In just a few short hours, the first subdivision of juniors will take to the stage at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
This year is only the second time this multi-sport event has occurred in history. Young athletes from 201 nations are showcased in 29 different sports, and the Games incorporate cultural and educational programs for those in attendance in an effort to promote diversity and international spirit.
Athletes from all 204 nations were qualified to the Games, but several West African nations – Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Liberia – withdrew under pressure from the Chinese authorities in the days leading up to the opening ceremonies due to the threat of the recent Ebola virus outbreak. A controversial, though some believe necessary, decision in order to keep the virus from spreading.
In the women’s artistic gymnastics competition, 42 girls from 42 nations will compete after earning qualifying spots at five different meets over the year, including the African Championships, the Junior Pan American Championships, the Junior Asian Championships, the Junior European Championships, and the Australian National Championships. Gymnasts will compete today to qualify into 18 all-around final spots as well as eight event final spots for each apparatus.
Unlike 2010, when Viktoria Komova was able to sail her way to the first ever YOG all-around title by a comfortable margin, things won’t be so easy this time around.
Though there is no one quite on the level Komova was on in 2010, there are about five gymnasts concentrated about on the same level, which should make the all-around battle incredibly interesting.
The heavy hitters this year include Seda Tutkhalyan of Russia, Flavia Saraiva of Brazil, Laura Jurca of Romania, Wang Yan of China, and Ellie Downie of Great Britain. Within this group, two – Tutkhalyan and Saraiva – stand out with fierce difficulty on all four events and seem primed to battle each other for all-around gold.
These two, however, are also two of the least consistent in the competition. They are hit-or-miss, and can have either brilliant days to come out on top, or terrible days with multiple falls across their four events. At the European Championships, Tutkhaylan’s all-around score dropped about three full points between qualifications and finals while Saraiva’s has bounced around from a the 51-range to the 56-range in the past several months.
If either has a bad outing, you can look for Jurca to step up. Not the most naturally gifted here, Jurca has some high difficulty but doesn’t always execute well. She is, however, confident in her routines so even if her swing on bars is labored or if she shows bent legs on beam, you can typically expect her to stay on the apparatus under pressure, which is how she was able to defeat Tutkhalyan at European Championships this year.
Then there are Wang and Downie, very similar gymnasts with powerful vaults and strong floor routines. Downie also excels with solid execution on bars while Wang stands out with an incredibly difficult beam, though each counts the other’s strength as their weakness. They will have to overcome their one weak event apiece if they want to challenge for the podium, but both have impressed with their performances so far this year so don’t count them out!
What about event finals? Vault and beam are definitely the ones to watch this year, and we’ll also get some great performances on floor. Bars will be a bit of a mess, so keep your expectations low and count on seeing scores mostly in the mid to high 13s.
On vault, our top five all-arounders also happen to be five of the strongest vaulters in Nanjing. Actually, the junior vault talent overall is pretty killer! Wang is China’s best vaulter since Cheng Fei herself, vaulting a Tsuk double an a Rudi, giving her a 6.1 difficulty average! Downie, Tutkhalyan, Saraiva, and Jurca all vault DTYs, as does Japan’s Sae Miyakawa, who probably has one of the best in the bunch and could definitely fight for a podium spot with a solid FTY as her second vault.
In addition, Sydney Townsend of Canada is a solid vaulter (though I haven’t see her do a second vault, it’s possible she’ll add one for YOGs), as are Camille Bahl of France and Isa Maassen of the Netherlands. Though she is lacking somewhat in difficulty, Nada Ayman Ibrahim of Egypt is great to watch and could find herself in the final.
On bars, expect Downie and Tutkhalyan to lead the pack, and we should also see some nice work from Italy’s Iosra Abdelaziz. Antonia Alicke of Germany could also make a strong impression if she hits (she’s very tall for a junior and has gorgeous long lines!), and though Jurca doesn’t have the sharpest of routines, she still has big potential for the event final and could even challenge for a medal if she hits. Like I said, this is definitely a weak bars field, so those who might not necessarily top a bars final in an international competition with more than one athlete from each country could find some luck in Nanjing.
Beam should be fantastic, especially as Tutkhalyan, Saraiva, Wang, and Jurca all have top-notch difficulty. If all hit in finals, the podium race will be extremely tight. We should also see Townsend, Maassen, Natallia Yakubava of Belarus, and Jelle Beullens of Belgium make the final if they hit, and though this isn’t a super strong outing for Downie – especially in such a good beam field – she could also find herself part of the equation if she has a strong qualification attempt.
Finally, many of the floor routines we’ll see in Nanjing are so much fun. Personally, I’m pulling for a gold for Miyakawa, who tumbles incredibly well and has great presentation. This is yet another event where Tutkhalyan and Saraiva could go head to head, while Wang, Downie, and Jurca all have it in them to showcase clean, solid tumbling in their super fun routines. Wang is such a great and quick twister, Downie and Miyakawa have awesome double layouts, Tutkhalyan is so compact and powerful…there’s a lot to watch for here! Also keep your eye on Abdelaziz, Maassen, Alicke, Bahl, and Stephanie Hernandez of Mexico.
It’s difficult to predict what could happen in a competition with so many young gymnasts working on the same level, but while it won’t be as clear-cut as the 2010 Games were, it should definitely be exciting down to the last minute with possible big surprises in each of the finals.
The 2014 Youth Olympic Games will begin with the first qualification on August 18 at 11 am CST, which is tonight at 11 pm EST in the United States. Three qualification subdivisions will occur throughout the day, all-around finals will take place on August 20, and the competition will conclude with event finals over the weekend.
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