Entrance to Yoyogi National Gymnasium_photo by Jon Omori

Was it a sign of things to come?

 

After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:

The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!

At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.

Photo by Jon Omori

One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of  readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple  countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.

 

“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.

Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.

 

“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”

 

Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.

From youtube streaming feed

He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that

  • They had to wear their masks at all times.
  • If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
  • They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
  • And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.

The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as

  • “Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
  • “Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
  • “Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
  • “Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
Athletes for China’s national gymnastics team in protective gear arrive at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 5 to attend an international competition. (Ryo Kato)

While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.

 

Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.

 

Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”

 

In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.

 

The real winners?  The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.

Friends in the end, from youtube streaming feed

Fujitsu 3D Gymnastic Modeling

The robots aren’t quite taking over by 2020. But they will be assisting gymnastic judges at the 2020 Olympics.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) intends to employ laser technology in order to provide data and recommendations to judges instantaneously to supplement their own judgment based on what they see with their own eyes.

Fujitsu, which is a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner, has been focusing its 3D sensory technology on the world of gymnastics in order to provide real-time feedback on techniques a gymnast is attempting and making, the elements of which can be hard to catch by the naked eye. This technology, an advance on the more familiar technology of applying motion capture balls all over the body of an athlete, does not require the subject to apply anything. Instead a device that emits lasers from a single point, one that looks like a camera, feeds data that processes, essentially, 360 degree views of the subject.

With that amount of data captured, the software is able to assess exactly how the body has moved through the air. Benchmarking against standards of excellence inputted into the software, the system is then able to provide a report to judges what techniques were attempted or made, and then assess points to those series of techniques. In essence the 3D sensory system can do the gymnastic judge’s job.

Clearly, there is an advantage a non-human system has over a human – a “robot” will not get tired or cranky at the end of the day, nor will it allow unconscious biases about nationality, race, appearance, etc to seep into its judgment. But there has been some concern, as there should be.

According to this article, whenever you place your measuring and evaluating systems in the hands of algorithms, you are subject to hacking of some sort.

“In gymnastics, you can have 10 to 100 independent moves the system is trying to score. If the algorithm were manipulated by even a small portion you could affect the overall outcome score and it would be very hard to detect,” said Betsy Cooper, the executive director for long-term cybersecurity at UC Berkeley.

Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics
Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics

Any technology that relays information from an external source – like this 3D sensor does – to a computer is at risk. Mix the technology with a scoring panel of judges, and there is room for manipulation. “You can manipulate the algorithms to change the score one out of every five times, making it hard to detect. That area is most disconcerting. Whoever has an interest in the outcome of these major sporting events will also have an interest in trying to take advantage of any such system,” Cooper said.

This is why, the plan is to have 3D sensory system only assist judges, not replace them.

Perhaps the greatest impact will be in faster development of gymnasts. Coaches and gymnasts can examine the data, understand the micro-movements that keep their points down, and apply their practices to improving their movements to get their points up.

In other words, the next generation of gymnasts will grow up on this feedback, understanding what specific things they need to do for perfection at very early stages in their career. In this new age of digital analytics and 3D modeling, athletes are able to approach perfection at a faster rate than ever before.

Uchimura holds up six fingers

At the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, after the competition ended, Kōhei Uchimura beamed into the camera and raised one finger at a time, until he showed the world six fingers, one for six consecutive world championships since 2009. Actually, it’s seven if you include the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, he is the only gymnast, either male or female, who has ever won more than two world championships in a row.

Such consistent superiority at the highest levels of gymnastics competition have left experts with little more to say about “Superman” Uchimura, except that he is the greatest gymnast who has ever lived. As USA Today put it:

There have been gymnasts who have won more medals, and those who claimed more golds. But no one – no one – has dominated like Uchimura or done it for so long. That just doesn’t happen in gymnastics, where the difficulty of the skills and the constant repetition required to perfect them means the best gymnasts have all the staying power of a Kardashian marriage. It’s simply too grueling to stay at the very top for more than one Olympic cycle.

Uchimura is amazing because he doesn’t believe he has to show he can make the most difficult maneuvers, which he probably could do. But his goal is perfection, and the beauty that perfection can reflect. Here is a wonderful interview of Uchimura conducted by the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), in which he says the following:

Beauty of movement is my goal. My father used to say that a hundred imperfect movements cannot match a single beautiful one, and this is something I have always kept in my mind. I could perform more difficult skills, but if I did I would have problems. For instance, I don’t have the energy that I did, and I can’t keep my feet taut, so I always aim for a balance between technical difficulty and execution in my routines. This is where the beauty of gymnastics comes in.

At the ripe age of 27, the Kita Kyushu native believes he is peaking at the right time for Rio, and that this is the last chance for him to maintain this level for all-around competitions, although he does leave open the possibility, as he says in the FIG interview, of competing for Japan at home in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Rio Olympics will probably be the last when I am at the top of my game. I want to be faultless. As the 2020 Olympics are being held in Japan, I want to carry on until then. [But] the risk of injury increases with age. One can carry on competing on the horizontal [high] bar for longer than the other apparatus. My technique is good, and I’m capable of scoring highly, so I would choose the horizontal bar.

The question is, can he lead the Japan team to its first overall gold championships since 2004, and perhaps spark another golden age of Japan’s men’s gymnastics when they won gold at six consecutive Olympics from 1960 to 1976. Uchimura will have London Olympic teammate, Koji Yamamoto, Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka, as well as a 19-year-old talent, Kenzo Shirai, who is a world champion in the floor exercise.

But there is no question: Unless Uchimura has an injury in Rio, there is very little stopping Superman from repeating as Overall Champion at the Olympics this summer.