23 July 2015


Daniel Gallan

For most people, running away to join the circus might seem like a desperate attempt at experiencing an alternative lifestyle, but for elite gymnasts, it offers a continuation of one they love. Of the roughly 1 200 artists and performers on Cirque du Soleil stages around the world, a third have a history in elite sport. CONQA Sport explores how the largest theatrical organisation on the planet paves the way for young athletes to prolong their passion after they are deemed too old for the sport to which they have given their life. 

An acrobat performs for Cirque du Soleil, suspended on a cerceau. When gymnasts retire from competition, often at a young age, Cirque offers a continuation of a passion.  Image supplied by Cirque du Soleil. 

An acrobat performs for Cirque du Soleil, suspended on a cerceau. When gymnasts retire from competition, often at a young age, Cirque offers a continuation of a passion. Image supplied by Cirque du Soleil. 

In 2004, Svetlana Khorkina retired as the greatest female gymnast from Russia. In her comparatively eternal 10 years in the sport, she achieved 2 gold medals from 3 Olympic Games (1996, 2000, and 2004), as well as 9 golds at the World Championships and 13 golds at the European Championships. She was only 25 when she left the sport.

Gymnastics is notorious for the impossibility of longevity. By gymnastics standards, Khorkina was a veteran. Although age requirements were increased from 15 to 16 by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (International Federation of Gymnastics – FIG) in 1997, the sport remains a young person’s game.

Gymnasts generally peak by the time they’re 16. Puberty is a big factor as increased bone and muscle mass doesn’t lend itself to the flexibility and manoeuvrability that is required at the elite level. 

With such a short career span, many gymnasts are forced to find alternative ways of earning a living after retirement. The catch is many elite gymnasts have dedicated their entire lives (albeit their still brief lives) to the sport. The only skills they possess are rooted in a sport that no longer has a place for them. This is why so many athletes are running away to join the circus.

“We offer a very logical continuation of a career,” says Pavel Kotov, a former Russian gymnast and currently the Casting Director for Cirque du Soleil, the largest theatrical organisation in the world. “Many athletes are not conscious of the fact that they already have a profession and can continue their career once their competitive days are over.”

Of the roughly 1 200 Cirque artists and performers on stage around the world, a third have a history in competitive sport. Many are former gymnasts but Cirque also recruits from synchronised swimming, acrobatics, diving, and a variety of extreme sports.

“We have a network of contacts and scouts from various sports,” says Kotov. “We have a good relationship with the FIG as well as other federations and organisations. The FIG allows us official privileged access to all World Championships as well as access to training rooms.” There are informal booths set up at various competitions around the world that display the pageantry and glamour of Cirque as well as provide information on how to join once competition is no longer an option.

Cirque has a strict code of ethics and never attempts to lure an athlete away from his or her chosen sport while still competing. “Our discussions are mainly with the coaches and the federations,” says Richard LePage, the Director of Coaching and Performance at Cirque. “We very seldom talk to the athlete, unless he or she has applied directly to the casting data base of Cirque du Soleil. Then we check that they are in fact done with competition and whether or not they fit with what we are looking for.”

Cirque artists and acrobats perform gravity defying stunts and highly skilful and athletic manoeuvres. However, just because someone was an Olympic gold medallist, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a successful performer. Former Olympians are expected to dance and sing on stage, often wearing intricate costumes and outlandish makeup. “It is important for the person on stage to go beyond being a great acrobat,” says LePage. “We get a lot of acrobats that need high end performance training. The best gymnasts aren’t always the best on stage.” Former athletes are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, away from the rigours of elite sport. They need to abandon their innate drive to win that made them champions and channel that energy in a more creative and open minded manner. “Outside of the main acrobatics, the artists are on stage between 30 minutes and an hour,” says Kotov. “A lot of the time they’re performing not as acrobats, but as dancers, singers, clowns, actors and characters on stage within a broader narrative.”

A performer demonstrates extreme athletic ability during a Cirque du Soleil performance, the kind of athletic ability that elite gymnasts have honed through years of competition.  Image supplied by Cirque du Soleil.   

A performer demonstrates extreme athletic ability during a Cirque du Soleil performance, the kind of athletic ability that elite gymnasts have honed through years of competition. Image supplied by Cirque du Soleil.  

Apart from the artistic adjustment that is required to make the transition from elite sport to Cirque, many athletes also need to align themselves with the pace of circus life. “The structure of Cirque is drastically different from sport,” says Kotov. “We follow very different calendars in the sense that athletes in sport prepare for an event and present themselves to win, and for us, every show is just as important as the last.”

Elite athletes will plan their year according to major events such as the Olympic Games. They will cycle through programmes allowing for peak performance during competition while tapering off and resting immediately after competition. Cirque performers cannot do this. “In that sense we’re more like a team sport than a sport for individuals,” says LePage. “The mind-set is different and that is why not all the best champions are the best artists.”

An individual performer may be on stage over 400 times a year, often performing the exact same routine with the exact same efficiency. “Many athletes get bored by the repetition,” says Kotov, alluding to the fact that gymnasts will continuously alter their routine. “They can also get too focussed on technique and many struggle to reveal themselves artistically. For the ones who can, and love what they do, there is an opportunity to have a career with Cirque.” There are veterans in the organisation who have been performing for 15 years. The sports that they have come from do not offer the same longevity.

And that remains a major pull for so many athletes. Terry Bartlett, a former Olympian and British gymnast, told Geoffrey Fowler of the Wall Street Journal, that dressing up as a clown and performing is, “Better than having a real job.” Beyond coaching, there are very few opportunities for athletes to remain in their sport. Cirque offers them a continuation of their passion.

Craig Lowther, the Head National Coach of trampolining, tumbling and double mini trampoline (DMT) at British Gymnastics, is a strong supporter of gymnasts making the transition. “My role as a coach is taking this 8 year old gymnast into adulthood,” he says. “I have 14 athletes that have made the transition into becoming artists for Cirque and I am very proud of all of them. When I watch them I feel proud that I have done the best for them and that they will go on to the next stage of their lives, still involved in what they love at a world class organisation.”

Very few of us can relate to the elite athletes who are forced to succumb to the limitations of their age. Fewer still can understand what that feeling must be like for gymnasts in their early 20s. Luckily, thanks to Cirque du Soleil, the show must, and does, go on.