SAN JOSE, Calif. – Whenever Bela Karolyi watches Sarah Finnegan's floor exercise, it's all the godfather of U.S. women's gymnastics can do to contain himself.
The way the 15-year-old glides to the music, her arms and legs a study in grace and fluidity, the man who coached Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold gets lost in the moment.
"So beautiful, so elegant, my heart is growing," he says wistfully.
Then Finnegan's score comes up. And Karolyi knows she's "dead meat."
It's not that Finnegan doesn't have skills. The tumbling runs for the alternate on the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team are impressive for someone who didn't get serious about her training until two years ago.
It's just Karolyi believes the "artistic" in artistic gymnastics has gone the way of rope climbing, with the beautiful lines Comaneci rode to perfection traded for the "boom, boom, thud" of raw power. In a different era, Finnegan's floor routine would be among the best in the world. Now it barely ranks in the top 10.
And Karolyi knows who to blame.
When the International Gymnastics Federation adopted a new code in 2006 that moved away from the 10.0 scoring system to one that features two separate scores based on difficulty and execution, Karolyi believes the sport lost its soul in the process because he feels it devalues beauty.
"Where's the artistry, the wonderful dancers on the floor?" Karolyi said. "They're nowhere because you're castrating their difficulty. You're nobody without the tricks."
Don't mistake Karolyi's anger for disrespect. There's little doubt the five women who will compete for the U.S. in London later this month are better athletes than the team that won gold in Atlanta 16 years ago.
World champion Jordyn Wieber has the arms of a boxer. Aly Raisman's six-pack abs are clearly visible under her leotard. The parents of Kyla Ross joke she was "born with muscles" and alternate Elizabeth Price isn't kidding when she says football is her backup sport.
That kind of strength is necessary to survive these days thanks to a system that seems to emphasize acrobatic skill over artistic interpretation.
"It's still gymnastics, and gymnastics is still tricks," said Martha Karolyi, Bela's wife and the U.S. women's Olympic team coordinator. "So it has to be a good harmony and a good combination of both parts, I feel like. Acro needs to be appreciated with enough artistry. But artistry by itself, without strong acro skills cannot overpower the ones who do the acro skills."
Kim Zmeskal-Burdette won the all-around at the 1991 world championships and helped the U.S. women grab bronze a year later in Barcelona. Now a coach in her native Texas, she points to the removal of compulsory exercises as part of the problem.
There were certain elements in compulsories that leaned heavily on dance, and because they were required, everyone had to attempt to perfect them. Not so much anymore.
"Having the compulsories as a part of the competition, you couldn't just pass through it," Zmeskal-Burdette said. "Now I think that detail work sometimes gets a little bit pushed away."
To be honest, she's not entirely certain that's a bad thing. Who's got time to focus on dance when there's an extra twist to be had on a bars dismount or a new connection to try out on floor?
"If we were still doing compulsories, there wouldn't be enough time to get to all of the incredible skills that they're required to do at this level," she said.
The goal for every coach is to put together a routine that mixes dance and artistic elements. Yet given the way judges are scoring, it's safer to opt for brawn over brilliance.
Under the new code, gymnasts receive two separate scores on each event. Each skill has a pre-set value, and the difficulty score (or start value) is the sum total of those done. The harder the skills, the higher the score. At the elite level, start values begin in the 5.5 range and can rise to 7.0 or above. It's also very easy to score. You either do the skill and get credit for it, or you don't.
The second score is based on execution. Each routine starts with a score of 10.0, with deductions handed out based on the severity of the miscues. The bigger the misstep, the bigger the penalty.
It sounds simple. Karolyi just doesn't think it sounds fair, arguing artistry is an afterthought under the code because a dance move — no matter how beautiful — isn't rewarded the same as an acrobatic trick, no matter how sloppy.
"If you crash all over yourself, you're still going to get that difficulty score," he said. "It's craziness."
John Geddert, Wieber's coach, believes there is space in gymnastics for self-expression. It just depends on the eye of the beholder.
"Difficulty is easy to judge, 'Look there's a triple-twisting something,'" he said. "Artistry is subjective. It's much harder to judge it and you have to pay way more attention as a judge."
It's not that the judges are lazy, just pragmatic.
"If you're a judge and you're watching a routine, you look at it and say that skill is worth X," Zmeskal-Burdette said. "That's why I feel like that side leads our sport because it's black and white. It's not as easy to get a hold on (artistry) because there's much more wiggle room for the judges to have on that side."
In a close battle, artistry can still win the day.
Nastia Liukin beat teammate Shawn Johnson for the all-around gold medal in Beijing four years ago with a poise and polish that played in sharp contrast to Johnson's gravity-defying tumbling. There's a similar showdown looming in London between Wieber and Gabby Douglas, who became the first person to beat Wieber in a major competition in three years when she edged Wieber at Olympic trials.
Wieber has been dominant not because of her persuasive dance — though Geddert thinks Wieber is far less robotic on the floor than she was as a youngster — but because of her consistency. If Douglas has an edge, it's in charisma that bursts through her electric smile.
In a way, the winner in London could come down to whether judges favor Wieber's steely resolve over Douglas' outsized personality. Nowhere are their differences more evident than on the floor.
Wieber's music is dramatic and her routine a 90-second assault on the laws of physics. Douglas' routine is set to music straight out of the bar scene in "Star Wars" and she finishes with a sassy point to the judges as if to say "good enough?"
It's two very different routes to the same destination. Liukin, for one, isn't sure there needs to be a divide between the two philosophies. As an athlete representative to the FIG, she thinks the code will be adjusted to give dance and difficulty equal footing.
"It's extremely hard to have a very high difficulty but then to have dancing beautifully on the floor," Liukin said. "That's just the nature that the sport has become. The code right now is just so extremely difficult."
For most, but not all.
Three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura is a heavy favorite to win the men's all-around gold in London and competes with such finesse he can make the most demanding sets appear effortless. He has found a way to bridge the gap, even if the rest of the world is still trying to figure it out.
"He totally stomps the argument because he does insanely hard things and he does it with amazing grace and beauty," said U.S. men's team alternate Chris Brooks. "It's part of the game and he's taken it to another level and we're all trying to play catch-up."
AP National Writer Nancy Armour contributed to this report. Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP.