A bluffer's guide to artistic gymnastics: Beam

Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands performs on the beam during the Gymnastics Rio Gala on Day 12 of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands performs on the beam during the Gymnastics Rio Gala on Day 12 of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Artistic gymnastics always creates a buzz at any Olympic Games, so if you’re a newbie and want to know what’s what, check out our weekly series, which delves into each event. Next up, the dreaded beam.

Can you hold your nerve? That’s what it’s all about on beam. Adrenaline may be coursing through your veins, the spotlight is solely on you as you seek to navigate high leaps, wobble-inducing tumbling and dizzying spins, but you need to do it all at a good pace, on a firm but cushioned beam just wider than your foot and 1.25m off the floor. Best thing to do – inhale deeply, exhale deeply and just go confidently into your fate.

Catalina Ponor’s routine is one oft-cited by gymnasts as having it all. The Romanian won Olympic gold in 2004, at a time when scores were still marked out of 10. Ponor was just 0.213 marks off perfection, so you can’t really argue with that. Check out the height on the somersaults, the linking of difficult moves together and the confidence and artistry in which she powers through the routine, packing in as much difficulty as she can.

Catalina Ponor's spectacular Athens 2004 gold medal-winning beam routine

Romania's Catalina Ponor performed a difficult but confident beam routine, which won her the Olympic title on that apparatus at Athens 2004.

What to look out for

So beam – don’t worry about calling it balance beam, having to balance is obvious enough, right? Gymnasts need to perform forward and backward somersaults – forward are more difficult because you lose sight of the beam and land ‘blind’ – spins, and leaps and combinations of all of those. Ponor's routine above showcases each and every one, despite competing it 17 years ago, the Romanian would still have all the difficulty required for a routine competed today.

Scores on all apparatus these days are made up of an execution score (the E score) and the difficulty score (the D score). Both marks are shown to viewers, so for fans of the old-school perfect 10 scoring system, check out the E score. This starts at 10 and marks are removed by judges for loss of form such as toes that are not pointed or a fall from the apparatus.

The D score is the total marks calculated by judges from the value given to each move performed by the gymnast via a Code of Points, which is renewed every Olympic cycle.

One move to look out for is the ring leap or change-leg ring. It doesn’t sound too tremulous, but much height is needed off the beam in order to perform splits in the air while flinging your head back and trying to touch your head with your foot. Exhibit A and B below show how it should and shouldn’t be done. However, side note, it’s possible the photographer didn’t quite catch the optimum position and so the not-quite-there picture may just have been a capturing issue. Right, Yufei?

Luo Rui of China competes on the beam during the 2021 China National Gymnastics Championship & Tokyo Olympic Trials on May 5, 2021 in Chengdu, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Luo Rui of China competes on the beam during the 2021 China National Gymnastics Championship & Tokyo Olympic Trials on May 5, 2021 in Chengdu, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images
Lu Yufei of China competes on the beam during the Women's beam finals of 2021 China National Gymnastics Championship & Tokyo Olympic Trials on May 9, 2021 in Chengdu, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Lu Yufei of China competes on the beam during the Women's beam finals of 2021 China National Gymnastics Championship & Tokyo Olympic Trials on May 9, 2021 in Chengdu, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images

Innovative routines are also a fan favourite and there's none better at that than British-born Danusia Francis, who is set to compete for Jamaica at her first Olympic Games come Tokyo 2020. The 27-year-old thought her Olympic chance had gone until regaining a love of gymnastics while competing for the UCLA Bruins gymnastics team, scoring a perfect 10 on beam, including the famous dismount, during her college gymnastics career.

Tokyo 2020 also spoke to Francis about what it feels like to compete on beam, a nerve-racking experience for many a gymnast, but not, it appears, Francis herself who loves the apparatus.

Danusia Francis on what it's like to compete on the dreaded beam routine

Danusia Francis is set to perform her innovative beam routine at Tokyo 2020, which includes a unique dismount.

What to expect in the beam apparatus final

Any apparatus final tends to be a free-for-all in terms of those winning medals, so expect emotional moments from unexpected winners. Many of the top gymnasts will have already competed over three days in the qualifiers, the team event, and individual all-around competitions, so start to get weary by the latter stages of the nine-day event.

This is when the apparatus specialists step up, those who focus on one or two events only, and some of the lower profile gymnastics nations come to the fore. Some gymnasts have literally just qualified for Tokyo 2020 for one of the apparatus, via various events and World Cups leading up to the Games. Their country may not have even have qualified a team. So for them, it’s all or nothing in the qualifiers, trying to make the top eight. If they make a mistake, that’s it, Games over.

So who to look out for come the Olympic beam final on 3 August?

Basically, anyone who has made the final and who stays on the apparatus is in with a shout of a medal at this point.

The Rio 2016 champion, Netherlands' Sanne Wevers, performed a very different style of beam routine to previous Olympics, combining super difficult dance moves and spins over the tumbling maestros.

Talking of tumbling maestros, if we're lucky and we're very, very good, we may get to see Simone Biles' spectacular dismount – the double twisting double back, or double double, something that no other gymnast in the world is doing.

The artistic gymnastics qualification starts on Saturday 24 July 2021. Next up in the weekly bluffer's guide to artistic gymnastics series, is floor, published Tuesday 15 June.

See more from the bluffer's guide to artistic gymnastics series: Vault, Rings and Pommel Horse.