Thursday, 15 March 2012

Deep enough to drown in?

I should probably start with this: if anyone is sick and tired of reading about the highs and lows of the USA Olympic team selection, I do understand your pain and you should probably look away now. Perhaps look this way and forget all about the bitching and whining and indulge in some classic beauty and artistic interpretation:

(Sorry, that was mean).

To get back on track, I know this topic is being absolutely done to death at the moment, but it keeps playing on my mind. The more I ponder on it, the more I come to think that the events we will see pan out will have repercussions the world over, and that the current US situation should be watched closely and inform those at the top about key decisions to be made for the future of our favourite sport.

For those that might have been hiding under a rock recently, the situation is this...

The new Olympic format permits 5 member teams in a 5-3-3 format. There are 5 members to each team. Three gymnasts work on each apparatus in the team final, with all scores being counted towards the team totals that decide the first gold medals we will see in London.

As anyone can see, there is not a lot of room on that team. This size itself is not particularly shocking in a team final situation (in Beijing the USA basically had a 5 member team because Sam Peszeck didn’t work beyond qualifications). The problem is that with the focus on team gold, event specialists from powerhouse countries risk getting shut out in the cold. Right now, there are several girls starting to sink in the depth of the USA gymnastics programme.

My problem with this tiny team format is this: it creates a huge bias towards AA and multiple specialist gymnastics in comparison to those that shine on a single event. Sure, it makes perfect sense on paper, but there is no concrete reason to validate this bias. Gold medals are gold medals, be it with the team, in the AA, or in an event final. Yet this system causes specialists from deep programmes to be greatly undervalued in comparison to the all around contributors.

This train of thought has been recently validated by USA team coordinator Marta Karyoli. In a recent interview, the ever opinion-splitting Marta stated that her Olympic team will consist of “3 all arounders and 2 bars specialists”. Cue wild speculation. The USA, as is often the case, is super strong on the power events and somewhat lacking in the bars department. Now we are not talking Romania bad: Jordyn Wieber made the world bars final in 2011 and puts up some not-too-terrible numbers, Rebecca Bross is a great bars worker and then there is the prospect of the much anticipated return of current Olympic AA champ Nastia Liukin. But compared to other events, most notably the vault (where America may now feasibly have more 6.5 vaults than the rest of the world put together) the high number flashers are thin on the ground.

Marta: we would all love to know what she is thinking

So what does this mean? It means, most likely, that a solid but often sloppy AAer like Aly Raisman or a back-in-the-gym for five minutes Nastia Liukin has a greater shot at London than the highest scoring gymnast this quad Mckayla Maroney (don’t mistake this for me getting at Nastia or Aly, it is the principle that is important not the names themselves).

Now let’s compare the situation of an American specialist to a non powerhouse specialist. Beth Tweddle has been walking on to GBR world teams for approaching 10 years now, and not without cause: she is a fantastic gymnast. However, she gets an advantage because her country is not awash with home ground competitors. For those who don’t live in the UK (and google analytics tell me the vast majority of the readers of this blog are not...) gymnastics is not a big deal in the UK. It is barely on the radar of most people. To Brits, the sight of the Olympic Trials packing out giant stadiums is a strange one, because here the average person won’t know a thing about the sport. The day Beth won the floor gold in 2009, she had a small 1 paragraph mention in the back of the newspaper I read over breakfast the next morning. To most UK crowds, gymnastics is something they pop in on every four years, and pop straight back out of.

The same can be said for Oksana Chusovitina: if she can keep her vaults to the same standard they have been since Beijing, her spot at the games is as good as set in stone.

...and this leads us nicely to the impact of the US selection process on the rest of the world. For some reason it hadn’t clicked with me that every vault world champion this quad has been American. Kayla Williams, Alicia Sacramone, Mckayla Maroney. They have dominated recently and continue to do so. However, with every American gymnast and her dog doing an Amanar now, the second vault is meaningless and so it is feasible that no American makes the vault final this time around. Unless Cheng Fei makes a spectacular return, would this be like handing a gold medal to Chusovitina?

To conclude, I am struggling to find ways to defend this 5 team system. Why? Because I don’t think it is benefitting the athletes nearly as much as it needs to. Through no fault of their own, fantastic event specialists have to divert attention away from their signatures and plough it into their weaker pieces to have a chance of factoring in. 


  1. It really bothers me that gymnasts like McKayla and Alicia might not even make the Olympic team, even though they could both could contend for vault medals. At the same time, Chuso can keep going to the Olympics/ Worlds for as long as she pleases, despite the fact that the vaulting of Maroney and Sac is far superior (in my opinion.) I love Chuso, but something about that seems a little unfair.

  2. I really think they need to go back to a 7 person team, and have the format be 7-5-5. This way more gymnasts get to perform, and we fans see more gymnastics! I really hate the 6-5-3 format, so you can imagine how much I'll detest the new 5-3-3 format.

  3. Yea the AA and TF golds are definitely the most coveted. VT EF is a special case really, because for the other events you don't have to train specially to make EF.

    And it's also a matter of being the right kind of specialist for the country at that time. A vault specialist like Maroney would be an absolute lock for Russia, China. VS I think He Kexin can probably make the US team for her bars (if we ignore the headcasing past two worlds), but china is not really short of great bar workers.

    Being from a "deep" gymnastics country has its drawbacks definitely - Mckayla, Aly, Bross, Vega... would all be locks in a "second tier" gymnastics country. Then again, it's also the depth of the USA program that produces so many amazing gymnasts.

  4. I agree with ALL of the above.

    I think the idea of two of the best vaulters in the world not making the Olympics is ridiculous. This system in in danger of killing vault completely: it is already half dead due to most people not having any cause to train two vaults, and as we are seeing at the moment even if you DO bother to do this and strive to set yourself apart from the field it will have no impact on your Olympic dream. The Olympics should showcase the best in the world: I appreciate that in the name of fairness and progression, slots from powerhouse countries need to be somewhat limited and it can't be a free for all. But the vault world champion with new upgrades not making the OGs? No thanks.

    It IS unfair that where you were born can have significant effect on what level of success you can achieve in your career.

    I would vastly prefer a seven person team. I think 7-5-5 would be a good system, as it would still require consistency and encourage everyone to hit but would be more inclusive and get more event specialists to the games. Of course people would argue that increasing the number of people allowed on the team gives an unfair advantage back to powerhouse countries which have a larger number of good gymnasts perhaps due to a stronger program and better investment. But I think anything that provides a greater showcase of talent is good, or at least a step in the right direction.

    I do not mean to criticize the American system though, Obviously it is its depth that provides such compelling viewing and in a way might be linked to its success: would these girls reach such levels without the constant pressure of home turf competition?

    Still, something needs to change. If it isn't the team size than people need to consider a separate individual qualification process for outstanding event specialists.

  5. I would love to see Chosovitina score a vault gold. The fact that she's still competing to a world-class level at an age where most gymnasts' careers are a distant memory? Totally badass, and all because she loves the sport - and her son - so much. Should the best vaulter in the world win? Ideally, yes. But a fault in the system that favours Chuso is the best kind of fault there could be!