How to Watch: Understanding Olympic Gymnastics

Everything you need to know about the sport so you can watch it like an expert

How to Watch: Understanding Olympic Gymnastics

Picture by: Julio Cortez / AP/Press Association Images

This year Ellis O'Reilly will become the very first female artistic gymnast to represent Ireland in the Olympic Games, but since gymnastics is one of those sports not everyone is very familiar with, we've created a guide to help you feel a bit more at home with the sport.

2016 is going to be a monumental Olympic Games for gymnastics. The US women's team in particular are on track to take home several gold medals and the sports new 'it girl' Simone Biles will be doing some of the most difficult routines ever performed at the Games.

So for anyone who isn't entirely sure what a 'perfect 10' looks like, here's a breakdown of the things you need to know to understand gymnastics a little bit better.

The Lingo

Like every sport, gymnastics has a few terms you'll need to get familiar with. Here are some of the most common phrases you will need to know.


A dismount refers to the gymnast's exit from an apparatus at the end of a routine; usually performed with a difficult twist or somersault.

Stuck Landing

A stuck landing also refers to the gymnast's dismount and is one of the most used terms in gymnastics. It means that the gymnast has successfully dismounted the apparatus without fumbling or falling over. This is one of the most basic ways to spot a good, strong finish to a routine. 

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Handstand/Over or Under

Handstands are the foundation of almost every move a gymnast performs. However some handstands are marked higher than others. If a gymnast does not reach a handstand position, it is said to be 'under', but if the handstand is past a straight upright position, it is said to be 'over'. This is particularly important on Uneven Bars for women and the Horizontal Bar for men.


A full, double or triple refers to the amount of rotations a gymnast does. The combination of these turns with flips and tricks can get quite complicated, but generally double or triple turns and flips are very difficult and will score much higher than a 'full' (one full rotation).

Out of Bounds

If a gymnast steps outside of an area in certain events (such as vault and floor exercise) they are said to be 'out of bounds'. This will result in a deduction from their score. The area is always indicated by a border of white tape or a differently colored mat. 

Tumbling pass 

Tumbling is a term used quite frequently in gymnastics. It simply means a series of connected flips in a routine. Tumbling is usually seen on the floor exercise, but can sometimes be performed on the balance beam.

The Events

Although gymnastics has a number of different sub-divisions, such as trampolining and rhythmic gymnastics, the most commonly watched and widely-known area is artistic gymnastics.

Men and women compete in different events in artistic gymnastics. Men compete on six events: Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse, Still Rings, Vault, Parallel Bars, and Horizontal Bar; while women compete on four: Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam, and Floor Exercise. 

Floor Exercise

Both events are fairly similar for men and women, but the men's routines are more about the flips and tricks, while the women's routines have a required artistic element. The women also perform to music while the men do not. The women's floor exercise is usually one of the more entertaining events to watch.

Parallel Bars, Uneven Bars and Horizontal Bar

These are all comparable pieces of apparatus. In each of these events the goal is for the gymnast to complete a routine which includes a number of required elements. Judges make deductions based on how 'clean' the routine was, and how well each of the elements were performed. Huge deductions are made if the gymnast falls off the apparatus.

Generally the aim in each of these events is to perform a number of concise movements on the apparatus and land in a strong handstand position when transitioning from one move to another. A 'good' handstand is one where the gymnast's body is straight, their legs are together and their feet are pointed. A handstand  can be slightly 'over' or 'under', which usually results in a deduction from their score. 

Picture by: Matthias Schrader / AP/Press Association Images

Balance Beam

The beam is one of the most nail-biting events to watch, as the gymnasts perform a routine on a four-inch piece of equipment. Often the most challenging part for competitors in this event is keeping their nerves under control as they complete extremely difficult flips, leaps, and turns. A small mistake on the beam could result in the gymnast loosing their footing so they must stay very focused, which can be even more difficult in front of a large audience.

