If you’re like most gymnastics fans, you tune in to the Olympics to find that most of the athletes you grew to love four years ago are nowhere to be seen. New faces have emerged with histories you don’t know, and the overall narrative seems to have changed. The genius of elite gymnastics is that it is a constantly evolving, gravity-defying, mind-blowing sort of sport. (That’s why you’ll be tuning in for it, right?!) The flip side is that the gymnasts who are good enough to grace your screens typically have shorter careers, because, well, you’ve seen what they do, yes? That’s beginning to change, as you’ll see below, but gymnastics at the Rio Games will also be typical in that many 2012 Olympians won’t be there.
To help with the transition, this a piece that will bring you up to date ahead of gymnastics kicking off on August 7th. It is by no means exhaustive, but in five points, it will highlight the major players, themes, and developments since the 2012 Olympics and link you to routines.
Let’s begin with where you left off…
#1: At the London Olympics, Team USA won the team title for the first time since their historic win in 1996. It was the dramatic culmination of a new training system that began in 2001 under the careful direction of Marta Karolyi, wife of the better-known Bela Karolyi. Despite Bela’s association with some of the earlier, more iconic moments in gymnastics, it is Marta who has transformed USA’s elite program into the powerhouse it is. It is a semi-centralized system, combining the “best of both worlds,” where members of the National Team train at home with personal coaches but gather for training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas for regular assessment and collaboration. The team came up short (according to their standards) in 2004 and 2008, placing second to Romania (2004) and to China (2008), but in London they made an undeniable statement, not only winning team gold but winning it by a wide margin. Since then, they haven’t lost a team title at the world level and the margin has only grown wider. At the 2012 Games, the silver-winning Russian team counted too many big mistakes in the final rotations to threaten a USA title, but in the qualification round they had established themselves a force to be reckoned with. In Rio, it’s considered quite unlikely that the Russians or any other team can outpace Team USA. They are fully expected to win, and to win big. And while the lack of competition may be disappointing, consider the pressure these young women are under. They know full well that anything less than gold will be failing to meet the standard they’ve set themselves. Most likely, however, they will rise to the occasion, and show the world some of the most dynamic, poised, and finely tuned gymnastics we’ve seen.
The more interesting questions will come after Rio, when Marta Karolyi retires and we’ll have to wait and see whether the system she built can transcend her personal leadership of it. To learn more, check out the documentary in celebration of Marta’s tenure and the rise of USA Gymnastics below.
#2: So where are the “Fierce Five” now?
Three of the five- member U.S.A. team have retired from elite gymnastics. Jordan Wieber is a student at UCLA and managing UCLA’s gymnastics team (she can’t compete in the NCAA because she went pro before the 2012 Olympics); McKayla Maroney continued to train after 2012 and won the vault title at the 2013 World Championships before officially announcing her departure from elite competition last year; and Kyla Ross also announced her retirement around the same time as Maroney. She continued to train seriously with the intention of being a 2-time Olympian, collecting individual and team medals at the World Championships in 2013 and 2014, but 2015 was a difficult year as an attempt to increase her start values elicited uncharacteristic mistakes and bodily fatigue. She will begin a new gymnastics chapter when she begins competing for UCLA this fall.
The remaining two members of the “Fierce Five” will be in Rio, the first time Olympic veterans have been included on the team since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow competed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The returning members—Alexandra Raisman and Gabrielle Douglas—took some time away from serious training following the last Olympics but returned to competition in 2015, looking far better than many had anticipated. With the depth that Team USA boasts and an army of youngsters pushing them along, what they’ve done has been extremely vulnerable and admirable. Neither is likely to match the success she reached in 2012, but both will be invaluable team players and will certainly be in the fight for individual medals. Raisman will be looking to make the All Around, Balance Beam and Floor finals, while Douglas will mostly be in the hunt for the All Around and Bar finals.
