the top female sport. But here, it's so constrained by finance that the UK has been unable to enter a European team championship since 1987, says Helen Roberts, the national staff coach.

'We used to get the dregs from artistic gymnastics. But in the past eight years, things have got much better. The number of rhythmic clubs has doubled over the past four years. We still have a long way to go. The main problem is that we need more coaches so we can do more at grassroots level, and that means more money.' Perhaps she should consider a revival of Ribbons.

* British Group Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship, Hinckley Leisure Centre, 23 January. Tickets pounds 3 ( pounds 1 children, pensioners).

(Photograph omitted)