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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there