Published Jul 30, 2021
Simone Biles once again wowed the world earlier this year when she became the first female to land a Yurchenko Double Pike on the vault, a move that had never been performed by a female gymnast in competition. Of course, this impressive physical feat is only the latest in her repertoire. The most-decorated American gymnast ever and 2016 Olympic All-Around gold medalist, Biles is known for performing difficult skills at a high level of execution. She has gone above and beyond standard difficult moves by inventing four new gymnastic skills. Following gymnastic tradition, new moves are named after the athlete who is the first to perform them in an international competition. With her eponymous skills performed on vault, floor, and balance beam, the four-time Olympic gold medalist has left her mark on the high-flying sport.
The Olympics has long been a site for athletes to invent new skills or adapt old ones, especially in gymnastics. As you watch the competition this summer, you might recognize the Thomas Flair, a scissor-style kick of the legs leading into a vault. The move originated with Kurt Thomas, the eponymous inventor of this and two other gymnastics moves. In gymnastics, a flair is when the gymnast alternates balancing their torso on different arms as they swing their legs beneath them in continuous circles. Other gymnasts had been experimenting with different ways to transfer from circling their legs over the pommel horse into doing pendulum swings, where their legs move like a pendulum on a grandfather clock over the horse, often opening one leg at a time like scissors. Thomas Flair evolved from these pendulum swings to give a more stylish entrance into a scissor kick: a full flair, whirling midair leg scissors instead of just scissor kicks. This innovation has since developed into plenty of variations and even moved into the breakdancing world. Thomas debuted his move 1977, shocking the crowd and causing Spanish newspapers to proclaim it a “new kind of gymnastics!” He never got to perform his new skill at the Olympics—the American gymnast’s hope of Olympic gold was crushed when the U.S. announced their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But he was the first U.S gymnast to win a gold medal at the 1978 World Championships, and is considered a legend in the sport.
Some athletes have used their other interests to add a new twist to other Olympic sports like Track and Field. Dick Fosbury borrowed from his engineering background to perfect the Fosbury Flop, a new way of going over the high jump. Instead of doing a traditional scissors- or straddle style kick over the high bar, the runner twists and arches their back over the bar, kicking their legs out to clear it. It looks like falling out of a truck, but is highly effective at getting the body to clear the bar at a higher height. Fosbury started using a variation of the flop when he was in high school because he was so bad at the other kicks, and later used his civil engineering expertise to combine the physics of a jump with what his body was doing naturally. By arching his back, he could keep his center of gravity below the bar even as his body went over it, a mechanical advantage that added half a foot of height to his jump. With the flop, Fosbury won the NCAA championships in 1968 and qualified for the 1968 Olympic team. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he introduced the flop to the world, broke the world record and won an Olympic gold. Since then, his innovative Fosbury Flop has become the dominant technique for high jump, with every single men's world-record jump since 1980 utilizing the technique.
But the invention of a new skill for the Games hasn’t been limited to one person. Often, a skill develops naturally across the sport and is adopted by many athletes around the same time. Today you will commonly see swimmers use a dolphin kick—legs together, undulating the whole body under the water--for the first fifteen meters of their race. The kick helps swimmers avoid the waves from other swimmers’ and is faster than a surface stroke. The Dolphin Kick was first used on underwater turns by American Jesse Vassallo in 1970’s competitions. Other swimmers began experimenting with the technique in subsequent years. Japanese swimmer Daichi Suzuki went 25 meters underwater with this kick in the 1984 Olympics, but because he failed to qualify for the finals, the technique lost steam. American David Berkoff popularized it with his “Berkoff Blastoff” during competitions in the late 1980’s, using the kick at the start and turns of backstroke races, with long stretches of underwater kicking. He used it to set several world records and won four Olympic medals with the kick in the 1988 and 1992 Games. Understandably, he was considered both the most effective and most iconic dolphin kicker of the decade. Officials eventually regulated the dolphin kick so that it could only be used for the first fifteen meters, in order to differentiate the different strokes and in recognition of concerns that swimmers would spend too long underwater. Still the technique spread across the sport for launching into a race and has been integrated into other strokes by swimmers ever since.
Not all new skills and developments have received a warm welcome, however. There have been instances when certain changes led to debates over whether an innovative technique gives athletes an edge versus creating an unfair advantage. What feels like innovation at the Olympics could disrupt an even playing field, changing a sport too much until it is no longer about athletic achievement. Volzing is just one example of this. The now-illegal technique in the pole vault was invented by 1992 Olympian David Volz. The technique involves steadying the bar vaulters sail over, or even replacing it if it is dislodged during the jump, in mid-air. If Volz happened to hit the bar while passing over it in mid-air, he would react quickly, reaching out with a hand to steady or replace it back on its pegs while he passed over. It took incredible skill and coordination, and allowed Volz to try for greater heights because, as long as he replaced it, he wouldn’t be penalized for hitting the bar. Using the technique, Volz broke the American record twice in 1982. But critics and competitors complained that Volzing ruined the sport, claiming that if a vaulter fails to fully clear the bar and touches it during the jump, it should count as a miss. Official vaulting organization eventually agreed, and the technique has been banned by every main athletic association hosting the sport.
Some innovations are more about equipment than physical maneuvers. Although certain technological developments in swimming have helped standardize the sport, like electronic timing and underwater cameras, other have not. You may remember Speedo’s LZR Racer, a bodysuit that compressed the swimmers’ bodies to make them more hydrodynamic. Speedo teamed up with NASA to design and test features, and it was launched in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. For swimmers who used the suit, including Michael Phelps, the Games were highly successful: 98% of all swim medals won at that Olympics and 23 out of the 25 world records for swimming broken that year were by swimmers in the suit. Officials banned the suit after the 2008 Games for future competitions, feeling that it gave its wearers undue advantage in a sport that should be based mainly on their physical performance.
Athletes train for years to reach the Olympic Games, bringing physical acumen, relentless experimentation and daring innovation to their practice. Their drive to be the best of the best has led to the development of new skills, techniques, and technologies, pushing the boundaries on what is possible in every sport. Any shift in equipment or movement might bring them closer to victory. At MCAAD, we celebrate this entrepreneurial spirit that carries these athletes through their competitions, and are excited to see what changes and advances the Olympians will bring to this year’s Games.