One Olympic discipline is so badass that if its athletes performed bare chested in cargo shorts, they'd probably star at the X Games.
It's trampoline, and it's governed by the International Gymnastics Federation, which mandates "singlets," "gym trousers," and matching slippers. A support bandage can't even be louder than beige. (Rule 6.3 in case the index pages fell out of your rule book.)
So instead of seeing Dong Dong on ESPN boasting that he can nail 24 flips and 15.5 twists in 20 seconds, at heights of 30 feet above a seven-by-14 foot trampoline bed and while briefly touching the surface only ten times… the reigning Olympic champion walks around Rio unnoticed.
American gymnast Simone Biles is far more famous, yet when she performs the hardest floor exercise routine in the world, she lands eight flips and 4.5 twists in 90 seconds. And when American David Boudia won Olympic gold in London in platform diving, he completed 19.5 somersaults and five twists in a men's final that stretched well over an hour.
There is no recovery time in trampoline. There are no free bounces. Every huck (ahem, "element") must include a trick. One miss and it's "game over"—or worse.
"When I was 16, I basically lost all my skills," said Jason Burnett, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist from Canada (who will compete in Rio on August 13th).
"I don't remember exactly what triggered it," Burnett said of his massive blank-out, "but it usually begins when you get lost in the air. You become disoriented."
Trampolines look solid, but they can be unpredictable, with different spring tensions and different materials in the bed; sometimes it doesn't sit perfectly level, which, Burnett said, "can cause all sorts of problems with travel."
"Last time I got scared? Probably two months ago," Burnett said. "I was doing a Miller Plus, which is a quad-twisting double backflip. There's so much going on that there's not enough time to spot the trampoline within the skill. You just have to trust your body and trust the repetitions you've done to get you through. It doesn't always work. Sometimes you lose that trust. Sometimes your body reacts in a different way. I ended up spacing it and had a bit of a crash. It hasn't really been a favorite skill of mine ever since."
Burnett, like many trampolinists, had a gymnastics background, but there are exceptions in Rio.
U.S. Olympian Logan Dooley said he began by jumping on his parents' bed "religiously," so his parents bought him a tramp when he was seven. Yet he was never drawn to the still rings, the pommel horse, or the vault. He just kept bouncing. "I'm an oddball," he said of his linear path to the Games.
Brent Steffensen—a non-Olympian who came to the sport when he was 21, does trampoline exhibitions now, and is better known for his prowess on American Ninja Warrior—said he ran away from gymnastics as a boy because of the tights. "I was TOTALLY made fun of. Those things scare a lot of kids away."
But trampoline's image problem, Steffensen said, isn't only the uniforms. It's also the rigid form: pointed toes, straight legs, good posture. "It's very in-the-box, and people want out-of-the-box," he said.
"When I saw the parkour stuff—people with bent knees and flexed feet," Steffensen continued, "at first I was like, 'Man, that is the most INCORRECT way to flip EVER.'" Then he realized it was something else: "It's style."
So what if Rio organizers held the men's and women's trampoline events on the beach instead of a stale arena? What if athletes wore jeans and T-shirts?
Fans would love it, said Trace Worthington, a former NBC trampoline analyst and Olympic freestyle skier. He is also co-founder of a ski- and snowboard-themed trampoline show that performs regularly in Utah and around the country.
Worthington has seen firsthand how athletes loosen up in an exhibition environment. "It draws more of their personality. All of a sudden, they're more relaxed," he said.
Dooley has starred in Worthington's shows, and he agreed.
"I love it when the crowd gets into it," he said. "It starts to feel more like a performance and less like a competition—and that's when I seem to do my best."
When Dooley competes in China for points on the international circuit, he said, "they always come in big numbers, but they're so polite. Everyone's silent. What the heck? You finish and they're golf-clapping. It's really weird."
There is, however, a movement toward innovation.
In Canada, for example, a phenomenon called "Trampwall" uses an Olympic-sized trampoline, but instead of athletes bouncing off their feet, they bounce on to their backs and run up walls or flip up onto ledges. It's highly entertaining and Canada's Samantha Sendel is one of the best women in the world at it.
For now, however, we have Rio, where 16 women and 16 men will perform two routines in the qualifying round, each of which must include ten flipping and spinning tricks in immediate succession. The top eight will advance to the finals where athletes will do a single routine featuring ten skills. The women compete on August 12th, the men on August 13th.
Trampoline made its Olympic debut in 2000. Scores are based on difficulty, execution, and time of flight, which is measured by lasers under the trampoline and calculated to the thousandth of a second. The time-of-flight counter only works when the trampoline bed is taut—if it included time of impact, then heavier athletes would have an advantage because they depress the surface lower and longer on each bounce.
All athletes aim for the sweet spot, an X in the center, because it offers maximum spring. The black rectangle around the X is also key, because landing outside of it will cost at least one-tenth of an execution point.
So yeah, it probably would be hard for judges to determine an execution score if athletes' shirt tails were hanging out.
But even if they wore the most radical skinsuits, at least one stigma remains: the question of whether trampoline is even a sport. Every activity people can do in their back yard has this problem: beach volleyball, badminton, table tennis, even golf has been questioned.
But just remember the words of the Ninja.
"Anyone can run, and anyone can swim," Steffensen said, "and those are in the Olympics."
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