Dangerous (and banned) Artistic Gymnastics Moves

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Gymnastics, particularly artistic gymnastics, in which athletes perform short, acrobatic routines on apparatuses such as floor, beam, and bars, is a beautiful sport. The feats that gymnasts perform take years of training and are indisputably impressive. However, this sport can also be dangerous.

The injury rate in gymnastics is high, and many athletes quit before continuing to the highest levels of competition out of concern for their own safety. But among those that continue, particularly those that compete on the national, international, and especially Olympic stages, dramatic and dangerous stunts are common and even required. 

Like other sports, gymnastics is continuously innovating. Thus, to remain both impressive and competitive, the caliber of maneuvers and stunts has kept rising over the years, sometimes putting gymnasts in danger in order to keep up. However, the draw to create new moves or be among the hallowed ranks of a handful of athletes to attempt and complete particular moves is a strong one. 

Furthermore, risky, impressive stunts are heavily rewarded in the gymnastics scoring system, further incentivizing dangerous moves.

According to an article in 17 Magazine, “a gymnast’s score combines two numbers: the difficulty score…and the execution score.” Thus, even if a gymnast does not complete a stunt perfectly, attempting a very difficult move tends to get them a high score. Often, a mid-tier stunt executed perfectly can get the same points as a very difficult stunt executed fumblingly. Given that difficult stunts are also often very dangerous, this scoring system in effect rewards gymnasts putting themselves in danger for a chance at admiration, glory, or perhaps a medal or shot at qualifying for the Olympic games. 

To add perspective to this discussion, we must now review some examples of particularly dangerous artistic gymnastics moves.

One is called the Produnova, a stunt performed in the vaulting event. The trick involves 900 degrees of rotation in the forward-only direction, while the gymnast remains in a tucked position. Because of the forward direction of rotation, under or over-rotation is particularly easy and also particularly dangerous in this stunt.

If the gymnast lands too far forward, she can land wrong on her legs and break them, and if she under-rotates, she could land on her head and neck and suffer paralysis or potentially, death. Only a handful of gymnasts have ever attempted it, including Dipa Karmakar in 2016 in order to qualify for the then-upcoming Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

Notably, famous gymnast Simone Biles has not attempted this move, and when asked why in an interview, alluded to it being simply too risky. 

Another example of a dangerous artistic gymnastics move is the Thomas salto,

The Thomas Salto is a floor move named after an American gymnast. The move involves a one and a half backwards summersault with one and a half twists in a tucked, piked, or layout position. In 1980, gymnast Elena Mukhina was paralyzed while attempting to complete it. Due to this and other accidents, the move is missing from the code of points for women, effectively banning in in competition for the gender. Since the 2017-2020 edition, all “quad rollout” skills, of which the Thomas salto is one, have been banned for all genders. 

These two examples denote two very different treatments of dangerous moves in gymnastics. The first was rewarded with a high score and an Olympic qualification, while the second, while originally similar, has now been banned from competition entirely. This is the fine line that artistic gymnastics and its judges ultimately have to trace: what is a groundbreaking risk, and what is an unnecessary risk? Those both within and outside of the field of gymnastics will likely always come up with slightly different answers.

On the one hand, gymnastics, and the pursuit of athletic triumph, in general, is an inspiring field and one that allows individuals to make names for themselves and allows countries to cement national pride. However, the pursuit of ever more dangerous gymnastics moves could also be fairly called frivolous or unnecessary; while inspiring to be sure, the sport does not naturally have life or death stakes and will not result in wars won or diseases cured.

The end goal of gymnastics is, for the most part, pride and accomplishment for its own sake. Under this framework, is it worth it to allow athletes to put themselves under such risks?

The decision is ultimately left to the internal review structures of national and international gymnastics organizations, and this is likely wise.

After all, gymnasts all enter into the sport voluntarily, and as demonstrated by national legends such as Simone Biles, one does not need to perform the most dangerous stunts to achieve high scores, win gold medals, or accrue international fame and recognition. Biles herself has, at this point, invented several original moves and broke new ground in gymnastics, and while her stunts have surely been risky, they have not had the hair’s width margin of error of moves like the Produnova. 

Furthermore, if any move becomes absurdly dangerous, such as the Thomas salto, we as consumers of gymnastics feats must put our faith in their review structures to ban it.

While this process should happen seamlessly, it is possible that they could wait to ban something until the injury level has already risen much too high, in which case prompting by prominent gymnasts or the public would be warranted. But in general, the rules that govern gymnastics competitions have demonstrated their willingness to keep their sport reasonably safe and free of reckless harm.

With our faith in gymnastics as an industry, the only thing left for the public to do is simply to enjoy the feats of athleticism and artistry that gymnasts produce at every competition.

While gymnastics can be dangerous, certain moves more so than others, it is also beautiful and impressive. For many gymnasts, years of training, effort, and pain leading up to mere minutes or seconds of death-defying flipping, twisting and tumbling. As watchers, it is our privilege and responsibility to enjoy it. 

For more information check out our top pick of the 23 best gymnastics moves on bars.