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The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, August 14, 2021

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Let’s reflect

Not much is happening now that the Olympics are over. Frankly, I think no news is good news — at least that means there aren’t too many high-profile retirement announcements. Plus, I can finally get some sleep.

But that doesn’t mean our work as fans is done. Amidst the lull, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on what it is we’ve learned from the weirdest Olympics ever. For the first time since I started following gymnastics, I’ve walked away from a competition having learned not just how the sport can improve, but also lessons I can take with me into my daily life. 

Here’s what I’ve taken away from these Olympics:

  1. Competitions need to be made safer. There’s no questioning that athletes competing in event finals need to have the opportunity to do a one-touch warmup on the equipment before they compete. Fans have complained about this, retired athletes have complained about this, and even current athletes (gasp!) have complained about this. We can’t attribute the splatty bars final entirely to the lack of one-touch warmups, but when athletes say they’d feel safer if they had them — and with literally no other explanation for the policy besides “it’s better for TV” — you need to listen (for once).
    Also, this wasn’t really talked about on the gymternet during the competitions, but I think Biles’ withdrawal calls for a renewed discussion of 4-3-3 or 5-3-3 team final formats. With such a high injury rate in this sport, including injuries happening during or after qualifications, it’s too dangerous to not have a score to drop in team finals. What if Team USA had started on floor instead of vault? Exhibit A:

    Would Simone have done one pass, realized she couldn’t finish, and walked off? Or would she have tried to push through? What if a team that brought a specialist had an injury but still needed the injured athlete to compete to get three scores? Bigger teams and one dropped score are the solutions here.

  2. Literally anything can happen (even for the GOAT). I’m pretty sure “Simone Biles withdraws from team final after one vault” was on nobody’s bingo card. As much as we talk about medals being mailed to her, nothing’s in the bag. And as it turns out, all that “guaranteed a gold medal” talk isn’t helpful for anyone, least of all Simone. If we leave the field open instead, it takes pressure off one athlete and gives us a greater understanding and appreciation for others. With that in mind…

  3. It’s time to put more of a spotlight on other countries. More nations earned medals at these Olympics than ever before. Due to Biles’ absence, more of them were up for grabs, and while her absence obviously was not a good thing, it was cool to see other athletes get into the mix for golds that could have been hers. Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade got her country’s first-ever medal in women’s gym (and got to be the flag bearer), Nina Derwael won Belgium’s first-ever gymnastics medal (though she would have gotten this anyway), Murakami Mai won Japan’s first women’s medal in a while, Great Britain won their first team medal since 1928, and, of course, Russia got their first gold since the Soviet era. Check out this article from The Gymternet with a full list of records broken at these Olympics. 
    I know I’m part of the problem here, but when we follow this sport, it’s easy as Americans to experience glee over Team USA’s dominance and insist it must stay that way. But there’s so much talent out there from so many countries, and seeing them get more of a share of the medals is an exciting thing.

  4. Age, ‘tis but a number. Oksana Chusovitina competed at her eighth and final Olympics here, at age 46. She deserved a better sendoff than the small standing ovation during a spectator-free qualifications round, but hopefully there will be a tribute at a future worlds or something. Aside from Chuso, the average age of the gymnasts who medaled here was high compared to previous Olympics. In fact, it was the highest in 50 years, according to The Washington Post. And while it’s not bad, per se, to have young athletes competing, it’s good to see longevity in the sport, probably as a result of better pacing.

  5. It’s OK to be a human person. We saw more personality and camaraderie on camera at these Olympics than ever before. Athletes were goofy, they danced, and they cheered each other on. No, we can’t extrapolate from this that all is well and good in the world of gymnastics, but it’s a good sign. And this is just speculation, but I think Biles has had a lot to do with it. Seeing her interact with other athletes over the course of the past two quads has been refreshing — she seems to genuinely care about her teammates and her competitors. I think she’s taking her role as a veteran and a leader very seriously, and is using it to change the sport from the inside out. 
    She also did this by setting a great example of saying no when she needed to. It’s so unfortunate that her mental block meant that she had to withdraw from these Olympics. But in any case, Biles showed great poise by knowing when she had to bow out and still acting as a leader for her teammates.

