The 2016 Olympic Games weren’t ideal for the Chinese gymnasts, who were expected to come in and win silver as a team while also picking up a couple of individual medals on the side. Instead, they earned only the team bronze and zero individual medals, a first for the program since they entered the sport at the Olympic level in 1984.
The good news is that China has improved a great deal over the past few years. Difficulty, execution, consistency…there’s been a slight upturn in every area of the Chinese women’s artistic gymnastics program, and it helped them go from off the podium in 2012 to the bronze medalists four years later, raising their team total in the process.
Like the Russians, the Chinese team we saw in 2012 was quite a bit more talented than this year’s, especially as gymnasts like Yao Jinnan, Huang Huidan, and first-year senior Liu Tingting were taken out of the picture due to injury or other setbacks. Shang Chunsong, 20, led an otherwise young team, all of whom only had one or two major meets under their belts coming into the Games.
That lack of experience on top of a tremendous amount of difficulty didn’t hurt the team much at all, aside from a few nervous mistakes from Mao Yi, whose fall on floor in the team final took them from leading Russia after the third rotation to finishing just half a point behind them at the end of the day.
Poor Mao was understandably distraught after the mistake, her second floor fall of the Games after a similar issue in qualifications. The team didn’t have to count her qualifications score of 11.7, however, and nor did they count Shang’s 12.766 for her crashed vault, finishing their day with a 175.279, a score that included only hit routines. Compared to most years, this was a great day for the women, especially given the added pressure of competing in the first subdivision, bright and early that Sunday morning, before the judges are fully awake enough to properly reward what they’re seeing.
I do understand some of China’s heavy deductions. After missing the podium in 2012, the program has focused heavily on upping the team’s difficulty, rewarding gymnasts who go above and beyond with bonus tenths at national meets. A DTY gets a two-tenth bonus, H level passes on floor get three tenths apiece, a triple full off beam adds two tenths…difficulty has been a huge priority over the past several years, to the point where at one time, all gymnasts at a certain level were pushed to train double doubles on floor, though only one actually made it to a competitive level.
The push for difficulty has brought the Chinese team nearly to Team USA’s level on the one hand, but the difference between the United States and China is that the U.S. gymnasts know how to properly execute that difficulty. As a whole, the Chinese are throwing some crazy skills — like Mao’s 3½ to punch front on floor — but the judges have been extra strict with them for not looking as clean as they should, leaving them quite a bit behind. Tan Jiaxin, for example, had two very strong days of competition on vault and bars, but was far behind the scores she earned for similar routines domestically this season.
That said, I think relative to other performances that happened later in the day, the judges were far too stingy with some Chinese routines, notably with Fan Yilin‘s routine on bars. With similarly strong routines between qualifications and team finals, Fan earned a half point lower in qualifications to miss the final by less than half a tenth. I’m not gonna lie, that one hurt. Based on how crazy the bars judging got throughout the day, the gymnasts who went in the first rotation were absolutely low-balled, and it not only cost them a finals spot, but also a potential medal.
Coach Ye Zhennan was also discouraged by the discrepancy between scores, telling the press: “Our athletes don’t need to get the gold medals, but the outcome should reflect the effort they put into the competition. Although the FIG has revamped the scoring system, they have failed to ensure fair and open judging.” He and others wrote a letter to the women’s technical committee expressing their concerns about the execution score discrepancies between gymnasts, most notably regarding Shang’s comparatively low E scores on beam.
In the team final, I do think China was scored much more fairly, on par with other teams on the same day. Shang did have an unfortunate fall on her Gienger, which along with Mao’s fall later on contributed to their loss to Russia, though otherwise I was impressed with how strong they looked, especially on beam and floor, events which have been notoriously weak for every country this quad, including the United States. Both Shang and Fan posted scores of 15.066 on beam, the only women besides the three U.S. gymnasts and Sanne Wevers to breach 15 on that event, and Shang and Wang Yan also had the two highest floor scores outside of the U.S. at 14.7 and 14.733, respectively.
These two would continue in the all-around, where Shang had one of her best performances ever to score a 58.549, finishing in fourth just one tenth shy of the podium because despite her vast difficulty over Aliya Mustafina‘s, the judges found the Russian a bit more pleasing in her work at this meet, even though Shang had the far better overall performance on this day. Wang, meanwhile, placed sixth with a 58.032, hands down the best all-around performance of her career.
Speaking of Wang, we need to spend about 300 years bowing down to her and being so excited that she did as well as she did at this meet. A couple of months ago, Wang put up several questionable performances at nationals, falling multiple times and looking like she might not make it this far. At one point, China looked like they might have a bit more depth than they ended up having, and it didn’t seem like there was room for both Wang and Mao. Based on how they competed at nationals, Mao was clearly looking like the stronger of the two, though due to several circumstances, they both ended up making it on.
When all was said and done, Wang showed up in Rio looking like a brand new gymnast, hitting all 15 of her routines during her week of competition, from qualifications to team finals, and then in the all-around and event finals. Just 16, Wang was calm and composed in everything she did, and only cried when speaking to the press following the floor final, where she thought her work there might have been about enough to get it done.
As the final Chinese competitor, Wang felt a ton of pressure going into that round of competition. No Chinese gymnast — male or female — had earned an individual medal to that point, so this was it. Earlier that weekend, Wang competed in the vault final, placing fifth after hitting her double-twisting tsuk and a handspring Rudi, though she wasn’t quite as clean as some of the other competitors and averaged a 14.999, less than three tenths from third place.
In the floor final, Wang again gave it her all, but it was again just a few tenths shy of a medal. The highlight here was her super difficult 1½ to triple full to punch front, executed beautifully as the second pass in her routine, following her double double. Now, with some time separating her from the competition, she is able to look back and feel proud of her performance, but immediately following this specific routine, she was unable to hold back tears while being interviewed in the mixed zone.
“Is it okay if I don’t talk about it anymore?” Wang asked some of the journalists after continuously responding to questions about her disappointment. Most left her alone and others tried to cheer her up, but in that moment, Wang — despite her fabulous Games — felt she hadn’t done enough for her country.
Now, she and her teammates are able to look back with satisfaction, and spent the rest of their time in Rio enjoying themselves, meeting their fellow competitors, shopping in the village, and eating McDonald’s.
“I’m only getting started in my journey,” Wang later told the press. “Everyone in Rio was one of the best gymnasts in the world. I can’t compete with them. I am not as strong as they are. But I am satisfied with my performance.”
The other apparatus finalists included Shang on bars and Fan on beam. Both performed beautifully in their respective finals, but knew they were coming in as long shots for the podium. Shang had a clean bars routine with a small hop on her dismount to earn a 15.433, placing fifth, while Fan had a couple of small wobbles throughout her routine to score a 14.5, finishing sixth.
So far, all of this year’s Olympians plan on returning to the sport, with the younger girls like Mao, Wang, and Fan all excited to get back into the gym to work on upgrading and continue perfecting what they already have.
Hopefully, with FIG president Bruno Grandi — who has been vocal in his criticism of and bias against the Chinese — on his way out, the future of Chinese gymnastics will begin looking up, and the young women who give their heart and soul to the sport won’t have to walk out of a competition feeling disappointed and wronged despite performing just as well as everyone else.
Article by Lauren Hopkins