The Olympics are winding down. Most of the athletes you looked forward to seeing — Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt — will have finished their events come the weekend, absconding with their medals into the every-four-years abyss. Just two days out from Sunday night’s closing ceremony, Rio’s shiny new stadiums are shutting off their lights one by one, with precious few podiums left for athletes to climb. You flip through the remaining Olympic programming on your TV, listless, looking for something to stir your heart, when you catch sight of rhythmic gymnastics, which will have finals for the individual competition on Saturday and the team competition on Sunday. And then you sigh: Ugh, that’s not a real sport.
How wrong you are, my friend. Rhythmic gymnastics is fucking awesome, and I will tell you why.
Every four years, the chorus starts back up again. The highly choreographed event, a mix of gymnastics and dancing, is criticized for being scripted, for prizing the perfect execution of a routine over sheer displays of athleticism, for featuring athletes with lots of makeup and glittery outfits and fixed smiles, for judging those athletes not just on their strength or agility but on their aesthetic product. Modern dance is often brought up scathingly.
The complaints, in short, boil down to the fact that the athletic feats — the flips and round-and-round pirouettes — are combined with artistic ones, that the best performances are a carefully calibrated combination of the two. Even more so than the floor routine in artistic gymnastics (the kind that Biles et al. practice), the goal here is to put on the best goddamn show a hyperathletic individual in sequin leotards (or a group of them) can. Is it difficult? Hell yeah, it’s difficult. Would you know it, watching the competitors glide back and forth? Ideally, not really! Do you find yourself going to Cirque du Soleil and thinking, meh, these athletes are doing too many things at once? No. You do not.
(Let’s set aside that many of these complaints seem to stem from the perceived unmanliness of the event: how silly the ladies look with their garish face paint and their sparkles, their show tunes, and little toys to play with! Please. These women could knock you sideways, and not smudge their mascara while doing it. Men do not compete at the Olympic level, presumably because they are afraid, and the thought of having to do something not just useful but genuinely beautiful with a ball is too much for them.)
Here’s the weird thing about rhythmic gymnastics: It has props. They’re not actually props, of course: The four tools being used in this Olympics — the ribbon, hoop, ball, and clubs — are referred to as the gymnast’s “apparatus,” and she is graded on her ability to manipulate each one over four separate routines (“apparatus mastery”). From there, the gymnast does her best to fling, bat, whip, and otherwise harass the apparatus until it seems as if it is being manipulated by a poltergeist. This is fantastic.
I dare you not to watch Laura Zeng, the U.S.’s 16-year-old best rhythmic gymnastic hope, roll a giant ball along the limbs of her flipping/twisting/kicking/twirling body like a magician’s troubled but more talented sister, while beaming steadily the whole time, and not be amazed. I challenge you to observe a gymnast fling a hoop farther into the air than you have ever thrown anything in your lumpy, ungymnastic life, then whirl wildly across the mat, only to stop exactly where the hoop shoots down from the heavens, and not scare the crap out of your cat when you scream, GREAT SCOTT! You will not watch shapes carved into thin air with ribbons, a smiling skywriter balance on tiptoes as she pretends not to be desperately out of breath, in peace. You cannot.
So do not despair at the lack of Olympics on this final Olympics weekend. No, instead, sit back, relax, and let the world’s rhythmic gymnasts dazzle with acrobatics and color, and show you just how easy they can make a hard thing look.