  6. Finally, success comes in many forms. Speaking of Biles, her withdrawal and the team’s subsequent silver medal showed us that success doesn’t have to be one thing. The gold was the goal, for sure, but once Biles was out, that goal needed to shift, and Biles and her teammates looked completely at peace with that. Similarly, Biles’ total medal count of two — with no golds — demonstrates that doing your best, and being successful, can shift from day to day, and that’s OK. We saw this play out in different ways — for example, Jade Carey winning gold on floor after a disappointing vault final, and Danusia Francis doing just a few skills on bars in qualifications so she could call herself an Olympian. Anything can happen at the Olympics, and these athletes were quick to adapt and adjust their expectations. We should all take note.

Gymnastics news

Tweet of the week

Five at the IX: Pamchenkova

Pamchenkova is an anonymous Twitter user who seems to know everything there is to know about the sport of gymnastics. They kindly spoke to me via DM about the code, the Olympics, and more. Diving right in:

What are your dream code changes?
It’s probably a weird one for most people, but I would love to see Element Group Requirements, like we see in MAG, replace the Composition Requirements in WAG. The CR in WAG add very little to routines. What does a sissone-wolf jump add to a beam routine? Or the orphan free walkovers on FX from last cycle? Nothing much. If we had something like the following, all of which would have to count among the eight best difficulties, I think we would see more variety and more interesting composition.

Uneven Bars:
1. Mounts
2. Non-flight elements
3. Transitional flight elements
4. Single-bar flight elements
5. Dismount

Balance Beam:
1. Mounts
2. Dance elements (Leaps, jumps, hops and turns)
3. Holds and acrobatic non-flight elements
4. Acrobatic flight elements
5. Dismount

Floor Exercise:
1. Dance elements
2. Hand support elements
3. Forward saltos
4. Backward saltos
5. Dismount

Which Olympics — or any competition — do you find most memorable?
Probably Indianapolis ’91 because it’s what started my obsession with the sport. It was also the last time the Soviets competed under the Soviet flag and anthem, so it was truly the end of an era.

What new skill would you like to see in your lifetime?
Maybe not a new skill, but I would love to see the Kolyvanov (layout 2/1 in — pike out) that Alexis Brion did in ’95 become a thing in WAG. It’s valued the same as the double layout 2/1 in MAG, so I would hope it would receive a similar valuation in WAG.

Is there a skill trend that you absolutely hate, or one that you would like to come back?
It’s not a trend, exactly, but what I hate more than anything with respect to WAG is that the WTC doesn’t seem to have a clear vision for the discipline or even specific apparatuses, so we see these massive overhauls of the WAG CoP each cycle. In MAG, we really don’t see sweeping changes to the CoP each cycle, mostly just tweaks here and there, though the ’24 MAG CoP did have some notable changes, too.

This is problematic for a few reasons, in my opinion. The constant changes make it difficult for coaches and gymnasts to make long-term plans when it comes to skill selection and routine composition, e.g., something that earns 0.20 CV this cycle may end up earning no CV next cycle, or the technical requirements will change to the point that it’s no longer worth doing, so all that work that was put in developing that connection or skill ended up being for nought.

Constantly changing DV, CV structures, Composition Requirements, and Technical Requirements for specific elements is not really fair for the athletes and coaches, a point which the FIG President himself made earlier this cycle when advising TCs not to make massive overhauls, but it also makes the sport difficult for the public to keep up with.

Who is your favorite gymnast?
That’s a tough one, but Svetlana Boginskaya will always be my sentimental favourite. There will never be another gymnast like her. Everything about her was iconic, even her run and hurdle. Her floor routines are, of course, legend.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
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Thursdays: Golf
By: Sarah Kellam, @sarahkellam, LPGA.com
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08, NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer