Carly Patterson followed in Mary Lou Retton's golden footsteps Thursday, winning the women's all-around gymnastics title at the Olympics. Spectators who don't closely follow the sport may have noticed that the vault now sports a new shape, more akin to an ovoid platform than the elongated horses of yore. Why the equipment change?
In part to facilitate more impressive acrobatic feats, and in part to reduce injuries. The so-called vaulting table—nicknamed "the tongue" by gymnasts—was first developed in the mid-1990s by the Dutch gymnastics equipment company Janssen-Fritsen. The main impetus for the switch was a series of crashes that occurred at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when several gymnasts either rammed into the horse's front end after mistiming their approaches or botched their landings after misplacing their hands on the push-off. Although these mishaps were ascribed to a calibration error—the vault had been set 2 inches too low—the International Gymnastics Federation also began to consider whether the old-style horses were too hazardously shaped.
The table, which Janssen-Fritsen calls Pegases, made its international debut at the 2001 world championships in Ghent, Belgium. The front edge slopes downward and is thickly padded, so an accidental run-in hopefully won't cause broken bones; a collision with the vertical face of an old-fashioned horse, by contrast, was more likely to be a disaster. (This was particularly tough on the men, as the horse in male competitions was oriented so the short end faced the vaulter.) The Pegases also boasts a larger surface area for the competitors to place their hands on, so a little midair shift to the left or right won't have catastrophic results. Lastly, the table's top is more cushioned than the horse, to lessen the blow in case anyone lands on it headfirst.
The larger surface area has also made it easier for vaulters to perform difficult maneuvers that require handsprings on the approach. In Thursday's competition, for example, Patterson performed a double twisting Yurchenko vault, a very difficult feat involving a back handspring. The width of the table provides gymnasts with a bit more room for error when executing such routines.