Picture by: Jeff Roberson / AP/Press Association Images

Pommel Horse

While this typically is not the most exciting event to watch, the skill and concentration it requires is something to marvel at. The aim in this event is for the gymnast to balance on their hands and swing both legs in a circular motion, performing skills on all parts of the apparatus. To make the exercise more challenging, gymnasts will often include variations on a typical circling skill by turning or by straddling their legs.

Picture by: Nigel French / PA Archive/Press Association Images


Like the floor exercise, both men and women compete in this event. Gymnasts sprint down a 25 metre runway, jump onto a springboard, then propel themselves forward or backward off the vault and perform a difficult skill. 

The aim is to get as much power off the vault to get as high as possible into the air and make a clean landing. This is one event where a 'stuck landing' is paramount in ensuring a good score.

Some might remember the infamous moment at the 2012 Olympics when US gymnast, Mckayla Maroney, was set to win a gold medal in the vault event but during her final vault  she certainly didn't stick the landing.

However, before her final fall, Mykayla performed one of the most brilliant vaults ever seen at the Olympic Games.

Still Rings

Like in Uneven Bars and Horizontal Bars, Still Rings is all about the perfect body position. The still rings requires an immense amount of upper body strength and control. The gymnasts must perform a routine demonstrating balance, strength, power, and dynamic motion while preventing the rings themselves from swinging. 

Picture by: Danny Lawson / PA Archive/Press Association Images


Unfortunately, the well known 'perfect 10' system was replaced by a more complicated scoring method in 2006 by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG).

The new scoring system is difficult, even for those within the sport to understand, but don't worry you don't need to know the ins and outs of the scoring system to spot a bad mark.

All you really need to know is that every gymnast has a set amount of points they can receive for their routine, based on the difficulty of the elements involved.

Typically these points range from 13.00 to 16.00 with the average at elite level being 14.00. Depending on how unsteady the gymnast is during their routine, deductions will be made to their starting score.

When errors occur the judges asses them as small, medium or large and respective 0.1, 0.3 and 0.5 deductions are applied.

So generally a good rule of thumb is that a score below 14:00 puts the gymnast in danger while a score of 15:00-16:00 or above is excellent.

Ones to watch

This year has already been one of the most exciting years ever for artist gymnastics and there is no doubt that the Rio Olympics will showcase some of the best athletes the sport has to offer. 

Of course, we will all be keeping our fingers crossed for the Irish gymnasts; Ellis O'Reilly in the women's events and Kieran Behan in the men's, but here are some others to look forward to as well:

One athlete everyone will be trying desperately trying to beat during the Games is already being hailed as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. Her name is Simone Biles and she will be leading the US team to Olympic success.


Aly Raisman (also part of the US team) is another shoo-in for a medal. She is returning for her second Olympic run after being part of the infamous 'fierce five' who won gold in the all-around at the London Games. Raisman also placed first in the floor exercise event and third in the vault at the 2012 Olympics.

Shang Chunsong from the Chinese team is great one to watch on uneven bars and balance beam. She might be tiny in stature, but her routines are larger than life.

Sam Mikulak is on US men's team and is a great all-round contender. Mikulak has won four U.S. championships in a row. He will be spectacular to watch on horizontal bar and the still rings, but he also excels  on the pommel horse.

Dipa Karmakar from India is very strong in the vault event. Her vaults are comparable to that of former Olympian Mckayla Maroney, who is thought to be one of the best.

Lauren Hernandez from the US is a joy to watch. Not only is she a very skilled gymnast she always puts on a great show while completing very difficult moves. Lauren has a very dynamic floor routine that is by far one of the most entertaining this year.

The UK's Louis Smith might be familiar to some as the champion of 2012's 'Strictly Come Dancing', but not only is he a trophy winning dancer, he is one of the best in the world on the pommel horse. He received a bronze medal and a silver medal on the pommel horse at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics respectively.