Speaking of both being in the hunt for an All Around medal, one of the more pressing questions of this meet is whether the reigning Olympic All-Around Champion (Douglas) will even make the All-Around Final this time around, the goal she set out with when she decided to pursue a comeback. In the qualification round, the gymnasts compete to qualify not only their team to the Team Final, but their scores also qualify them (or don’t qualify them) to the individual All Around Final and Event Finals. Because of how the qualification round is designed, however, with only four of the five members on a team allowed to perform on each apparatus, difficult choices have to be made about who will even receive the opportunity to qualify for those “individual” competitions later in the week. Given these constraints, it is possible that Douglas may not be allowed to compete all four events in qualifications, thus barring her from entering the All-Around Final. The blessing and curse of this U.S. line-up is that there are five world class all-around gymnasts on the team, four who would have a legitimate shot at medaling in the All Around Final if not for the two-per-country limit. At present, they are one another’s biggest competition. But if you put all four up on uneven bars in qualifications, giving them all the opportunity to qualify for the All-Around Final and then seeing how it shakes out, you’ve denied Madison Kocian the opportunity to qualify for the Uneven Bars Final, and she is the reigning World Champion on the event. That’s a crappy scenario and it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, Marta Karolyi will be making the decision that one (or even two) of the four all-around gymnasts doesn’t get to compete all four events in qualifications, thus making room for the event specialist (Kocian). There are many who believe Douglas should be the one barred, as Simone Biles automatically receives one of the qualification slots and Aly Raisman and first-year senior Lauren Hernandez both outpaced Douglas at the recent U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials. Douglas did place second to Simone Biles at the 2015 World Championships, however, and over the last days Marta Karolyi has been emphasizing her tendency to peak right on time and how good she looks in training. I think it’s fair to say that on the business side of things, Douglas’s inclusion in the All-Around (or at least the opportunity to qualify for it) is smart_. Who doesn’t want a showdown between compatriots—one of them the reigning Olympic Champion and the other the reigning, three-time World Champion_? We can only hope that if Douglas competes, it’s also a decision that is merited/ethical based on her most recent training. It’s certainly possible given the hard-working and talented athlete that she is, but it’s unfortunate she couldn’t show it to the world at the Olympic Trials, removing any skepticism.
#3: Who else will we recognize from the 2012 Olympics? This isn’t an exhaustive list, but among the veterans who medaled four years ago, you may recognize Aliya Mustafina (Russia), Maria Paseka (Russia) and Catalina Ponor (Romania).
Aliya Mustafina came away from the London Olympics as the most decorated female gymnast, winning gold in the Uneven Bars Final, silver in the Team Final, bronze in the All Around Final, and bronze in the Floor Exercise Final. She has ebbed and flowed these last four years, picking up more medals at the European and World levels but also showing signs of fatigue. She missed last year’s World Championships due to injury and with the long view of Rio in mind. Bursting onto the scene in 2010, when she became World Champion, she is a fan favorite owing to her classical work and intensity, but it is unlikely she will repeat the success she enjoyed in 2012. It’s been a challenge for her to keep apace with the sport’s ever-evolving level of difficulty and remain healthy while doing so. That being said, she is also known to defy expectations and has earned the right not to be counted out. With a hamstring injury hampering her younger teammate, Angelina Melnikova, Mustafina may turn out to be Russia’s best All-Around hope. She may also qualify to the bar and beam finals and could medal in either of them. Most important of all, she’ll captain the fairly young Russian team, which is considered talented but unpredictable. Below is a performance given at the 2013 World Championships with helpful commentary:
**Maria Paseka, **also from Russia, is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist on vault, having placed behind McKayla Maroney (silver) and Sandra Izbasa (gold) four years ago. She is also the reigning World Champion on the event. At her first Olympics, she won her place on the team for her high start value on vault alone. In the Team Final, she didn’t quite rise to the occasion, under-rotating the difficult 2.5 twists off the table and taking some wild, costly steps at the end. She is hampered by a back injury at present so it is still uncertain whether she’ll receive the green light from the doctor to compete, but if she does it’s likely she’ll give a better performance than the one given in London. Her big vault from London (called the Amanar) has been cleaned up and her second vault has been upgraded, so her value to the Russian team has increased as well as her chances of moving up the podium in the event final. Check out her winning performance from the 2015 World Championships below:
And barring any last-minute developments, Romania’s Catalina Ponor will be participating in her third Olympic Games in Rio after coming out of retirement last year to aid a struggling Romanian team. Because Romania failed to qualify a full team to these Olympics, they were granted one spot for an individual gymnast. Ponor has received the call and is expected to compete on all four events in qualifications, hoping especially to qualify to the beam final. In London, she originally placed third on balance beam before Aly Raisman’s score inquiry was accepted and she was bumped to fourth; and on floor exercise, she won a silver medal behind Raisman. She has stated publicly that her goal is to stay healthy so she is able to do what she can do; if she can do that, the medals will follow. Here’s Catalina performing recently at the Romanian Nationals. She’s had an amazing comeback:
Who you won’t see from the London Olympics are Romania’s Sandra Izbasa (vault gold), and China’s He Kexin (bars silver), Deng Linlin (beam gold), and Sui Lu (beam silver), all of whom have since retired from elite gymnastics.
You also won’t see Russia’s Viktoria Komova, who was forced to withdraw from her Rio bid just last month with a nagging back injury. You might remember her devastation at placing second in the All Around to USA’s Gabrielle Douglas in London, and to USA’s Jordan Weiber at the World Championships the year prior. A fan favorite because of her exquisite execution, she often fell victim to her perfectionism in competition. Over the last few years, however, she seems to have gleamed a new perspective and fans have seen more of a fighting spirit when things go awry mid-routine. It’s a shame that her health hasn’t allowed the intensity of pre-Olympic training, as her presence would have added a little extra magic to the mix. She was just recently diagnosed with a stress fracture of the fifth vertebra, and says she will make a decision about whether to continue her career after six months of rest and another analysis.
