Gymnastics: The Gold (Medal) Standard
31 Aug, 2012By: Juli Anne Patty
In any given year, many of America’s cities could vie for the title of Gymnastics City USA, but in 2012, San Jose, California, owned that banner, hosting the 2012 USA Gymnastics Olympics Trials and Championships.
“We had a strategy and a vision to create the best trials yet, and we executed against that,” says Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics since 2005 and a sports administrator for more than two decades. “We had an incredible partnership with the HP Pavilion and the San Jose Sports Commission. It helps when everyone has the same goals.”
In an Olympic year, when all eyes are on Team USA, San Jose hosted the crowning event for a sport that grows in popularity every year, and millions of athletes, clubs and fans were watching.
The “perfect 10” of the old gymnastics days is no longer the score of perfection. With the International Gymnastics Federation’s (FIG) new scoring rules, adjusted in 2005, gymnasts receive points for the difficulty of their routines and have points deducted for errors in execution, creating the possibility of scores higher than ten. But perfection, in gymnastics, is always the goal.
If supreme difficulty and flawless execution are the keys to the ultimate gymnastics score, how do gymnastics events achieve the gold standard? Learning from the experts is a good place to start.
Whether they’re hotel ballrooms, convention centers, event center or gyms, facilities for gymnastics events require a unique set of characteristics. Not only do they demand adequate floor space, but they also require tall ceilings for the sport’s high-flying events, as well as clear sightlines. Fans and parents are another key factor: gymnastics events tend to draw lots of them, so spectator seating is crucial.
But beyond just space requirements, there are other ways that venues can set themselves apart.
“For our national championships, we’ve outgrown our space at the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure Conference Center & Spa Weston/Ft. Lauderdale, so we’re looking for a new home,” says Paul Spadaro, president, United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs (USAIGC). “We love Hyatt, though. They take such good care of us, our athletes and parents. They really go above and beyond.”
One of the ways the Weston/Ft. Lauderdale Hyatt demonstrated its enthusiasm for USAIGC events directly affected the bottom line.
“You have to be conscious of the fact that it’s expensive for families to travel with their athletes. I always worry about price point for my parents,” says Spadaro. “One of the things the Hyatt does is they provide food, sandwiches and things that can be purchased for just a few bucks. It sounds small, but that’s really important to parents. They can get something good for their families to eat without paying a huge amount and without leaving the competition. It’s really unusual for a venue to do that, when they have the option of charging a premium for food instead.”
Destinations can expect to hear more from USAIGC in the coming years. An organization that serves independents clubs, USAIGC has recently changed its competitive direction, focusing on its College Bound Competitive Program, which puts emphasis on a slower learning curve, fewer hours in the gym, and the health and fitness benefits of gymnastics for all athletes, not just top tier competitors. It’s a program that has earned high marks from parents and impressive growth for USAIGC, which took on several new international clubs in the past year.
Support the Sport
A community that is excited about a sport or event can turn an average athlete experience into an exceptional one. That’s exactly what’s happening with gymnastics in central Alabama.
“We want to provide opportunities for young athletes to participate in competitive sports and we value the economic impact it has on our community,” says Ken Blankenship, executive director, Central Alabama Sports Commission. “One of the highlighted sports we’re pursuing is gymnastics, and the Cramton Bowl Multiplex, which opened this summer, is the perfect space. We have a strong gymnastics program in our community already and wanted to provide a space that would encourage the sport to grow.”
Some destinations come by their enthusiasm for a sport through experience. Wilderness at the Smokies, a vacation and meeting resort in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, has two lodges, one of which is connected to an indoor waterpark. The Stone Hill Lodge offers 234 hotel rooms and connects to the Sevierville Event Center.
“Because we’re adjacent to the events center, any event is pretty easy. All you have to do is wake up and walk down the hall,” says Steve Cruz, general manager, Wilderness at the Smokies. “There’s nothing else like this in the Southeast. We offer things for youth that no one else does. For example, not many locations offer everything you need without having to leave the building. We give you something unique.”
Wilderness at the Smokies hosts two major gymnastics events, the Smoky Mountain Gymnastics Vacation Classic each February, which draws 1,800 competitors, and Freedom Fest in September, which brings in around 800 athletes. Over the years, the Wilderness at the Smokies staff has become a huge fan of gymnastics, hosting a variety of tumbling events and cheerleading competition that include a tumbling component as well.
Participants & Growth
Another factor that can make or break any sports event is participants, specifically the number of athletes who live within an easily traveled distance of the destination. This factor becomes a bit more complicated when you consider the varied events of a gymnastics meet, which include
• Aerobic, in which athletes, both individual and in groups, present floor routines of up to 1 minute 50 seconds. The FIG recently added Aerobic Dance and Aerobic Step events to the World Championships Programme.
• Acrobatic, (often called Acro), one of the sport’s oldest disciplines, a partner or group sport that combines dance and acrobatics.
