The “impossible” became possible in women’s team qualifications at the Olympic Games on Sunday, when the Russian women put up a show-stopping performance to defeat the dominant U.S. team, which struggled with mistakes and lower-than-expected scores and ended up more than a point back to finish in second.
This is the first time the U.S. women have been outscored in major international competition since the team final at world championships in 2010, and the first time they’ve been beaten in qualifications since 2008. As the reigning world champions who had a decisive five-point win in Stuttgart, the women showed here that they are no longer infallible thanks to the strength of the incredibly talented Russian all-around trio, who proved themselves as legitimate threats to the team that has been “guaranteed gold” all these years.
Of course, gold is never a guarantee, but when a team’s margin is typically multiple points ahead of the rest of the competition with room for multiple falls, it’s easy to get cocky, and that’s exactly what happened here. High performance director Tom Forster told the media at the Olympic trials that taking the highest-scoring team “didn’t matter” because “it wasn’t going to come down to tenths,” which may have been true in 2019 and in previous years, but in 2021, it is a clear dismissal of what Russia (and China with a full-strength team, which they do not have here) is currently capable of, and as the strategist for the team, Forster should know this and should have better prepared his team to go into the meet.
I saw a comment on Twitter that said “Russia played to win, and the United States played to not lose.” The gymnasts on the U.S. team obviously gave it what they could, and had to deal with mistakes that they’re simply not used to making internationally, so I don’t fault them for this. Instead, there is a clear lack of leadership at the highest levels, and of course Forster’s “we’ll win no matter what so it doesn’t matter” attitude affects how they approach competitions. If you have the mindset that you’re “guaranteed gold,” you do not approach the competition with the same mindset that you would as an underdog.
Despite being so dominant in previous quads, the U.S. still came to every meet like they had something to prove, and this is something they’ve lost since Forster took over. Even in the mixed zone after the competition, Forster essentially said that he didn’t care how things went, because they’re not here just for medals, but while there are some teams here without that prospect, the U.S. is not one of them. The U.S. is here for the team gold, and for a number of individual golds as well. To pretend differently is asinine, and frankly, an insult to the gymnasts who are at a level far beyond “just here to enjoy the ride.”
Simone Biles said in a recent interview that while she clearly did not support the abusive culture Marta Karolyi created, she did think that the current situation is too lax, and that it creates a passive environment that isn’t conducive to winning. It’s not so much that the quality of gymnastics has gone down in recent years, but rather something missing from the leadership that helped the team be more competitive and goal-oriented at the highest levels. At the end of the day, this is elite gymnastics, not elementary school, and while Karolyi’s fear-based method of “hit your routines or you’re finished” is not it, there is a middle ground between that and what the U.S. team currently has in place. There can often be a fine line between disciplined and abusive coaching, but that balance does exist and the U.S. needs to find it, fast.
Every team and every athlete makes mistakes in sports, but to see a team this skilled and experienced make so many in qualifications at the Olympic Games is unexpected, to say the least. Pound for pound, the U.S. team is stronger than the current Russian team, and has a lot to make up for in the team final whereas Russia’s qualification score is close to maxed out. But if the U.S. can fall to Russia in a four-up three-count prelim, a final where all scores count is going to be that much trickier, especially when most of the mistakes in qualifications came from those who were expected to contribute key routines in the final.
As for the Russians, I have nothing but awe for how they performed yesterday. I had high expectations for the team coming into the Games, just based on the sheer level of talent they have in addition to what they were able to accomplish at European Championships this year. I did worry that some of the team’s less experienced gymnasts might struggle, but everyone approached the competition with such a fight that is so often missing from the Russian team, I almost forgot who I was watching.
This was also not a “they have the lead because the U.S. wasn’t good” situation. They have the lead because they made sure that they wouldn’t lose out on an opportunity to take advantage of U.S. mistakes, and they fought to the end for every tenth on every event to make that happen. Led by Angelina Melnikova, the baby of the 2016 Olympic team who has spent the last five years transforming into a world class contender in the all-around and on every apparatus, Russia beat the United States on every event but vault here, where they were only tenths behind.
