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How Does Olympic Gymnastics Scoring Work?

Here's Exactly How to Watch Olympic Gymnastics, With Tips From Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton

Image Source: Getty / Alex Livesey / Staff

Mary Lou Retton is pretty familiar with what a perfect 10 looks and feels like — after all, she did it twice in a row on the vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, becoming the first American woman to win gold in gymnastics.

Since then, the gymnastics events have been a little harder to follow, scoring wise; in fact, the perfect 10 no longer exists. "I hate the new scoring system," Mary Lou told us (or exclaimed, rather!). "It's so complicated, I barely understand it!" There is literally algebra involved, so we're on the same page.

"There is no such thing as a perfect 10 anymore, which is crazy to me. That was part of the specialness of gymnastics." That said, she totally gets why the new scoring system exists: "Because gymnastics is such a subjective sport, it was meant to make things a little more fair."

Whether you're watching highlights of the Fierce Five or excited for upcoming events in the next few days, we chatted with this Olympic gymnastics icon — who is now a brand ambassador for Nature's Bounty — to get a totally expert, insider guide on how to watch the events and what to look for. First up: let's discuss the new scoring.

Scoring

There are two categories of scoring: difficulty and execution. Here's how Mary Lou broke it down.

"There's a difficulty score, how difficult the routine is. Then the execution score; that's where the judges will take off for bent legs or if you don't stick your dismount, you know, that kind of thing" — more on this in a minute. "They add those two scores up, then that's where you get your 14, 15, or 16. . . . Anything over a 15-point-something is excellent; that's a really big score!" she told POPSUGAR. "Sometimes, like with Simone Biles, you might see a 16 — that one's incredible."

"Anything higher than a 15.1 . . . those are going to be your winners. And you're going to see a lot of those from Team USA."

Because there's no "maximum score" anymore, keep your eye out for anything above 15 points, because as Mary Lou put it, there will be plenty of 15s to see, especially from the Final Five, their self-appointed nickname due to a rule change decreasing national team size from five to four competitors. "Anything higher than a 15.1 or .2, etc. . . . those are going to be your winners. And you're going to see a lot of those from Team USA. A lot."


Events

We asked Mary Lou if she could help guide us through each event and clue us in on what to watch for — what are the judges thinking? How do you even make sense of it all? Isn't it all just amazing? There's a lot to it, and Mary Lou totally broke it down in a way that makes sense. Use this as your cheat sheet for watching Team USA totally dominate in Rio.

Image Source: Getty / Quinn Rooney / Staff

Vault

Mary Lou is inarguably the queen of the vault, so we were dying to know what we should be looking for. "There are amazing vaulters on Team USA," she said.

  • Speed. "You wanna see a really fast run. . . . You don't want to see someone timid, someone who just jogs down there. Just an aggressive run." And look, we've seen Mary Lou Retton run toward the horse — she knows what she's talking about. "You're running so fast toward this standing table; it's crazy when you really break it down!"
  • Repulsion. "You want to see what we call a repulsion," said Mary Lou. This is when the gymnast does a "flip onto the horse."
  • Height. How high the gymnast launches herself off of the horse can factor into the score.
  • Distance. "You'll see the mats have tape lines on them; the judges go by that. You want to land right in the middle of the tape, and you really wanna stick your vault."
  • Form. "It happens so quick, and there's no instant replay," she said. "The human eye sometimes misses the form breaks in vault because it happens so fast," but she said to look for "no bent legs" and "that pretty toe point."
  • Landing. "Gold medals are won by sticking landings, truly. If you take that one step, it can cost you a tenth, which could cost you a medal."

We also really wanted to know who she's watching on the vault in this year's Olympics — it's no surprise that she's got her eye on Simone Biles. "Unreal . . . she's just heads above everybody else," she said. And why? Because she is master of more than one form of vault.

"Gold medals are won by sticking landings."

Mary Lou explained, "In the first day of competition for team finals — and this may be a little too sophisticated — you have to do two vaults from two different families. That's double the work because you have to train for two completely different vaults, and of course she can do that." Noted!

Uneven Bars

  • Fluid movement. Smooth, even motion is crucial. If the moves seem jerky, points will be lost.
  • Handstands. But they have to be vertical! "When they cast up to the handstands, it has to be vertical. The judges take off a lot of points when they don't make it to a vertical position."
  • Release moves. The flow and execution of these moves are also fundamental in scoring big. "That's where they let go of the bar, do a flip, and catch again, or go from the top bar to the low bar."
  • Dismount landing. Like she said earlier, they've gotta "stick it" and land smoothly with no fumbling or extra steps. "The last impression that the judges see is that dismount landing; it's funny, gymnastics is the only sport, I think in the world, where you yell 'STICK IT!' to somebody and it's a good thing!"

Image Source: Getty / Lars Baron / Staff

Beam

  • Solidness. This was of the utmost importance — she emphasized that "no balance checks" were imperative for high scores. "The girls that you see will be beam champions work that four-inch piece of wood — that's all it is, it's four inches — like they're on the floor." She went on to say, "no bobbles, and obviously don't fall off!"
  • Acrobatic moves. This includes flips, tumbles, and all those OMG moments we all ogle over. Form is super important in this event as well!
  • Fluid movement. Same as with uneven bars, gymnasts aim for smooth, flowing motion that gives a seamless performance.
  • Leaps. "You want what we call 180 — it's when your legs are completely parallel to the beam. It shows your flexibility."
  • Landing. "Once again, that last impression!" She kept coming back to the concept of "stick it." It makes sense!

Floor

A favorite for many an Olympic fan, as well as Mary Lou herself — "this is my favorite event to watch," she said. "And most people's, because it's one of the longer events in women's gymnastics, it's set to music, and you get a sense of the athlete's personality." It's also more subjective and a bit harder to explain the judging.

  • Performance quality. "You're going to see them dancing, smiling." Mary Lou told us that smiling for the judges is super important and leaves a better impression. Because of the "overall subjectiveness of floor" she said the girls "want to look like [they're] happy out there and enjoying it!"
  • Posture. "The judges look for when they land their tumbling if their chest is low by their knees; that's not good. They want your chest to be up."
  • Dance moves. Although subjective, dance moves play a role in scoring as well (and they're fun to watch!). "The fluidity of the leap passes and turns" is something to look for, too. "Aly Raisman is reigning Olympic champion on the floor; her tumbling is amazing," so get ready for some entertainment!
  • Form. Aly Raisman has talked about cowboying before and knee placement. Mary Lou explained that "cowboying is when you do somersaults in the air and your legs are kind of apart — [the judges] want their knees together."
  • Landings. "Sticking your landings on floor is major as well. Back in my day we were allowed to land and then step one foot back; they're not allowed to do that. They have to land two feet and not move."
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