Rhythmic Gymnastics: It's a whole different ball game

Rhythmic gymnastics may seem a glitter-clad oddity but Chris McGrath can only admire the mildly superhuman capabilities of these young girls at Wembley Arena

Wembley Arena

There's no point asking them what their mothers would say, if they saw them out looking like that. In many cases, mum's right there in the dressing room – and delivering the pep talk.

For the girls contesting this most exotic of Olympic sports are, on the whole, just that: mere adolescents. And, demographically consistent, they have no aversion to stepping out in rather too much make-up and rather too little clothing – their blushes covered in paint and emulsion, their bottoms in dental floss.

Yet their innocence abides, body and soul, from their pristine joints to their unfledged emotions. Within the 12 square metres of the mat, they duly prove limber, lithe, lissom. Albeit trussed in leotards that glister like static, these girls make Harry Houdini resemble a rusty Dalek. But then they go and sit beside some matriarchal figure – often a poignant incarnation of the decline that beckons all the pulchritude of youth – and cast their lack of wrinkles in another, no less telling light, as they await the judges' verdict. Some hug teddy bears. All wave and simper at the camera, or make heart shapes with thumbs and forefingers. And then, if provoked by the scoring, they can suddenly put on faces like a barrel of oil rolling towards a bonfire.

Perhaps it is only this ingenuous quality that permits them to embrace "rhythmic gymnastics" in the first place. For it must be allowed that there is something inherently ludicrous about taking to the floor with a ball or a hoop – clubs and ribbons follow today – and together enter the sort of writhing transports historically associated by demure teenagers with cavalry officers.

You can see the difficulty, admittedly, if the girls were expected to corroborate their ardour by flinging one of those around instead. The biggest crowd-pleaser in the manual is to toss your "apparatus" skywards, execute some bewildering combination of rolls, Cossack leaps and pirouettes, and then catch it without breaking stride – and ideally not with anything so mundane as a hand, when foot or neck or hip might do as well.

It's just that there is something about a ball, in particular, that fails stubbornly to reciprocate the fluidity and grace of its "partner". Sometimes, as the ball rolls down spine or loins or flips over a shoulder, it looks as though it is following the girl around like some gauche, spotty suitor. And every now and then, of course, it will break insolently free. Then the exquisitely-choreographed illusion of harmony is shattered for good, and you just see an agonised girl in a spangly leotard chasing a rubber ball indifferent to all beseechings, bar gravity itself.

At least the girls know the crowd is always on their side, and likewise the scrupulously flattering commentaries after each routine. "Very secure," pronounced someone called Vicky after Francesca Jones gamely sought to justify the shrill delirium of her compatriots in the stands. "No major mistakes – and a very nice flexibility element."

It sounded like some kind of anatomical euphemism. Jones is 21st of 24 at the intermediate stage of qualifying, and the fact is that the British girls are only here by virtue of an appeal, following their mortifying failure to meet a qualifying standard agreed with the British Olympic Association.

As ever, with lusty support of their own from the galleries, the Russians dominate the business end. Evgeniya Kanaeva, a rather severe young lady defending her Beijing gold, is now a relative veteran at 22 but already lies second only to her compatriot, Daria Dmitrieva. Both move like Pavlova. A girl from Belarus is third, and overall the former Soviet Bloc remains the bedrock of a sport first introduced to the Olympics in 1984. Which makes you wonder quite how bleak life can really have been, behind the iron curtain. After all, there seemed to be something for everybody here – shrieking females far outnumbering any libidinous idiot males.

But the music. Good grief. The 90-second backing tracks chosen by the competitors typically united various genres by the lowest common denominator: saccharine harps and strings execrably entwined with pulsating Eurotrash, samba with accordions. Even so, it was difficult not to warm to Caroline Weber of Austria, who emerged in a leotard that combined the green blouse and red apron of a Tyrolean barmaid – and then favoured us with an unnerving combination of disco and yodelling.

But it is too easy to pick on the lurid indignities of this strange exhibition. For some of these girls must be counted as a genuine loss to the Bolshoi. Instinctively, yes, you can't quite accept one of them will go home with exactly the same medal as Usain Bolt. But then something goes wrong, and they flounce away on flat teenage feet.

In the end, they are only human. And that means you can only admire, and respect, the mildly superhuman things they can do with their bodies.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own