#4: So what about developments since the 2012 Olympics?
She’s already been mentioned (because it’s impossible not to), but if you haven’t paid much attention these last four years, the one thing you absolutely, positively need know heading into Rio is that gymnastics has a new superstar, and her name is Simone Biles. After winning another All-Around gold medal at last year’s World Championships, she became the first female gymnast to win three consecutive world titles. By the end of the week she had won more gold medals at a world championship than any female gymnast in history.
But the broken records alone don’t confirm just how phenomenal an athlete Simone is. She didn’t win those medals by the skin of her teeth; they didn’t come down to capitalizing on the mistakes of her rivals or simply managing her nerves where others failed. They were earned by performances that are in a league of their own, the kind that make even the judges a little giddy. There’s been a lot of talk about the new Code of Points in gymnastics (where each routine has a different “start value” based on how difficult it is; this is why you never see a “perfect 10” anymore), and while critics of the new code have used the performances of relatively recent champions as “proof” that difficulty has been far more rewarded than execution and artistry (to the sport’s detriment), Simone Biles has almost single-handedly punched a hole in the argument that those aspects of gymnastics need be mutually exclusive. Her level of difficulty is astounding and her execution is equally so. On floor exercise, her signature event, she is not balletic, but artistry in gymnastics has long been inclusive of other dance forms, and what she performs she performs purposefully and emotively. Her infectious personality and social ease transfer to the podium floor. In short, she is far and away the best female gymnast the world has ever seen, and she is expected to win multiple titles in Rio. (She could very well come home with five of the six gold medals that will be contested). When she turned senior in 2013 and dominated the World Championships in Antwerp, observers worried she wouldn’t be able to sustain her level of fitness until Rio. It’s almost a laughable memory now, as she has not only sustained the standard she set but exceeded it.
Here’s a preview:
In other major developments since 2012, Team Romania has fallen into the abyss and Great Britain has slowly and steadily risen to become another gymnastics powerhouse along with China, Russia, and the USA.
Romania’s fall from grace was a long time coming despite this last chapter feeling devastatingly swift to team and gymnastics fan alike, even more so because these Rio Games are the 40th anniversary of Nadia Comanici’s historic performance in Montreal. The warning signs for the elite program began between the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, though they were able to stay afloat between then and 2012. Since then, the Romanians haven’t climbed the podium at a World Championship despite some redemptive performances at the European level, and a few months ago they failed to qualify a full team to these Rio Olympics. Lack of investment in the younger generation and in the sport in general combined with ill-timed injuries to their top athletes made for an unfortunate mix. Equally unfortunate is the fact that Larisa Iordache, Romania’s top gymnast in the last cycle, will be traveling to Rio only as a reserve and is unlikely to compete. She has carried the thinning Romanian team the last few years and despite the fact that she won the bronze medal in the All Around Final at last year’s World Championships (and so she is, so to speak, the third best gymnast in the world), that success did not earn her an automatic berth to the Olympics. Those who medaled in an Event Final did earn an automatic berth (those who medaled on vault alone, or bars alone, etc.) but All-Around medalists aren’t given the same allowance, apparently because the Federation of International Gymnastics never imagined an All-Around medalist would be part of a program that hadn’t qualified a full team the games. This is all changing in the rule book for the next Olympic qualification process, but not in time for Iordache, who certainly isn’t at the top of her game but should be part of the picture nevertheless. She wasn’t able to regain her previous form in these last crucial months following a hand injury, and so Romania’s sole spot has gone to teammate Catalina Ponor, who I mentioned earlier. Ponor is an incredible gymnast who has risen magnificently to the occasion, but it is a shame that she alone is allowed to compete. It’s a failure of the Olympic qualification system, and one that was recognized too late. Because you most likely won’t see Larisa competing, indulge me for a moment and enjoy one of her performances from 2014 here:
As Romania has fallen, Great Britain has risen. Before this last Olympic cycle, the women’s program in British Gymnastics was mostly defined by individuals winning individual medals, thus putting the program on the radar; but in the last cycle, following an historic fifth place finish at the London Olympics, the team has taken on a life of its own, guided by a veteran of the 2008 Olympics (Rebecca Downie) and filled out by talented newcomers who turned senior in time to get ample experience under their belts before Rio. After medaling as a team for the first time at last year’s World Championships, they are hopeful that history could be made again in Rio. With Russian and Chinese teams that lack depth (and therefore any wiggle room if something goes wrong), it’s certainly possible.
