The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, March 13, 2021

How will Olympic qualifying work? — Jordan Chiles discusses Winter Cup win — Must-click women's gymnastics links

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Are the Olympics still happening? Of course, it’s a moot point considering all the damage the coronavirus has done to humanity at large. But for the athletes (and for fans who really, really want Olympic gymnastics to happen), the continued uncertainty around the Games is … well, it sucks.

We have one reason to be optimistic, though: This week, The New York Times reported that the International Olympic Committee is hoping to have all athletes vaccinated, thanks to China (apparently, they’ll be donating vaccines to athletes’ home countries as well because optics).

But we also got news from Reuters that foreign fans won’t be allowed to attend, and that the Tokyo World Cup, originally set to be held in May, has been canceled outright. The world cup was supposed to be the final in a series of all-around international competitions (all but one of which were canceled), the official gymnastics test event for the Olympics, and Simone Biles’ first competition since the 2019 world championships. 

It was also originally a qualifying competition for the Tokyo Olympics, which brings us to tonight’s topic: the Olympic qualification rules for the 2021 Olympic Games. How was it supposed to work, and how has COVID-19 changed the process?

First, a bit of history. Even if you don’t follow gymnastics, you may have heard way back in 2015 that the Olympic gymnastics team size was reduced from five to four, with the possibility of qualifying two additional gymnasts as individuals, for the Tokyo Olympics. Since 12 teams go to the Olympics, having four-person teams freed up 12 spots. At the time, the shrunken team size led to a public outcry, most notably from Aly Raisman, who called it “a shame.”

As if that wasn’t jarring enough (us gymnerds are a sensitive bunch), the system the international gymnastics federation (FIG) created for athletes to qualify for those new individual spots was … complicated. So complicated that the FIG released an FAQ and a video that were meant to clarify things but, well, didn’t. Our only solace was in gym bloggers who broke it down for us, but still, the rules always leave us with unanswered questions. Here’s my attempt at summarizing the process (deep breaths): 

  • Three countries qualified teams at the 2018 world championships and another nine qualified teams at 2019 worlds. That’s 48 athletes. The four-member teams will be decided by the countries.

  • Also at 2019 worlds, the top 20 all-around qualifiers (one per country) whose country had not qualified a team got a nominative spot, “nominative” meaning they qualified by name, not just a spot for their country. The same goes for the top three athletes for each event final whose country did not have a qualified team (only one athlete qualified in this way, and the rest of the spots were given to more all-arounders). That’s 12 event final spots, for a total of 32 nominative individual spots taken up at worlds.

  • Stay with me. The four individual winners (one for each apparatus) of the apparatus world cup series, a series of international competitions running from 2018-20, get nominative spots. I won’t get into how “winning a series” works. You’re welcome.

  • The top three ranked countries from the 2020 all-around world cup series each get a spot. Only top countries at worlds qualify to participate in this series. These are individual spots that belong to the country, not an individual.

  • At the 2020 (now 2021) continental championships (e.g., Asian Champs, Pan American Championships), the top two all-arounders get a spot for their country, with the exception of Oceania, which gets one spot. These are nominative, unless the country has already qualified a team, in which case the spot belongs to the country. That’s nine athletes. 

  • A spot for the home country, and a tripartite spot, which is basically a wildcard. I’m tired now and won’t get into that.

This adds up to 98 gymnasts. Clear as mud? Yes. Same.

How did the FIG justify … this? In the original announcement, they said they wanted to bring more attention to world cups and continental championships by including them in the qualification process and making them more competitive, and to give gymnasts more avenues to qualify. They also wanted to give more event specialists a shot at qualifying, while also being fair to countries that have a lot of depth, and said that this system would likely boost diversity in countries participating.

Then, COVID happened, and some of it was thrown out the window. 

Luckily, by March of 2020, most of the spots had been taken up. The 2019 world championships happened, and enough of the apparatus world cups happened to unofficially name four winners. But the only all-around world cup to actually be held was the American Cup, so the series was canceled and the three spots allocated to the U.S., China, and Russia (who would’ve gotten them anyway). All that’s left, then, is the continental championships. 

