In terms of popularity it is second to none, thanks to some extraordinary athletes

It is not the beauty and grace alone which have helped gymnastics gain universal appeal. The intensity of the competitions, mixed with the unexpected margin of error, is also something which has often charmed the spectators.

A sport which has remained in the Olympic roster since 1896, when men competed in open air, saw some radical changes in 1928 (Amsterdam). For the first time women were allowed to take part in the event.

And thanks to some extraordinary athletes over the years, gymnastics indeed has thrived to prove that in terms of popularity it is second to none, athletics and swimming included.

Recent statistics indicate that gymnastics has constantly figured high in television ratings across the world, in excess of over 30 per cent in Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) and among all age-groups included in the survey.

Stars’ contribution

It could be no different in London too.

The illuminating presence of the sport in the Olympic arena certainly owes a lot to legendary figures such as Nadia Comaneci, Larisa Latynina, Olga Korbut, Vera Caslavska, Mary Lou Retton, Svetlana Khorkina, Viktor Chukarin, Boris Shaklin, Sawao Kato, Dmitry Bilozerchev, Bart Conner Nikolai Andrianov, Vitaly Scherbo and Li Ning. Their gusty and awe-inspiring performances simply fail to fade away.

Fortunately enough, many of the new generation gymnasts, who will add glitz and glamour to London’s North Greenwich Arena between July 28 and August 7 too are of the same mould, promising some pulsating contests.

In Beijing, four years ago, the Chinese were simply superb, winning as many as 9 out of the 14 gold medals up for grabs.

However, it is unlikely that there would be a repeat of that in London, because of a change in the world order since Beijing; especially on account of a rule change that has allowed a team only five gymnasts instead of six as was the case earlier in the team event.

With the great Yang Wei retired, the Chinese, though having won the men’s team title at last year’s world championships in Tokyo but still left without an able leader, could be in trouble in London as they will be chased by the Kochei Uchimura-inspired Japanese, and the Americans, led by John Orozco.

The 23-year-old Uchimura, who has been unbeaten since Beijing, would be the favourite to win the men’s all-around title at the London Games besides targeting the floor and horizontal bar gold medals.

And if this happens as expected, the Chinese would be left with only the titles in rings, where Chen Yibing should excel once again, and in parallel bars Feng Zhe should take the honours. Though the British will be pinning their hopes on Louis Smith, who in Beijing won his country’s first gymnastics medal in nearly a century, it could still be Krisztian Berki (Hungary), the man to beat in pommel horse.

In vault, it is likely that there could be a toss up between Flavius Koczi (Romania), Yang Hak-Seon (South Korea) and Igor Radivilov (Ukraine) for the top spot, though Koczi may have a slight edge over his rivals.

Surprises

The women’s action too are expected to throw up a lot of surprises as it could be four-horse race between the United States, Romania, Russia and China for the team title. The Americans will be led by Gabrielle Douglas and Jordyn Wieber, the Romanian and Russian star cast are to be made up of Catalina Ponor and Larisa Iordache and Aliya Mustafina and Vikotria Komava respectively.

China, the reigning champion, on the other hand could be struggling in the absence of the injured Cheng Fei.

It could be a two-way tie between Douglas and Wieber for the top honours in the all-around, while vault specialist Mckayala Maroney (also from the U.S.), Mustafina (uneven bars), Ponor (beam) and China’s Sui Lu (floor) stand the chance of clinching medals.

Yet, there could be many unexpected twists and turns and precisely this is why gymnastics at London should remain on top of your agenda.

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