British athletes will also be looking to take home more individual medals this year, the greatest possibilities coming from Rebecca Downie (bars), sister Ellie Downie (All Around), and Claudia Fragapane (floor). Check out the videos below. The first captures Ellie Downie’s final vault and the moment the team realized they’d won bronze at last year’s world championships, and the second is a special feature on sisters and teammates Rebecca and Ellie Downie.
#5: Who else should I keep an eye on?
In addition to those already mentioned, the other post-London athletes to keep an eye on are USA’s Lauren Hernandez, Russia’s Angelina Melnikova, Seda Tutkhalyan, and Daria Spiridonova, China’s Shang Chunsong ,Fan Yilin, and Wang Yan, North Korea’s Un Jong Hong, Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber, Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitna, Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz and Pauline Schaefer, The Netherlands’ Sanne Wevers, Japan’s Mai Murakami, and Brazil’s Flavia Saraeiva.
Barring any freak incident, Simone Biles will completely dominate the All Around Final and will likely share the podium with a US teammate, whether that teammate is first-year senior Hernandez (nicknamed “Baby Shakira”) or whomever else qualifies to the final (remember that only two per country can qualify). The last podium spot (whether silver or bronze) is anybody’s guess at this point. Could it be Angelina Melnikova, Russia’s youngest competitor and newest national champion? Or will elder teammate Mustafina put her most difficult program together and climb the podium again? She’s more likely to medal on uneven bars or balance beam alone, but an All Around medal isn’t out of the picture. Could China’s Shang Chunsong pull through? Shang has been competing at the senior level since 2012 though she didn’t make the 2012 Olympic Team. She has been the national champion in China for the last two years but has just missed medaling at the world level too many times to count. She is also a potential medalist on balance beam and floor exercise. (It’s also worth noting that she is 20 years old. Her tiny physique is due to severe malnourishment as a child. Better to get curious before getting judgmental.)
On vault, North Korea’s Un Jong Hong will be looking to medal on her signature event (some thought she was robbed of gold at last year’s World Championships, finishing a close second to Russia’s Maria Paseka, and it’s possible she may unveil a triple-twisting yurenchenko vault, whereas her closest competition would be performing nothing more than 2.5 twists) and Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber will also be looking to medal on the event in addition to floor exercise. This will be Giulia’s second Olympics, and she has improved greatly in four years, becoming European Champion in 2015. Oksana Chusovitna is also a potential medalist on vault, and a win for her would be a win for gymnastics as a whole. Chusovitna is 41 years old and over the course of her age-defying career she has competed for the USSR, the Unified Team, Germany, and Uzbekistan. In Rio, she will be competing in her seventh Olympics, the first female gymnast to do so. As previously mentioned, Simone Biles (USA) will also be looking to add a gold medal on this event despite placing third at last year’s World Championships. She has upgraded her second vault so if she hits she’ll probably nab it.
Russia’s Daria Spiridonova and China’s Fan Yilin were part of the four-way tie for gold in last year’s Uneven Bars Final, and both will be poised to repeat their beautiful performances in Rio. As momentous as last year’s “gold medals for everyone!” final was, however, I think athlete and spectator alike are hoping the judges can better discern between the routines in Rio, technically perfect as many may be. Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz has a markedly different style on bars, more dynamic and less fluid than the aforementioned, but she could also factor into the medals if she knocks it out of the park. So could Germany’s Sophie Scheder and China’s Tan Jiaxin. As previously mentioned, reigning Olympic Champion Aliya Mustafina (Russia), Rebecca Downie (Great Britain), Gabrielle Douglas (USA), and reigning co-World Champion Madison Kocian (USA) are also likely to be in the mix.
Finally, keep an eye on Mai Murakami (Japan), Sanne Wevers (Netherlands) and Pauline Shaeffer (Germany). The former could factor into the floor final with big tumbling, and the latter two medaled on balance beam at last year’s World Championships. Their unique styles and beauty have won them many an accolade. The beam final is also where Russia’s Seda Tutkhalyan and Brazil’s Flavia Saraiva could factor in; both have admirable beam work but are known for inconsistency. Whether they make it into the final will be the bigger question. As previously mentioned, China’s Shang Chunsong, USA’s Simone Biles, Alexandra Raisman or Laurie Hernandez, Romania’s Catalina Ponor, and Russia’s Aliya Mustafina and Angelina Melnikova could also factor into a beam final. On floor, as previously mentioned, USA’s Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber, Great Britain’s Claudia Fragapane, and Romania’s Catalina Ponor could also factor in.
In conclusion, gymnastics at the Rio Olympics will be equally predictable and unpredictable. With Simone as their leader and the biggest competition occurring between themselves, the titles are mostly Team USA’s to lose, but the fights for silver and bronze–across all competitions–are open and include gymnasts who don’t belong to the traditional powerhouse teams. Elite gymnastics is changing, and you’ll see it in just a few days. Enjoy!
Article: Sara Dorrien-Christians