It’ll be difficult to replicate the incredible performance they showed on Sunday in the team final this week, especially on beam, and even if they are close to perfect, Biles alone could add back nearly three points for the U.S. team. But whether Russia ends up defeating the U.S. again or not, the point is that the U.S. learned the hard way that the potential this Russian team has is not to be ignored.
And maybe that’s exactly what the U.S. needs – to discover that they’re not a lock, no matter how good they are, and that they can’t rest on what they know about the international field based on two-year-old information. There’s already a lot of talk about how it was “just qualifications” and they’ll be “fine” for team finals, but without someone motivating them and raising them up and helping them find that edge that was so badly absent on Sunday, I’m not so sure that’s true.
Outside of the top two, China finished third about four points back from the United States, looking strong on bars and beam, but not being able to overcome a massive deficit on vault and floor, especially with the team putting up only three competitors on the latter. At full strength, I think China should be at least able to challenge the top teams even if they’re not the strongest outright, but even despite everything they lacked here, it was still a strong competition with no major mistakes, which is exactly what they needed to do.
The team will need to keep that focus going into the team final, where they could once again be at a risk for a medal if they have any falls, just like when they missed out on bronze in 2019. France was within about two points from the Chinese team, with lots of room for improvement, and there are several other teams in the mix that could also increase their potential going into the final, so hitting is a must.
The French team ended up in fourth with a 164.561, missing out on a few potentially higher scores, but surviving thanks to one of the best vault rotations in the competition, with a few excellent bars and beam routines also helping them out. I’m hoping to see them clean up floor for the final, and think they could possibly win back a full point there If everyone can make just a few adjustments, but overall they seemed thrilled with the finish, especially after not making the team final five years ago.
Belgium finishing in fifth with a 163.895 absolutely crushed its previous record, which was 11th place at the Games in 1948, the country’s first Olympic appearance for women’s artistic gymnastics. This achievement completely surpasses every expectation I had for the team, but they performed incredibly across all four events, and it’s not just thanks to Nina Derwael‘s strong scores – behind Derwael was a team of young gymnasts who all became seniors this quad, with Maellyse Brassart very experienced at this point having made her world championships debut in 2017, though Lisa Vaelen is just 16 while Jutta Verkest is only 15, though both performed like they’ve been around forever. In a sport where most teams could not survive without veterans, the Belgians are consistently bringing up very talented young competitors every quad, and I think this is still just the beginning of what they’ll be capable of in the years to come.
The other teams to reach the final were Great Britain (163.396), Italy (163.330), and Japan (162.662), with both the Brits and the host team dealing with multiple falls, while Italy was lacking in execution on every event. All three are so close both with one another and when compared to France and Belgium, though, and I think the rankings in the team final could wind up wildly different, so I’m excited to see who will thrive and who will fall under the pressure of three-up three-count.
Germany missed out on a few key scores it was counting on, and ended up ninth more than a point back from the final with a 161.162, while Canada dealt with a number of uncharacteristic mistakes to finish 10th with a 160.964, likely a result of getting virtually no competitive experience this year, as they didn’t send gymnasts to compete internationally and domestic meets were competed within each athlete’s club gym, with scores decided via video review. It’s unfortunate that one of the quad’s strongest teams couldn’t make it through, but given the situation the Canadians have been in this year – which was unlike any other team’s here – I think they can still be very proud of what they accomplished.
Rounding out the competition were the Netherlands in 11th with a 160.263 and Spain in 12th with a 157.128. The Dutch team dealt with a number of mistakes, while Spain – which is missing two of its top all-arounders due to injuries – just didn’t have the difficulty to contend, though both teams put up beautiful and artistic performances on floor, while the Netherlands also stood out on beam and Spain had several excellent bars sets.
Article by Lauren Hopkins