CLAIRE GALOFAROAP National Writer
Tokyo (AP) —In the suburbs of Tokyo, Hiromi Matsumoto finds herself in love with an online video of rhythmic gymnastics — a spectacular swirl of ballet and acrobatics, a club soaring in the air, and a superhuman winding body.
But it wasn’t the rhythmic gymnastics currently taking place at the Olympic Stadium, just a few miles from her home. There, women are competing for medals at the grand finale of the gymnastics competition.
The rhythmic gymnast Matsumoto met was a man.
Rhythmic gymnastics, along with synchronized swimming, is one of the only sports in the Summer Olympics, and it is believed that only women will compete. However, in Japan, the host country, the men’s version was born decades ago and is still a popular sport. About 1,500 boys and men are involved in rhythmic gymnastics, and some are dreaming of an Olympic-recognized day and trying to expand its reach around the world.
But others are still aware that international recognition can hurt their beloved sport and force them to relinquish control of the style they have completed for 70 years. increase.
“It’s a tricky problem. It has very complex and complex emotions,” Matsumoto said. “Not only athletes, but fans and coaches like the way it is now and don’t want it to be changed by anyone outside the community.”
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The Olympic version played by women was born in the Soviet Union, and Russia remains dominant in the sport. Women wear leotards adorned with dramatic jewels, and their performance focuses on elegance and flexibility. There are medals for individual performers and groups of five women, who work in perfect harmony as if they were connected by an invisible string. They are forbidden to perform the high-intensity tumbling found in gymnastics such as backflips and turns.
However, Japanese-style men’s rhythmic gymnastics is an indication of muscle and speed and includes tumbling. They perform a series of gymnastics-like movements called “tosh”, adding stunts from cheerleaders like pyramids and basket toss. In the Olympic version, women throw and catch four instruments: a ribbon, a hoop, a ball, and a pair of clubs. Men also use clubs and balls, but replace ribbons and hoops with a set of ropes and small rings. Their style looks like a combination of ballet and breakdance.
“It’s often said that doing rhythmic gymnastics is feminine and girlish,” Matsumoto said.
But then they watch the video and realize they were wrong, she said. “It’s not feminine at all, it’s the opposite of feminine. It’s not recognized by the world.”
Matsumoto, who studies linguistics and works as an English teacher, believes that one of the biggest challenges in promoting this sport is language. Most rhythmic gymnasts can only speak Japanese, so their style remained in the Japanese world. She launched a YouTube channel and Facebook page and soon became an unofficial spokeswoman for sports, trying to spread interest around the world.
Coach Kotaro Yamada, chairman of the Japan Athletic Association, said it was a sport dating back to the 1940s in Japan. At that time, Japanese men and women were doing the same muscular rhythmic gymnastics.
The International Gymnastics Federation first recognized the sport in the 1960s under the name “Modern Gymnastics”, based on a Russian model that emphasized fluidity, artistry and dance. He made his Olympic debut at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
As it spread around the world, Japanese male and female versions diverged: men maintained a more tumbling-centric version, but women shifted to comply with international standards, Matsumoto said. I did.
For men, sports are played in a few places where there are no international rules. In Spain, for example, men perform rhythmic gymnastics much like the female version.
Canadian gymnastics coach Mario Lamb was fascinated by the sport and visited Japan many times to study. He started the program in Canada 20 years ago. Initially, there were about five children in the basement of a community center where the ceiling was so low that they could barely throw the club. But it expanded to about 100 over the years, and according to Lam, it was open to both boys and girls.
He had a martial arts background and looked like a beautiful combination of gymnastics and martial arts, so he called his program “martial arts gym”. He didn’t intend the name as a disguise to seduce a family who might have been skeptical about registering a boy in rhythmic gymnastics — but he thinks it helped.
Lamb was part of a coalition that approached the International Gymnastics Federation a few years ago on the inclusion of men’s rhythmic in the Olympics. He recalls that they accepted the promise of the sport, but said there were too few gymnasts and countries involved.
Yamada, a well-known Japanese coach, has worked with coaches from other countries to expand sports across national borders.
“We need to spread the sport around the world before we can be recognized as an Olympic candidate,” Yamada said. “In little by little, we are getting more attention and recognition from the world.”
In 2016, a team of Japanese universities was invited to the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Brazil.
A high school famous for its rhythmic gymnastics team has created a group called Blue Tokyo to create opportunities for gymnasts to continue performing after school. Sports are taken very seriously in Japan, and some private high schools have dormitories where gymnasts need to vacate rooms together to enhance friendship and teamwork, living in Japan and sports. Said travel writer Sarah Hodge, who works to gain international recognition.
She said Blue Tokyo won first place in the World of Dance in Las Vegas and was featured in America’s Got Talent. Fan sites are appearing on social media.
And Japanese gymnasts are moving abroad and spreading the word in their new homes. The best performers often find jobs in the American circus. At least a dozen have moved to Las Vegas or Orlando to play at Cirque du Soleil.
National champion Wataru Ito appears in Florida’s Drawn to Life, an acrobatic spectacle celebrating Disney animation, and uses his platform to promote men’s rhythmic gymnastics.
He wants to see men’s rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics, but he also keeps the sport he’s been practicing since he was three years old.
“I think we need to share rules and skills around the world, but we also need to be careful,” he said.
Matsumoto believes that one day the world will love rhythmic gymnastics.
She thinks it’s like ice-free figure skating.
“Figure skating can be feminine, and people will never say,” Oh, that’s girlish. ” When boys do it, it’s beautiful, but at the same time it’s masculine and cool, “she said. “I want boys to think that rhythmic gymnastics is cool,” he said.
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