You’re a world champion on vault with the ability to win a medal this summer, and you have a beam routine that could possibly make event finals.
Too bad, because vault and beam are your team’s strongest events, and even though your scores are comparable or better than some of your countrymates’, they’re more highly valued as all-arounders who can go up in the team final in a pinch if needed. Basically, you’re screwed.
Not in 2020.
It really sucks to not get to be there with your team as they have gold medals placed around their necks. But what sucks more is not making it to the Olympics, period.
Hey, Alicia Sacramone! You can go to your second Olympic Games and get the chance to finally win an Olympic medal on your beloved event after narrowly – and unfairly – missing the podium in 2008. Here’s the catch – you can’t compete with the team.
What do you think her response would be? “Nah, I’d rather not go to the Olympic Games at all if I can’t be in the team final?” I highly doubt it.
The fact is that some gymnasts who are capable of winning Olympic medals simply do not fit their team’s puzzle, especially in the U.S. where even the weakest gymnast at Olympic Trials would be a superstar for any other nation in the world. Teams have to decide to leave potential medalists at home. The U.S. left a potential medalist at home in not being able to select Sacramone, who had the difficulty and execution to land on the vault podium but whose best events happened to be the team’s strongest events, making her irrelevant to their ultimate goal.
With the new system allowing specialists like Sacramone being able to qualify to the Olympics whether or not they’re a good fit for the team, it creates several more medal opportunities, especially for the deep U.S. program.
If you haven’t heard, the FIG decided at their council in Melbourne today to change the format of competition at the Olympic Games beginning in 2020. Teams will now consist of four members who are allowed to compete in team finals as well as fight for all-around and event final spots in qualifications. Nations also have the opportunity to qualify up to two individuals (all-around or event specialists) to the Games through world cup and continental championship events.
Yes, I agree with popular opinion. It absolutely sucks that the FIG is taking arguably the best part of the Olympics – the team final – and shredding the team into just four members, four who will have to do the all-around in qualifications, a veritable disaster if someone is injured mid-meet, potentially turning a would-be gold medal team into one without a chance to make finals.
It also totally sucks for those who qualify as individuals and are there representing their country but don’t get to share in the team experience. It won’t be so bad…they’ll still travel together, train together, stay together in the Olympic Village, but when their team wins gold and they’re watching from the stands, the feeling will definitely be bittersweet, even if they do go on to win medals of their own.
Again, I’d be shocked if most would rather have the alternative, however, which is to stay home. I think anyone would much rather be at the Games, period, even if it means some moments of quiet desperation during the team events. But that’s exactly the plight of an alternate now, and the alternate doesn’t get the consolation prize of potentially winning an individual medal at the Olympic Freaking Games.
The qualification process on the way to the Games isn’t ideal, requiring multiple world cup or continental championships appearances to earn spots. In a way, this is exciting, as the world cups are sorely lacking in attendance from top female gymnasts, but this is only because they happen at an inopportune time in the year. Most gymnasts prefer to rest in the spring so they can upgrade and stay healthy for the more important meets down the line. However, the U.S. does attend several off-season events, including the American Cup, Jesolo, and Pac Rims in an Olympic year. It wouldn’t be inconceivable to have a gymnast prepare to compete a few times in the spring in order to earn a qualification spot.
We don’t know the qualification rules just yet, either, so it’s not really possible to get angry about the process when it likely won’t involve much more competitive activity than the majority of gymnasts are already doing, especially if continental meets like Euros and the Asian Games serve as qualifiers.
At the end of the day, the format will open up an additional spot in the Games for top countries, which is a great thing. But is this worth the cost of reducing the team final to what will now essentially be an all-around competition? I don’t think so. The FIG is trying here, trying to make sense of the 90 or so spots they’re given by the IOC for WAG athletes, trying to make sure the best of the best all get to be in finals, trying to play along with the spirit of the Olympics, which are as much about inclusiveness as it is about being the best.