This week, the FIG made the intelligent decision to put in place a contingency plan for if and when these competitions were canceled — basically, the next highest all-around qualifier from 2019 worlds from that continent, who hasn’t already qualified and whose country isn’t part of a team, would qualify, with a limit of one per country. I’m unclear on how this works, and will complain about it below.

So, we have a basic idea of what the makeup of the 98 qualifying athletes is. Now, I thought I’d take a look at whether this qualification system achieved its intended goals, if for nothing else then to justify the time it took to make a spreadsheet. COVID notwithstanding, was this new system worth the confusion and the public outcry?

  1. Did the world cups get more attention and stronger competition? Before the qualification process, the apparatus world cups were barely on my radar; then, suddenly, we were all watching and doing math. So I’m going to give this a tentative yes. For the all-around series, the only one that was held was the American Cup, where Russia almost sent an athlete for the first time in a billion years. Even without Russia, the competition was definitely stiffer.

  2. Did gymnasts get more avenues to qualify? To qualify to the 2016 Olympics, you had to either make a country’s team, get an event medal at worlds, or place high enough in the all-around at worlds to get to the test event, where a large portion of all-arounders would qualify for nominative spots.
    Under the new system, you can either make a team, place high enough at worlds to qualify outright, qualify as a specialist through the apparatus world cups, or qualify a spot for your country via the all-around world cups or continental championships. The new avenues as an individual are the apparatus world cups, or continental championships if your country hasn’t qualified a team.
    So, the short answer is yes. In theory, if you’re an individual competitor and you had a bad day at worlds, you can still get another shot via the continental champs, which wasn’t really a thing in the previous quad.

  3. Did more event specialists get the chance to qualify? Yes. Four event specialists unofficially qualified for nominative spots via the apparatus world cups. But did the specialist spots actually go to specialists? Pretty much. None of these athletes have been officially confirmed, but Fan Yilin of China is set to win bars, and she hasn’t done an all-around competition since 2017. Same with Vanessa Ferrari of Italy, who last competed in the all-around in 2016 and is battling it out with compatriot Lara Mori for the floor title, and Ashikawa Urara of Japan — she’s an all-arounder with a beam specialty. Jade Carey, the American who’s clinched her spot on vault, is a vault and floor specialist who also has a strong all-around program.
    It’s worth wondering whether these athletes would have made their respective teams anyway. But I like that this system empowered at least a few athletes to qualify without going through their country’s qualification process (looking at you, Jade).

  4. Were teams rewarded for depth? Yes. The U.S. and China are sending the maximum number of athletes to the Olympics, and if continental championships happen, I’d say Russia and Japan will as well. Also, countries that didn’t qualify teams but still have more than one great gymnast can qualify two or more, which is the case for South Korea and, if continentals happen, could be the case for Egypt, Australia, and Brazil.
    If the continental championships are canceled, and if I’m reading the revised rules correctly, Russia, Canada, Brazil, and Japan are a few of the countries that would be screwed out of a spot. The FIG says these spots would be given to athletes who don’t have a qualified team, which excludes those countries. And something tells me if those countries knew this would happen, they would have tried harder to get apparatus world cup spots.

  5. Were gymnasts from more countries included? Actually, probably not. If the continental championships happen, countries will send their top athletes to get the nine spots. This being the case, my prediction is that 46 countries will be represented at the Olympics, compared to 50 from 2016.
    If continental championships don’t happen … here’s where I’m unclear. If I’m reading the revised rules correctly, if continental championships don’t happen, the FIG will just go down the line of all-around qualifications from 2019 worlds and anyone who doesn’t have a team qualified will qualify. It says one-per-country, but I don’t know if that means one total from that list, or one from just this process.
    In any case, while this screws over big-name countries (see above) this ups the diversity, as nine spots will be given to countries like Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, and Finland.
    Regardless of whether continentals happen, continental representation is higher under this system: Africa will have four representatives, while in 2016 they had two. Oceania will have three, while in 2016 they had two.

