TOKYO (AP) — In the suburbs of Tokyo, Hiromi Matsumoto found herself falling in love with online videos of rhythmic gymnastics — a spectacular swirl of ballet and acrobatics, clubs soaring through the air, bodies contorting into superhuman bends.
But it was not the rhythmic gymnastics currently being performed at the Olympic stadium just miles from her home, where women are competing for medals in the Games’ gymnastics competition’s grand finale.
The rhythmic gymnasts Matsumoto had encountered were men.
Rhythmic gymnastics is one of the only sports at the summer Games, along with synchronized swimming, that are considered so feminine only women compete. But in the host country, Japan, a men’s version was born decades ago and remains a popular sport. Around 1,500 boys and men are involved in rhythmic gymnastics, and some are trying to expand its reach around the world, dreaming of a day when it will be recognized in the Olympics.
But others remain cautious that international recognition could tarnish their beloved sport and force them to relinquish control over the style they have been perfecting for 70 years.
“It’s a touchy issue, there are very complicated, mixed feelings,” said Matsumoto. “Because athletes, as well as fans and coaches like the way it is done now, and they don’t want it to be changed by someone outside the community.”
The Olympic version performed by women was born in the Soviet Union, and Russia remains dominant in the sport. Women wear dramatic, jeweled leotards, and their performance is centered on elegance and flexibility. There are medals for individual performers and groups of five women, who move in such perfect harmony they look to be connected by invisible string. They are forbidden from doing the high-intensity tumbling seen in artistic gymnastics, like flips and handsprings.
But Japanese-style men’s rhythmic gymnastics is a display of muscle and speed, and it includes tumbling. They perform a series of moves similar to calisthenics that are called “toshu” and add in stunts from cheerleading, like pyramids and basket tosses. In the Olympic version, women toss and catch four apparatuses: ribbons, hoops, balls and a pair of clubs. The men also use clubs but trade the others for a stick, rope and a set of small rings. Their style looks like a combination of ballet and breakdancing.
“People often said that doing rhythmic gymnastics is a feminine thing to do, a girlish thing to do,” said Matsumoto.
But then they see videos and realize they were wrong, she said. “It is not feminine at all, it is the opposite of feminine. That hasn’t been recognized by the world.”
Matsumoto, who studied linguistics and works as an English teacher, believes one of the greatest challenges to spreading this sport was one of language: most rhythmic gymnasts speak only Japanese, so the style remained in Japanese circles. She started a YouTube channel and a Facebook page, and quickly became the sport’s unofficial spokeswoman to try to spread interest around the world.
In Japan, the sport dates back to the 1940s, said Kotaro Yamada, a coach who chairs a committee within the Japan Gymnastics Association. Back then, both men and women in Japan performed the same, muscular style of rhythmic gymnastics.
The International Gymnastics Federation recognized the sport in the 1960s, first under the name “modern gymnastics,” based on the Russian model that emphasized fluidity, artistry and dance. It made its Olympic debut in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
As it spread around the world, the men and women’s versions in Japan diverged: the men maintained a more tumbling-centric version while women’s shifted to comply with the international standards, Matsumoto said.
For men, the sport is practiced in such few places there are no international rules. In Spain, for instance, men perform rhythmic gymnastics that is almost exactly like the women’s version.
Mario Lam, a Canadian gymnastics coach, became enchanted by the sport and traveled to Japan multiple times to study it. He started a program in Canada two decades ago that at first was about five kids in a community center basement with a ceiling so low they could barely throw the clubs around. But it expanded over the years to about 100, Lam said, and it was open to both boys and girls.
He has a background in martial arts and called his program “martial gym,” because it seemed to him like a beautiful combination of gymnastics and martial arts. He did not intend the name as a disguise to lure families that might have been skeptical of enrolling their boys in rhythmic gymnastics — but he thinks it did help.
Lam was part of a coalition that years ago approached the International Gymnastics Federation about including men’s rhythmic in the Olympics. They were receptive that the sport had promise, he recalls, but said there were far too few gymnasts and countries involved.
Yamada, the prominent Japanese coach, has worked with coaches from other countries in an effort to expand the sport outside of his country's borders.
“We need to spread the sport to the world before it is recognized as a candidate for the Olympics,” Yamada said. “Little by little, we are getting more attention and recognition from the world.”
In 2016, a team from a Japanese university was invited to perform at the Olympics closing ceremony in Brazil.
A high school well-known for its rhythmic gymnastics team created a group called Blue Tokyo to build opportunities for gymnasts to keep performing after school. The sport is taken so seriously in Japan, some private high schools have dorms where gymnasts are required to room together to boost camaraderie and teamwork, said Sarah Hodge, a travel writer who lives in Japan and works to get the sport international recognition.
Blue Tokyo won first place at World of Dance in Las Vegas and were featured on America’s Got Talent, she said. Fan sites are popping up on social media.
And Japanese gymnasts are moving overseas and spreading the word in their new homes: The best performers often find work at America’s circuses. At least a dozen have moved to Las Vegas or Orlando to perform in Cirque du Soleil.
Wataru Ito, a national champion, performs in Drawn to Life in Florida, an acrobatic spectacle celebrating Disney animation, and he uses his platform to promote men’s rhythmic gymnastics.
He would like to see men’s rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics, but he’s also protective of the sport he’s practiced since he was 3 years old.
“I think we should share the rules and skills all over the world,” he said, “but also think we should share it carefully.”
Matsumoto believes the world will one day come to love men’s rhythmic gymnastics.
She thinks of it as like figure skating, without ice.
“Figure skating is sometimes feminine, and people would never say, ‘Oh, that’s a girlish thing to do.’ When the boys do it, it’s beautiful, but at the same time it’s masculine and cool,” she said. “I want people to think of rhythmic gymnastics as cool, for the boys too."
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