No one is going to be happy with any outcome. No matter how they divvy up those 90 spots, something is going to be sacrificed. Sacrificing the team final definitely isn’t the way to go, and the benefits of additional specialist athletes on the roster do not outweigh the costs. Period. The overall health of a country’s program is determined by how well they perform cohesively and if you eliminate specialist gymnasts who play a very important role in the team format, you’re basically saying that specialists aren’t worth anything to a team and don’t deserve to be in that final.
You could argue that gymnastics at its core gymnastics is an individual sport, but part of the fun of the major international competitions is getting to see how these individuals come together for a common goal. Was there anything better than watching the U.S. women in 2012 grasping hands and staring up at the scoreboard, knowing they’ve won gold but waiting for it to be official before screaming and hugging and sobbing on live (ahem, tape-delayed) television?
People tune in for the spectacle of a team performance, and while the spectacle isn’t necessarily gone just because the team has one less member (honestly, will casual fans who tune in every four years even know?), it’s definitely not as exciting, especially when teams who rely heavily on specialists (notably Russia at the moment, currently relying on several specialists aside from Aliya Mustafina) fall out of contention when they don’t have four all-arounders to put up in a final. If you think it’s boring watching the U.S. win by seven points now? Just wait until 2020 when powerhouse Big 4 countries disappear from the map because they don’t have four athletes who can do all four events without imploding.
For fun, I took the 2012 Olympic team finalists, scratched their least-contributing member (in terms of number of events, not scores) and redid the results, substituting a fourth score from qualifications if needed. Because the teams were pretty far spread out as it was, it changed nothing in terms of the standings, though I did notice something important.
Each team in 2012 had four athletes who contributed on two or more events, and then just one athlete per team had a single event in team finals – McKayla Maroney for the U.S., Maria Paseka for Russia, Diana Chelaru for Romania, and He Kexin for China.
Again, because there was such a wide spread between teams due to falls, and other errors, the podium doesn’t change. But we do see how much a team relies on a specialist. With just one event, Maroney added 0.433 to the U.S. total, Paseka added 0.967 for Russia, Chelaru added 1.267 for Romania, and He added a whopping 1.6 points for China.
If the finals situation is close, coming down to tenths instead of points, specialists could have made all the difference in the outcome. Ridding teams of their specialists could be detrimental to a program’s success, and only the U.S. right now has the depth to truly succeed in a format of this nature.
Another foreseeable problem is that gymnasts will begin to train for themselves, not for a team. If strong vaulters or bar workers know they lack in other areas but have potential on their pet events, why bother training all-around? You don’t have to worry about fitting onto a team, but rather just about yourself and your own medal potential. This isn’t inherently bad, but it’s going to be problematic when everyone begins neglecting the team in order to focus on personal gain.
I know change is a tricky topic in the gym world. Personally, I’m open to it, if the changes made create more opportunities for gymnasts who have the talent to succeed. In the case of the U.S., I feel that this format could lead to greater medal success (as it would have in 2012), and so fans of this program should take it and run.
Also, things get boring when they stay the same, and a new format really has potential to spice things up and hopefully, someday, make the sport even better. I mean, really, gymnastics with no progress would still mean preschool-level routines on wooden beams, DTYs defeating Amanars, and belly beats on bars, so I’m open for whatever the FIG wants to throw at us. And if it fails miserably, things will go back to normal and we’ll always remember 2020 as the perfect 20th anniversary of Sydney, the sport’s last major disaster. No big deal.
But at the same time, I’m furious about the FIG’s blatant disrespect for the role of the specialist in team competition and absolutely do not think this is for the good of the sport. There are pros and cons to every system, with the current system being that potential Olympic medalists are left at home, as Sacramone was in 2012.
This new system fixes that, but in the process creates a litany of additional problems that don’t come close to outweighing the benefits. I won’t take the dramatic route and say “it’s the beginning of the end of the sport,” because it’s not. Someday down the line fans will forget this was even a debate, and gymnasts will adapt, as they always do.
For now, I choose look at the bright side, hope for the best, and pray there’s a very happy eleven-year-old vault prodigy out there who sucks at bars but now has a reason to believe she can be an Olympic medalist, even if it’s not with a team.
Article by Lauren Hopkins