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.

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