The Four-Year Fan’s Guide to Gymnastics

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Contrary to popular belief, gymnastics exists outside of the Olympics.

The Gymternet – and other sites like this one – follow the ins and outs of the sport when most people have stopped paying attention, from the Leverkusen Cup right after the 2012 Games straight up until this weekend’s friendly meet in Chemnitz. Every four years – what we call an Olympic cycle or “quad,” short for quadrennium – hundreds of meets happen around the world. The Olympics get about 99% of the attention, but in reality they amount to less than 1% of what’s going on in our world each quad.

For casual fans, it can be overwhelming to keep up with the whole story, so that’s why we’re here now. In our Four Year Fan series, we’re coming at you with in-depth explanations of each event in women’s artistic gymnastics, a full understanding of the complicated scoring system (it’s really not that hard!), and the must-know details about who to follow and why when the 2016 Olympic Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro next week.

Today, we’ll share a quick recap of what’s happened to the top teams since London, just to ease you into a sport that’s constantly changing

THE NEW WORLD ORDER

In some ways, not much has changed since 2012, with the U.S. women just as powerful and dominant as ever. They will absolutely win gold this summer, and it will surprise exactly no one.

But the U.S. aside, there’s been kind of an extreme shift in what gym fans like to call the “Big Four.” For the past couple of decades, the term has described the four biggest gymnastics powers in the world – the United States, Russia, Romania, and China. These were essentially the only four teams who “mattered” in terms of team medals, because no one else could ever really get close.

That changed last year, when Romania failed to qualify into the team final at world championships, and then failed to qualify a full team to the Olympic Games. Yes, the program responsible for Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in 1976 that has brought in 72 total Olympic medals (double what any other Romanian sport has achieved) will have only a single representative this summer, meaning the Big Four is no longer.

Both China and Russia continue to be leading medal contenders in the team final this summer, but while Russia hasn’t fallen apart in the way Romania has, injuries and inconsistency have made them fall back a bit while other non-Big Four programs have gotten stronger. At the 2015 World Championships, Russia counted so many mistakes in team finals, the door swung wide open for Great Britain to come in and win the bronze, becoming the first non-Big Four team to win a world or Olympic team medal since Australia won bronze in 2003.

This summer, Great Britain could again take advantage should Russia continue to make mistakes, as could other rising powers like Germany and the host nation Brazil. The balance of power still favors the United States, China, and Russia at the top, but as we’ve learned in the past four years, the medals will all come down to the team that hits when it counts.

THE LAST FOUR YEARS

Now that you’ve heard the team stories since London, what about those who competed for each of them? Of the top three teams competing in Rio, only a handful of returning Olympians will make an appearance.

Three members of the Fierce Five – aka the U.S. women who won the team gold medal in 2012 – have retired. McKayla Maroney, known for her infamous “not impressed” meme after winning silver instead of gold in London, redeemed her vault fall with a gold medal finish at the 2013 World Championships, but illness and injury forced her to retire earlier this year. Kyla Ross, the baby of the team, became a star in the first two years of this quad, winning five world medals before deciding to join UCLA’s NCAA program, which she starts this year. Jordyn Wieber, who missed out on the all-around final but contributed key routines to the team’s win, considered a comeback but instead retired completely from the sport and went to UCLA, where she is currently a student and the gymnastics program’s volunteer coach (and will coach Ross in the upcoming season).

2012’s most successful U.S. gymnasts – Gabby Douglas (the all-around champion) and Aly Raisman (the most-decorated U.S. medalist who won gold on floor) – returned to competition in 2015 and both made this year’s team, a nearly impossible feat (the last time U.S. women earned a return trip to the Olympics was in 2000). Their experience combined with Simone Biles – one of the best gymnasts of all time – leading the team with her impossible levels of difficulty, Madison Kocian with her secret weapon bars, and newcomer Laurie Hernandez on her way to becoming a star makes this team the one to beat.

London’s silver-medal Russian team has been through the ringer this quad, but two of its members – Aliya Mustafina (the most decorated gymnast of the 2012 Games) and Maria Paseka (the vault bronze medalist) have returned after competing almost nonstop since then. Ksenia Afanasyeva and Viktoria Komova have almost made it but were sidelined by multiple injuries and ailments in the final stretch despite success at worlds last year, while Russia’s baby of the team Anastasia Grishina retired and got married!

Joining Mustafina and Paseka are Daria Spiridonova, Seda Tutkhalyan, and Angelina Melnikova, all of whom have tons of experience. This team (minus Paseka, who was injured) won gold at European Championships last month, defeating Great Britain and proving just how good they are when they hit. With Paseka back on vault, their worth bumps up even more, and they’re also looking to capture several individual medals.

China was fourth in London, but they’ve had a lot of talent come up this quad, and are currently the favorites for the silver medal. They’ll have no repeat Olympians, but team leader Shang Chunsong has been running the show since 2013 and has a super talented team including Fan Yilin, Wang Yan, Mao Yi, and Tan Jiaxin. They should come in ahead of Russia, but if they make mistakes and Russia is solid, we could end up seeing a battle for silver and bronze.

As for Romania, Diana Chelaru retired almost straight after the 2012 Games, and both Sandra Izbasa and Catalina Ponor took extended breaks, with Ponor eventually coming back in 2015, though Izbasa opted to leave the past behind her. Larisa Iordache and Diana Bulimar, the youngest members of the 2012 team, stuck around but dealt with almost constant injuries. When the team was unable to qualify a full squad to Rio (we’ll go into how this works in a later article), their one spot came between Iordache and Ponor, with Ponor winning out in the end.

NEXT UP: Don’t miss our gym glossary, followed by our intro to the technical side of the sport at the Olympic Games, including how teams qualified, what events will be contested, and how the scoring system works.

Article by Dagny Greenawalt and Lauren Hopkins

9 thoughts on “The Four-Year Fan’s Guide to Gymnastics

    • It was a weird situation. One of the Chinese gymnasts (it might have been more than one, I don’t remember) warmed up acro on the podium while she was waiting to get the green light to start her beam routine. You are not allowed to do that, so the Chinese team got penalized with a neutral deduction, which was just slightly enough to put them into 4th behind Australia.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure. Usually programs get a bump from hosting the Olympics and then can’t sustain things long-term, which is what I think is going to happen to Brazil as far as the team goes (they have 3 great newcomers, but do they have anyone coming up who is near those girls’ level?). However I’m not sure it’s that simple with Australia because they had good results for many years after Sydney. They were pretty solid 6th-8th place finishers in the team final for years, even as recently as 2014 they placed 7th. So I don’t know what’s changed in the last two years.

          Liked by 1 person

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  3. I agree! The Fierce 5 will definitely take home the gold in Rio! My 6-year-old is also very inspired by our U.S. gymnasts and we created this great tribute to our Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team. Go Team U.S.A! Small but POWERFUL: Tribute to the Fierce 5

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