The toes of a forked sockWhy is it that we only emphasize the very end of something? As evidenced by the photo at right, it’s really the process that’s the fun part. Look, socks!!!!! Of my very own cables-and-lace design!

Stuck landings in gymnastics are just about as important as stuck landings in real life. It’s usually what you do during the bulk of the routine/class/business meeting/knitting project/friendship/day that really counts, not how quickly you walked out the door when the day finally ended. In real life, we comport ourselves as though every moment counts, and gymnasts do the same thing, because tiny steps on the landing only add up to ten percent of the overall deductions in an average gymnastics routine.

We talked about extension and amplitude yesterday. Today, it’s form and execution. Elfi Schlegel compliments gymnasts who have great form and execution all the time–Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, along with the Chinese team, got most of those compliments today–but she doesn’t really explain what “great form” really means and how gymnasts “execute” moves well.

There are only a few body shapes the human body can make under duress: straight/slightly arched, bent at the hips, and bent at the hips and knees. Gymnastics “form” is just a measurement of what shape the gymnast made compared to the shape specified by the code of points for a particular skill; good or bad execution expresses the degree to which they deviated from that body shape.

Straight-body moves like handstands require the legs, arms and hips to be lined up and stretched into a near-straight line, with the insides of the ankles touching (rather than crossed). Bent-hipped body positions can be done with the legs/ankles together (piked) or the legs separated (split or straddled), but the knees cannot be bent and the hip-bend must be at least 90 degrees; if your bent-hip position is a split position, that means at least a 180-degree split. Tucked positions require at least a 90-degree bend in both the hip joint and the knee joint, and the ankles again should be together but not crossed.

Deviate from the specified form for a skill and execution deductions kick in. Each 10 or 15 degrees of deviation in an execution deduction–the difference depends on which apparatus–has a set deduction. There’s one deduction for missing 10 degrees in your 180-degree split and another for missing 20 degrees in your 180 degree split; deductions for each 10-degree bend at the hips in a layout position; even deductions for not having your hips bent enough in a pike. If your arms were bent in a handstand on bars, there’s a deduction for that, and it too is specified to the very degree. Flexed feet, crossed feet, head position, and too much arch in a straight-body position are also incorporated into execution deductions.

It takes time to train your eyes to see all of the different angles of deduction, time to see all of the body parts at the same time, but it doesn’t take much to appreciate it when you see a skill done right. At least not when you understand how amplitude, extension, form and execution all come together.

It’s always nice to see a stuck landing, but it’s the confluence of great execution, high amplitude and precise extension–and not the endings–that make a routine world-class. It’s not the end of the day that makes a job worthwhile, or a goodbye that cements a friendship.

It’s the middle part, and as any gymnast will tell you, the landing of one routine just means it’s time to prep for the next apparatus, the next routine This week, Huan-Hua (on the left, with Katie) moved on to the next routine, and even if endings don’t count for everything, they should still be celebrated with a good application of beer.

The 2008 cycle of Olympic gymnastics has begun, and it started on a high note, both as a couch potato and as a spectator (the two activities having subtly different emphases).

A Chart is Born!In couch-potato terms, I finished one of my 2 big summer writing projects and printed out a draft of the other to read for sentences that are too long (always my last step). I also came out on top in my epic struggle against the cables-and-lace pattern that I’m hoping will accompany the first official sock pattern with my new heel turn (a very small, very incomplete sample at right, just to make you salivate a bit). Pretty damn impressive for a 24-hour period of time, but it’s really just a bunch of projects that have been percolating all coming to a close at nearly the same time.

In gymnastics spectator terms, I finally got to see one of Alexander Artemev’s pommel horse routines without having to scream to no one in particular about how horrifying it is that he fell. Artemev–and to be fair, quite a few of his competitors–has what we call “extension” and “amplitude” in the gymnastics world, words which the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad NBC Commentating Trio toss around but never really define.

You can try out both extension and amplitude for yourself at home: think of the difference between reaching out with a straight arm to grab a pen and reaching out with a straight arm for a wall that’s several inches away and has a million-dollar bill taped to it (but without ever moving your shoulders). That difference in tension and the length of your arm is the difference between “straight” and “fully extended.”

Now imagine how high you’d jump if you were just asked to jump over that pen, and how much higher you’d jump if the million-dollar bill were hanging 3 feet above the tips of your fully extended fingers…. That’s amplitude, which can also refer to how far away from the equipment you can push your body–maintaining full extension, of course–even if you still happen to be physically touching the equipment.

If you just watch gymnastics every 4 years, the inexpressible difference between “Meh….” and “My god!” will–given the same difficulty level–probably come down to an athlete with OK extension and amplitude vs an athlete with full extension and amplitude. Artemev’s pommel horse routine–when he hits it–has both. The Chinese men are unbeatable because they have both on all 6 events.

Not only am I’m excited to see how this home-court advantage will work for a very deserving Chinese men’s team, I get to be excited about gymnastics and my knitting at the same time! Favorite things, indeed.

Tomorrow, more about how to make gymnastics scoring make sense, a rundown on the women’s prelims, and actual photos of actual socks made of actual yarn.