How Olympic Gymnasts Choose the Perfect Tacky Songs for Their Floor Routines

From the Sex and the City theme to Madama Butterfly to Queen Bey.

US gymnast Simone Biles competes in the Floor event during the women's team final Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 9, 2016.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles competes in the floor event during the women’s team gymnastics final during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

As the athletes take to the floor during women’s all-around competition on Thursday evening, Olympic viewers will once again marvel as these women soar and flip—and once again scratch their heads at the tinny, generic-sounding musical accompaniment to which they “dance” between runs.

But make no mistake: That music, though television audiences can never hear it particularly well, is carefully handpicked and meticulously custom-mixed according to each woman’s personality and skill set. Indeed, its selection is one of the most important decisions an Olympic-level gymnast (and her coach) will ever make.

Floor music has to accomplish many different objectives. It must best reflect that athlete’s personality, create bursts of energy for her many tumbling elements, and, possibly most importantly for a grand stage like the Rio games, pump up the crowd. In the words of legendary gymnastics composer Barry Nease, who spoke to Slate’s Dan Kois from a McDonald’s on South Padre Island back in 2004, successful gymnastics music must be “hugely off the ground,” and “gangbusters, go for it, hit it!”

So what “hit it!” hits will we be treated to during Thursday’s all-around competition, and the following Tuesday, during the floor event final? Whatever they are, every parent of a lower-level gymnast in the United States better get ready to hear them 900 times in the next four years, as copycat versions trickle down to every meet in the cosmos.

At least this year has some comparatively good offerings. Surprisingly, though, while the big showstopper of the 2012 games was gold medalist Aly Raisman’s Nease-produced version of “Hava Nagila,” this quadrennial’s biggest hits don’t actually belong to the medal contenders.

Sure, Simone Biles—the very heavily favored favorite—debuted snazzy new music custom-tailored for the 2016 games: a highly appropriate five-song mix that includes excerpts from “Brazil” by Bellini and some of the Rio soundtrack. The crowd, of course, loves it. (Although Biles is so good she could compete to a choir off-key singing Nickelback, and the crowd would still love it.)

And Raisman’s again got a gem, with a medley of some killer Russian music: first the ballet The Red Poppy and then folk ditty “Kalinka,” otherwise known as one of the earworms from Tetris—fitting because, like everyone’s favorite Tetris block, when Raisman does her double layout, she drops out of the sky in a perfect straight line.

But the Americans’ best floor music belongs, unsurprisingly, to their best dancer, Laurie Hernandez, whose version of “Da Bop” by WTF! will, alas, not grace the Rio Olympic Arena again, thanks to that infernal two-gymnasts-per-country rule. (Hernandez finished fourth in the floor exercise in the qualifying competition, but third among Americans, who have, this year, found themselves punished for being way too insanely dominant.)

But even Hernandez’s anthem pales next to the musical stylings of hometown favorite Rebeca Andrade, who will compete to a watered-down rendition of the Queen Bey herself.*

The most surprising offering in these games came in the qualifying meets courtesy of Emma Larsson from Sweden, whose music was maddeningly familiar to me in that why-can’t-I-place-it way—and then 10 minutes after she finished, I snapped up from my bowl of Cheerios and cried, “Holy shit, that was Sex and the City.”

(Speaking of TV themes, it’s too bad Charlotte Sullivan from New Zealand didn’t qualify for the Olympics; otherwise the world would have been treated to her Game of Thrones routine.)

Then, of course, we have the legitimately WTF offerings (as opposed to Hernandez’s WTF!). Top dishonor, I’m afraid, once again goes to poor Daria Spiridonova, who mercifully didn’t qualify for all-around or floor finals, so we are spared her music’s unholy (and unidentifiable) mishmash of horns and yowling.

But as anyone who’s spent any time around floor exercise knows, Spiridonova’s ear-shattering cheese is the norm rather than the exception. This is because most gymnasts don’t get custom compositions or mixes; instead they must choose music for their so-called optional (i.e. individual) routines from a selection of pre-recorded tracks from companies that specialize in taking the pop hits of the day, sucking out their souls and lyrics, and then recutting them to accompany tumbling.

And though it might sound miserable to hear the same gymnastified versions of, say, Hamilton and the Angry Birds theme on loop every day (as most coaches and gymnasts do), it gets so much worse. At least the optional music changes; at the lower gymnastic levels, the athletes perform compulsory routines, meaning every girl does the same set of moves, to the same music, over, and over, and over, and over again. This means that at a competition, you might hear this saccharine piano piece 100 times in a row. Any parent of a Level 5 gymnast will tell you that Sisyphus had it easy.

When a gymnast finally ascends to an optional level and gets to choose her own music—with approval of her coach, of course—it’s a rite of passage, and one not taken lightly. Back in my competitive days (the late ’80s and early ’90s), my gym didn’t want to shell out the big bucks for the fancy companies’ official tracks, so instead we simply recirculated the same set of warping cassettes left over from the Carter administration. When one girl quit or went off to college, her music was simply passed down to the next recently promoted 11-year-old. That’s how I ended up with Spanish bullfighting music—until, after a particularly passionate viewing of Young Guns II, and to the dismay of anyone in my vicinity, I took it upon myself to mix my own gymnastified version of Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory.” By this I mean I dubbed it from one tape to another on my boom box, pressing “pause” during the lyrics and abruptly cutting it off at 1 minute 30 seconds.

Laugh all you want (I deserve it), but my DIY composition was basically the very amateur version of what professionals like Barry Nease do now: They take “instantly recognizable” and “high energy” tunes, rerecord them, and then mix them so that they conform to the stringent and often wackadoodle conventions of the sport.

If, for example, you ever wondered why all gymnastics music abruptly changes in the middle to something incongruously different, that is to satisfy a long-held requirement that the gymnast display a marked change in tempo (and the alleged dance mastery that comes along with it). Back in my day, the “slow part” always coincided with another requirement, one that’s fortunately gone the way of the dodo: that every girl spend a substantial portion of the routine rolling around the floor like a G-rated stripper.

The other major challenge in gymnastics music is to reproduce pop hits without their lyrics—though nonword vocals are allowed, which is why we get our double-doubles accompanied by a lot of tonal baby babbling. Of course, sometimes the vocal addition is used for good rather than evil. Thursday night, for example, perhaps Al Trautwig will deign to cut away from the two Americans for long enough to treat you to Italian Vanessa Ferrari’s version of Madama Butterfly, which always raises chills in the arena.

As women’s floor becomes more like the men’s version (which has no musical accompaniment), with its umpteen tumbling runs and awkward poses between them, it has been interesting to see that, with a few notable exceptions—such as Dutch gymnast Eythora Thorsdottir’s twirling to the Moonrise Kingdom soundtrack—the music seems to be less and less connected to the gymnast’s movements, while simultaneously pandering more and more to the crowd. It will be interesting to see how this further develops in 2020. (There can never be too much classic Nintendo when you’re performing in Tokyo, obviously.) Until then, however, I’m afraid the parents of Level 8s everywhere can look forward to four years of WTF!

*Correction, Aug. 11, 2016: This article originally misstated that Brazli’s Rebeca Andrade did not qualify for the all-around final. (Return.)

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.