Balance beams used in international gymnastics competitions must conform to the guidelines and specifications set forth by the International Gymnastics Federation (igf)'s Apparatus Norms brochure. Several companies manufacture and sell beams, including AAI (USA), Jannsen and Fritsen (Europe) and Acromat (Australia).
Beams are 125 cm (about 4'5") high, 5 meters long, and 10 cm (4") wide. Originally, the beam surface was plain polished wood. In earlier years, some gymnasts competed on a beam made of basketball-like material. However, this type of beam was eventually banned due to its extreme slipperiness. Since the 1980s, beams have been covered in leather or suede. In addition, they are now also sprung to accommodate the stress of high-difficulty tumbling and dance skills.
Most gymnastics schools purchase and use balance beams that meet the FIG's standards, but some may also use beams with carpeted surfaces for practice situations. While learning new skills, gymnasts often work on "low beams" that have the same dimensions and surface of regulation apparatus, but are set only a few inches off the ground. They may also work on practice beams, mini beams or lines on the mat.
The gymnast performs a routine lasting between 60 and 90 seconds, depending on the level of competition. The choreography of the routine typically includes acrobatic elements, turns, leaps and dance poses performed singularly or in combination.
Balance beam difficulty began to increase dramatically in the 1970s. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci pioneered advanced tumbling combinations and aerial skills on beam; other athletes and coaches began to follow suit. The change was also facilitated by the transition from wooden beams to safer, less slippery models with suede-covered surfaces. By the mid 1980s, top gymnasts routinely performed flight series and multiple aerial elements on beam.
Today, balance beam routines still consist of a mixture of acrobatic skills, dance elements, leaps and poses, but with significantly greater difficulty.
Deductions are taken for all errors made while on the beam, including lapses in control, balance checks (i.e., wobbling or stumbling to maintain balance), poor technique and execution, and failure to fulfill the required CoP elements. Falls automatically incur a deduction; at the elite/world-class level this penalty is .8. At many other levels of competition, such as NCAA gymnastics in the United States, the penalty for a fall is .5.
At the elite/international level, routines are choreographed and designed by the coaches and/or gymnasts. There are no restrictions on choreography, however, the gymnast must fulfill several requirements set forth by the Code of Points. Among these requirements, gymnasts must successfully complete a 360 degree turn, a leap demonstrating a 180 degree leg split, and forward and backward acrobatic elements. Athletes must also complete a "flight series" -- a series of two or more linked acrobatic skills -- and a "mixed series" composed of two or more linked dance and acrobatic skills. Gymnasts may earn points by successfully executing difficult acrobatic elements, mounts, dismounts, leaps and jumps. They may also increase their scores by linking several elements together.
The gymnast must mount and dismount the beam on her own, without any help from a coach or other individual. The skills chosen for the mount and dismount are of the athlete's choice. However, the dismount must carry at least a 'D' difficulty value to fulfill the EGR requirements of the Code of Points.
Once the exercise has started, the gymnast's coach may not spot her or interfere in any way. The only time the gymnast may be accompanied on the podium is in the case of a mount involving a springboard. In this instance, the coach, or another athlete from the team, may quickly step in to remove the springboard from the area.
In the event of a fall, an athlete has ten seconds to remount the apparatus and continue the routine. If she does not return to the beam within this time limit, she is not permitted to continue.
Under FIG rules, the maximum allowed time for a balance beam routine is 1:30 minutes. The routine is timed on the scoreboard timer, which is visible to both the gymnast and judges. In addition, a warning tone or bell is sounded 1:20 into the exercise. If the gymnast has not left the beam by 1:30, another bell is sounded, and a score deduction is incurred.