Russia vs. Ukraine: Two Philosophies from the Same World

Lately, I have been reading interviews with the head coaches of the Russian and Ukrainian teams: Irina Viner and Irina Deriugina. The two biggest authorities in the world of rhythmic gymnastics now. Each explains her vision of gymnastics and its future. I would like to compare those seemingly conflicting visions here and express my admiration for both.

Irina Viner: We are not an after school dance activity

In her lastest interview (http://sportpanorama.by/content/gymnastics/13866/), Irina Alexandrovna has stated that she worries about whether rhythmic gymnastics can remain an Olympic sport, because, instead of increasing difficulty, the sport is moving towards more dance-like and easier routines. Viner states that her gymnasts receive visits from the great Maya Plisetskaya, who was the firs ballerina to perform a ring leap, and introduce greater flexibility into the world of ballet. At the time, Plisetskaya was considered unorthodox or even scandalous but 20th century classical ballet has moved in a direction of showcasing the physical qualities of the gymnasts, while rhythmic gymnastics is stepping back. Here is a short video about Plisetskaya where you can see her leg goes very high up compared to the others and when she leans back, her back flexibility makes it very easy for her. It was almost too easy for someone so gifted to dance:

Irina Deriugina: Kanaeva is too Pragmatic

By contrast, the Ukranian two-time world champion and star coach, Irina Deriguina, has blamed the top Russian gymnast, Evgenia Kanaeva, of being "too pragmatic." Deriguina says that "Kanaeva is so technically strong, anyone would be envious of her. She is perfect from the point of view of the code of pints. But at the same time, her programs do not have enough of a special mood, soulfulness, temperament, which were common among prior generations of rhythmic gymnasts." (http://sportpanorama.by/content/gymnastics/13865/). Deriugina thinks that gymnasts need to be more expressive, artistic and with more personality.

So this is my summary of Deriugina and Viner's philosophies. Though on pictures, it seems hard to tell who is who!

But what they have in common is that they want to win!

What is My Take?

While I agree that expression and personal style make a gymnast stand out, I also respect and admire the fact that Kanaeva keeps adding more and more difficulty to her routines, even though she could still win without it. She is really pushing herself and gymnastics forward. Many people have made fun of our favorite sport as a "dance thing where people wave a ribbon around." If rhythmic gymnastics is to remain an Olympic sport, we need to prove that what we do has serious athletic value, technical difficulty and challenge. At the same time, I would not like gymnasts to focus solely on difficulty at the expense of musicality and expression. But I am not too worried about that. I think many gymnasts in the past have brought the two sides of the same world, technique and artistry, into harmony during the same routine.

If there ever was a gymnast who was both very physically gifted and had her own personality, that would be Alexandra Timoshenko, the pride of the Ukrainian school, a European, World and Olympic champion. She grabbed all of these three titles, something few other gymnasts have achieved. But I think the reason she was able to win was not her "artistry," it was her marvelous long-legged extensions. Watch here:

Clearly, apparatus technique was not her strongest side. But her ballet technique was, and the superior physical quality of her routines. Had she been born earlier, she would have been like Plisetskaya. Which goes to prove that the Russian and Ukranian philosophies come from the same world, a world where perfection is not a goal, but a belief.