• Rhythmic, an individual or group, typically women’s-only sport, in which athletes coordinate body movements with the use of an apparatus, including a rope, hoop, ball, ribbon or clubs.
• Trampoline and tumbling, both individual or team events, which require athletes to perform various flips, twists and somersaults, sometimes simultaneously with teammates.
• Artistic, performed by both men and women, which are perhaps the most famous of gymnastics events and include vault, uneven bars, parallel bars and floor exercise.
These are the FIG-recognized official events of gymnastics, but the sport is growing all the time: USA Gymnastics reports steady growth for the past eight years. Gymnastics is also expanding, which is always important in order to continue relating to new generations of gymnasts. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), leading by example, recently introduced its newest gymnastics division, freestyle acrobatics, which, according to Ron Ferris, Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) Gymnastics National Sports Chairman, “includes elements of traditional gymnastics, parkour, freerunning, martial arts, breakdancing and more into a safe, developmental program for athletes of all ages.”
Parkour is a sport of defying obstacles. Created in the 1920s, Parkour is a relatively new sport compared to the ancient events of gymnastics, although its acrobatic, gravity-defying moves bear similarities to some martial arts. In recent decades Parkour and its close cousin freerunning have gained popularity, and its athletes can be found running, climbing, jumping, balancing and flipping around obstacles, both in venues and public spaces, all over the U.S. and the world.
AAU’s version of these sports, freestyle acrobatics, made its debut at the organization’s Winter Nationals. Facilities were a key factor in AAU’s decision to chose Geneva Ohio, for its Winter Nationals, as Geneva is home to the Spire Sports Complex, one of the world’s largest indoor, multi-sport, training and competition complexes. But even with a facility of that stature, Geneva has yet another key attribute to offer AAU Gymnastics.
“The main reasons we chose [Geneva] were the facilities, the cooperation we received from the staff at Spire, and the fact that we have over 1,600 registered AAU Gymnasts within a 75-mile radius of the facility,” says Ferris.
The Voice of Experience
Gymnastics meets offer numerous levels of complexity, even beyond the various configurations of events and equipment required to perform those events. Organizers also have to manage a vast range of age, expertise and talent in the athletes at a meet, not to mention the parents of those athletes. And finally, events can range in size from small local invitationals to much larger regional and eventually national and international competitions.
The regional meet can be one of an organization’s most important opportunities to connect with its athletes, since these events allow families to drive, rather than fly. Lynn Perrott, co-owner and director of Mid-Atlantic Gymnastics Center as well as the current USAG Region 7 Chairman for Women's Gymnastics, is a well-experienced hand at regional meet planning. She offers a bit of advice from that experience: understand the experience of your athletes.
“At one level of competition, the regional meet is the culminating championship. For two levels of competition, it is a qualifying meet to their culmination championship meets,” says Perrott. “Because of that, for all three, it is a stressful meet.”
Perrot explains that for regional meets, several criteria can determine whether or not the meet is a success, including finding the right facility, sticking to your schedule and ensuring optimal organization and good judging. But Perrott also suggests a few ways to raise the bar. A great announcer has the power to make the event fun and exciting, and it’s a good idea to take care of coaches and athletes with hospitality and goodie bags. Make it special, and participants will remember the extra effort.
Make it Olympic
This summer, the Olympics added even more fuel to America’s burning love for gymnastics, and this offers the perfect opportunity for gym owners, event organizers and coaches to harness that enthusiasm and increase participation. Ferris of the AAU also recommends adding Olympic elements to your events to further stoke that fire.
“My suggestion is to bring in gymnastics celebrities. It is good for the crowds, the athletes and the event,” says Ferris. “It also supports our athletes who receive no government funding, as do many of the athletes they are competing against.”
In other words, bring a piece of the Olympics to your events, and you do something good for your sport and your athletes.
Bring the People
An outstanding facility, great hotels and enthusiastic volunteers are all keys to a successful event, and they’re all elements a world-class sports destination like San Jose has down pat. But San Jose and USA Gymnastics took the execution of the 2012 Olympic Trials and Championships to a higher level by creating a festival of events designed to draw the entire community.
The 2012 USA Gymnastics Trials and Championships kicked off with opening ceremonies that included the U.S. Olympic Committee's Road to London Tour. A special attraction, the Road to London Tour “creates the atmosphere of the Olympic and Paralympic Games through interactive and media elements that allow fans to experience what it will be like on the field of play in London.”
Beyond buying tickets and watching the event, fans also had the opportunity to participate through the Visa Fan Fest, held at the Arena Green adjacent to HP Pavilion. A place to gather and celebrate Gymnastics City USA, the Fan Fest offered fun, games and gymnastics-related excitement, including Painting at the Park, the USA Gymnastics Fitness Zone, music, autographs, gymnastics demonstrations and interviews with well-known gymnastics figures.
The lesson is simple: the best events do more than build excitement for their athletes: they get the whole community involved. That’s an experience that event owners and their athletes will come back for year after year.