Sam Mikulak, a six-time American national champion in gymnastics, always follows the same honeying technique before he mounts the parallel bars.
He squirts a drop from his honey bottle onto one of his palms and rubs them together until his hands are nice and sticky. Then he reaches into the chalk bucket, dusts up both hands, salutes the judges, takes a deep breath and grabs the bars. He’s ready to go.
“It’s golden,” he said of his honeying technique.
Mikulak has lots of company. Though it’s little known outside this world, virtually all competitive male gymnasts honey up before they take flight.
“I think it’s a mental thing for me,” said Donothan Bailey, a nine-time member of the American national team. “I feel like if I don’t put any honey on, then it’s just going to suck.”
At the United States gymnastics championships in Kansas City, Mo., over the summer, more than a dozen honey bottles were lined up and ready to go by the parallel bars. The scene looks the same at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, this week.
“I’ve found that organic is the best one,” said Trevor Howard, a member of the American team competing in Germany. “The darker the better.”
“Not organic,” said Akash Modi, another team member. “I feel like the more sugary, the better.”
Honey, however, is rarely used by the women in gymnastics, who do not compete on the parallel bars. On the uneven bars, though, their routines involve swinging and release moves for which stickiness is a liability.
Instead, the women use leather grips. There are a few athletes, like the national team member Riley McCusker, who put a couple of drops into water bottles and spray the mixture onto their grips. McCusker’s coach, Maggie Haney, said they got the idea after watching opposing teams do it at an international competition.
“The secrets we learn from other countries,” Haney said.
Mark Williams, the head coach of the men’s team at worlds, is as well versed as anyone when it comes to the history of honey and gymnastics. He competed in the 1970s and ’80s, when the practice began.
Until then, men relied on their chalked hands. But in the 1970s, as routines became more challenging, they needed to find a better way to hang on. Gymnasts were doing swings under the parallel bar that required a strong grip, like giants (when a gymnast begins in a handstand position then swings under the bars and back into a handstand).
The move toward stickiness can be traced to men on the Soviet Union teams, Williams said, although they didn’t actually use honey. It was too expensive and scarce in the homeland. To get sticky, they concocted a combination of boiling water and sugar.
Williams credits Bart Conner, who won two gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, with giving the Soviet approach an American twist.
“Connor took a Coke can and just sprinkled it on there,” said Williams, who is also the men’s head coach at the University of Oklahoma. “The sugar was sticky when it dried.”
Others experimented with corn syrup, the most popular being Karo. By the mid-1980s, the transition was complete: from sugar to corn syrup to honey.
“Apparently the consistency of honey is that it gets tacky and then dries, so it’s not slick,” Williams said. “It’s tacky enough that they actually have a better grip.”
The gymnast Kanji Oyama makes his own blend: a combination of honey and syrup. It’s beloved by his teammates at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs.
“He just makes this gorgeous combination,” Mikulak said. “It’s a proprietary blend, Kanji special.”
Although he isn’t picky, the “Kanji special” is always Mikulak’s first choice. “When he’s got the goods, I’m going to use it,” Mikulak said.
For meets, competitors travel with their favorite brands, so they don’t have to worry about tracking down the right honey in an unfamiliar setting.
There are risks. Howard once made the mistake of packing his honey in a carry-on bag and had it seized by Transportation Security Administration agents. “T.S.A. will take it if you forget about it,” he said. “You have to adapt to the situation.”
Gymnasts and coaches wipe down the parallel bars with a towel between routines so everyone starts fresh. Though honey building up on the equipment can be a problem, coaches say it will eventually dry up, turn crusty and chip off.
Mikulak said a bottle would last him about two months. In addition to individual supplies, the University of Oklahoma keeps a team bottle that, according to Williams, needs to be refilled about every two weeks.
At the end of the day after a long workout, Williams said, gymnasts would take the honey bottles home and use it on their food.
“It tastes good,” said Howard.