In conclusion: Most of the intended consequences of the qualification system actually came true. That said, I think the opacity of the process was too much to bear, and I don’t like it because my brain hurts. Also, with a niche sport that’s starved for a greater audience outside of the Olympics, putting confusing rules in place doesn’t help. Just think of how many times NBC will explain that Jade Carey is on the Olympic team, but also isn’t.

Of course, in 2024 the teams will be back to five, so we won’t have to deal with this anymore 🙂

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Five at the IX: Jordan Chiles

Last month, Jordan Chiles became the first-ever women’s Winter Cup all-around champion. Here’s what she had to say in a press conference following the competition (edited for clarity and length).

It’s been a long time since you guys have competed. What was it like? Did it feel like you’ve been gone a year?

Being out here today was definitely different compared to all the years before. I myself had the ability to  just go out there and have fun. Everybody else did amazing; I’m so proud of them. You could kind of tell that everybody had a little nerves here and there, considering it’s been over a year and a half since we competed. But everything else, the equipment, the energy in the gym … I know that we didn’t have a lot of people, but the girls cheering each other on helped a lot. It felt like more of a competition because we were there for each other.

It looked like you were smiling before your beam routine and then during your beam routine. What was going through your mind?

I was just out there to have fun. When I was about to do my beam routine, when I was smiling, it was because it calms me down, and then at the end I calmed myself down and was just enjoying the fact that I did what I was supposed to do when I needed to do it. I was just enjoying myself and having fun with everything. 

What do you think you worked on in the last year to come out here and get a 57 in the all-around?

The one thing I worked on was my confidence and doing the sport for myself and not for anybody else. I have come a long way … I honestly just put in so much work to prove to myself that I could do it and I came out here and did the same thing.

After the day that you had, did you think about playing it safe with your beam dismount?

I was working on that dismount for a while now. I really wasn’t playing it safe, I was going out there and doing it how I practice everything …  the dismount was something I was ready to compete and enjoy myself competing.

Ever since your Wonder Woman leotard a couple of years ago, you’ve been known for your superhero aura. Now it seems like you have some Spiderman influence in your floor routine. Take us through the inspiration behind that routine. Does it make you feel like a superhero?

Yes, my routine definitely has Spiderman in it. When I first did it, I wanted to bring out obviously superheroes … I can show people that I am a superhero as well, and there’s nothing that will ever hold you down, no matter what … that’s why I brought Spiderman into it this year. There was a lot of different superhero music that I was going to do, but Spiderman felt like, okay, he can fly, he can shoot webs … so that’s kind of like, as athletes, we can do anything we put our minds to.

How much have your bars changed since training with Laurent and Cecile Landi?

Obviously, a lot of people know I was never a bars swinger, and honestly, being coached by Cecile and Laurent has helped with every single thing throughout my whole career. I found the love of the sport, I got my mental and physical health back, and just being able to do an event that nobody really thought I was good at … I didn’t really think I was good at it either, and so just getting coached by Laurent and him giving me the opportunity to be able to show that I can do that event as well, just brings me so much joy. I have fun with it now, I can say that bars is kind of my favorite event now. I just have fun with it. It’s cool to learn new things on bars and show a bunch of crazy skills that a lot of people aren’t able to do.

What’s it like working with Simone? What’s your relationship with her like?

Oh my goodness. Simone Biles is my sister. I love her so much. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for her. She gives me the motivation, the courage, the support, the love. We’re like two peas in a pod. I just love her so much and I couldn’t ask for a better friend than to have her. She is such a spunky vibe to everything, and I just love it. We connect very well.

You look so much more confident. What do you think has made this change?

Throughout the year and a half that I had off, I had a lot of things that were going on … just me maturing through gymnastics and myself has helped a lot. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to continue or not because I had to choose which route to go in. I knew I had a job to finish and that job is being where I need to be for the Olympics and having that year and a half helped a lot. I found love for the sport back, I’ve gotten my physical and mental health back. So, I just enjoy this more than I have before and I honestly can say that I’m very proud of myself in general.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer