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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Friday, 25 October 2013 12:50    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Is It Time to Drop the 2-Per-Country Rule?
(17 votes, average 3.53 out of 5)

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Japanese trio of Sawao Kato, Eizo Kenmotsu and Akinori Nakayama swept the all-around medals (pictured here), and their teammates Shigeru Kasamatsu, Mitsuo Tsukahara and Teruichi Okamura placed fifth, eighth and 11th, respectively.

Japan also swept the medals on parallel bars and high bar. On the latter, Japan occupied places 1 through 5, with Nikolai Andrianov of the USSR placing sixth. (Six gymnasts made finals back then.) Yes, Japan was that good. Since 1972 was the last Olympics to feature the highest-scoring gymnasts in the finals, its medalists really earned their hardware.

The current finals rule of two-per-country was implemented incrementally. The 1974 Varna worlds had no limit for the all-around, but only two gymnasts per country could compete in event finals. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the limits were three for the all-around and two for events. When the all-around field was trimmed to 24 at the 2003 Anaheim worlds (it used to be 36, then 32 in 2001), the limit decreased to two gymnasts per country. Ouch!

Even if I don't agree, I can understand the limit of two for apparatus finals. But two per country in the all-around is too severe, especially at a time when all-arounders are a shrinking population. At the London Olympics, for example, only three men's teams had more than two all-arounders. Two-time world all-around silver medalist Philipp Boy was among those who got bumped. Of the 12 women's teams, six had three all-arounders, and six had two. 2011 world champion Jordyn Wieber was eliminated.

The individual all-around used to be the centerpiece of a major championship. Eliminating potential gold medalists, such as Boy and Wieber, tarnishes that title. Giving Wieber's spot to the 25th-ranked gymnast doesn't make much sense, unless that person has a legitimate shot at winning. So the question is, Should the worlds and Olympics be real championships, or are they merely participation sports? (Think kids' T-ball, where everyone gets a trophy.)

After the conclusion of the Antwerp world championships, I asked FIG Women's Technical Committee President Nellie Kim if it was time to abolish the two-gymnasts-per-country limit for individual finals at worlds and Olympics. She said she would like to see it go, but that it was up to the FIG Executive Committee. Her hands are tied.

I applaud the FIG's mission to globalize the sport. I appreciate that if a gymnast from the Dominican Republic qualifies for an event final, gymnastics might grow in that Caribbean nation. I understand that the FIG wants to increase its membership and provide competitive opportunities.

The FIG Executive Committee can keep the two-gymnast limit for event finals, but it should return to three gymnasts per country in the all-around faster than a Kenzo Shirai quad. Do it for the fans, do it for the integrity of the competition, and do it for the gymnasts who deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams.

 
Written by dwight normile    Saturday, 17 August 2013 07:28    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Ross and Biles, Tortoise and Hare
(7 votes, average 3.71 out of 5)

While the P&G Championships in Hartford, Conn., may not be a fable, the senior women's all-around race could certainly end like one tonight. Sprinting to the first-day lead was Simone Biles, the energized first-year senior from Bannon's Gymnastix. She's so gifted that the job of her coaches, Aimee Boorman and Luis Brasesco, is to figure out which amazing tricks not to do. Sitting calmly in second is the even-keeled Kyla Ross, whose Gym-Max coaches Howie Liang and Jenny Zhang have always been cautious when choosing routines for their star. Biles watered down on Thursday, while Ross treaded water with virtually the same difficulty from a year ago. A Biles-Ross duel is the jitterbug versus the waltz.

Biles, 16, carries a .75 advantage over Ross heading into tonight's final. It's a considerable margin, yes, but also less than a fall. On Thursday, she carried a 24.30-23.70 edge in D-score. That is likely to remain close to the same. The meet will  be determined by the E-scores, and that's where Ross, also 16, coughed up points Thursday.

The most critical intangible between the two is experience, not to mention the respective amounts of sleep each got the past two nights. Ross, a two-time junior champion and Olympic gold medalist, probably slept like a baby. And Biles? She placed third in the juniors in 2012 and has had two full days to wonder if she'll be the new senior national champion. With pressure like that, her difficult routines become even harder.

Still, you have to like Biles' chances because she does so many things well: a booming Amanar vault that outscored McKayla Maroney's the other night; a tucked full-in off beam that doesn't barely get around (she drops out of it); and her tumbling on floor is impressive for its difficulty and also for the fact that she takes only a few steps into her hurdles. Smart coaching. And if you're looking for a weak event, her 14.75 on bars was third-best of the field. She's an all-arounder, all right, and could be a factor at the upcoming worlds in Antwerp.

It wouldn't surprise if Ross comes out on top either. Have you ever seen her panic? Have you ever seen her fall? She definitely has less risk than Biles in going four-for-four. And though her routines may lack that did-you-see-what-she-just-did!? moment, she executes them with a calm, methodical confidence that usually yields impressive E-scores.

Tonight should be interesting. Ross may be trailing Biles at the midway point, but the race is far from finished. And when it's over, we will learn which prevailed: experience or potential. The tortoise or the hare.

 
Written by dwight normile    Tuesday, 29 January 2013 09:12    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Alicia Sacramone's Wonderful, Wild Ride
(21 votes, average 4.10 out of 5)

I still remember the scene in Nashville, Tenn., in June 2004. The U.S. championships had just concluded, and a few reporters were interviewing a deflated Mihai and Silvia Brestyan in the mixed zone, just outside the main arena. Parkettes coach Donna Strauss walked by, patted Mihai on the shoulder and said with an empathetic smile, "Don't worry, she's a good kid."

The Brestyans' kid was a 16-year-old Alicia Sacramone, whose 19th-place finish meant no invite to the Olympic trials. Her scores, like her personality, had been all over the place: 9.525 on vault, 7.25 on bars, 8.55 on beam (followed by a 9.425 on day two), an 8.875 on floor (with a 9.60 on day two!).

Impossibly gifted, Sacramone still had been a long shot to make the 2004 Olympic team. But by December of that year, she had uncovered a ruthless competitive instinct.

Sacramone (shown here with her gold on vault at the 2010 worlds) had earned a wild-card spot to the 2004 World Cup Final in Birmingham, England. Having just turned 17 on Dec. 3, this wild gymnast from Boston won the gold medal on vault. Standing below her on the medal podium was gymnastics royalty: Monica Rosu of Romania and Anna Pavlova of Russia, the 2004 Olympic gold and bronze medalists on vault; Russia's Yelena Zamolodchikova, the 2000 Olympic vault champion; and China's Cheng Fei, who would win the event at the next two worlds!

In 2004, I asked her if she had been intimidated while competing among such company.

"The first day I was a little freaked out," she said. "But I pulled myself together and calmed down. But yeah, it was a little intimidating."

Yesterday I spoke with Marta Karolyi, U.S. national team coordinator, who remembers that World Cup.

"That was the moment when I saw a turnaround in her ability to compete well," she said. "Her confidence level just grew."

Sacramone achieved her goal of making the 2005 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, where she won the gold on floor exercise and bronze on vault. She became a mainstay on U.S. world teams in the following years, missing only 2009 because of temporary retirement. Her medal tally kept growing.

At the Tokyo worlds in 2011, she won her 10th world medal, a record for USA Gymnastics. Ironically, Sacramone wasn't actually in Tokyo for the medal ceremony, nor did she compete. She had ruptured an Achilles' tendon on the eve of the competition and flown home to have surgery. Her name, however, remained on the official roster.

"Alicia showed all the dedication, so we all said that she deserves her name to be kept on the team," Karolyi said. "She served many years and fought for the results for USA, so everybody was in agreement."

Retirement

While Sacramone's retirement announcement today is not surprising, it is at least a prerequisite to another comeback; you can't have one without the other. And though my prediction record in such cases is awful, I have to believe this one's for keeps. I saw it in her cautious eyes last year in both St. Louis (Visas) and San Jose (trials), where she nailed her vaults and balance beam routines and aced her interviews afterward.

Clinging to slim hopes of making her second Olympic team, Sacramone, 24, was all business before the selection committee, a model of professionalism in front of the media. I think part of her knew her career was coming to an end, even though her physical comeback had been remarkably complete. She had successfully rehabbed her torn Achilles' tendon in less than a year.

But while Sacramone regained the fitness that had won her the 2010 world title on vault, the rest of the senior team had zoomed past her on that event. Everybody was doing Amanars, it seemed, and uneven bars, the event from which Sacramone had long retired, was where the team would need reserves. With Sacramone's strengths no longer needed, she was not named an alternate to the 2012 Olympic team.

"We had so many good vaulters on the team that that wasn't the component that we felt that the team will need, so that was really the reason why we chose the alternates [that we did]," Karolyi said. "If anything happened to the team, we would need somebody who could jump in on bars and beam."

Given Sacramone's trouble on beam at the Beijing Olympics, it's probably better she wasn't put in that pressure situation again in London. Now she can at least retire knowing she hit her final four routines on that precarious apparatus.

"Certainly in 2008 at the Olympics, she had a little relapse of her consistency level, but she still kept her ambition and came back and proved herself in the following years," Karolyi said.

Asked how she will remember Sacramone years from now, Karolyi laughed softly: "I just loved her from the beginning. As a little girl, she was just so much fun. I will remember her as a fighter, as a person who loved the sport and as a person who always wanted to raise the level of U.S. gymnastics. Even with the little mishaps she had through her career, I will always remember her as one of our toughest gymnasts and one person who was very fun to work with."

 
Written by dwight normile    Monday, 31 December 2012 14:08    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year In Review, From A to Z
(12 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

As 2012 comes to a close, it's time to reflect on the past 12 months in gymnastics. It's definitely been filled with inspiration, weirdness and heartbreak. Following is a summary of the year, from A to Z.

A - Alexander & Aliya: Created by circumstance, Alexandrov's dual role as Russian head coach and personal trainer to Mustafina resulted in the Olympic team silver and three medals for Aliya (bars gold, bronze in all-around and on floor), and later a reduction of duties. So much for success.

B - Butcher: Always upbeat, Steve Butcher ran away with the MTC President election over incumbent Adrian Stoica. Let's hope the job doesn't wipe the smile off his face.

C - Chusovitina: Making the vault final in her sixth Olympics says it all for Oksana. Runner-up: Canada, for working to potential for fifth in the women's team final without its star, Peng Peng Lee.

D - Douglas: Gabby pulled off the improbable in London. Even though her memoir came out in December, her story is just beginning.

E - Exhibition: Gabby's unofficial win at the American Cup as an exhibition gymnast was a first for national TV. Runner-up: Excalibur, for making the news as Gabby's former club, which denied her charges of racism.

F - Fierce Five: The U.S. women's team won Olympic gold by more than 5.0. Enough said.

G - Great Britain: With the fourth-highest medal total (4) in gymnastics, the Brits, especially the men, were royally satisfied at the Olympics.

H - The highest-rated skill: The FIG added an H category to the difficulty tables of the Code of Points (which will go into effect in 2013). Runner-up: Kytra Hunter, for winning Florida's first NCAA women's all-around title.

I - Illinois: The Fighting Illini beat the odds in winning the NCAA men's title, having dismissed a top scorer from the squad and upsetting favorite Oklahoma in Norman.

J - Jovtchev: Like Chusovitina, Jovtchev made a final in London (rings). Since 1996, his record in Olympic rings finals: 4th, 3rd, 2nd*, 8th, 7th. (He did not make the final in 1992.) *He was the people's champion in 2004, if not the judges'.

K - Kellogg's: With the success of American gymnastics, the cereal-making sponsor is surely eating it up.

L - Leyva: Danell's all-around bronze and lucky towel — or maybe it's the other way around — combined to make him one of the most intriguing gymnasts of the year.

M - Maroney: Her two-second smirk made her famous. Question is, Can she top it?

N - Nguyen: During the Uchimura era, silver medals seem like gold, and all-around runner-up Marcel is reaping the rewards in Germany.

O - Orozco: Up and down — and now out with a torn ACL — the U.S. national champ has made quite an impact between major injuries.

P - Price: Elizabeth's two lopsided World Cup wins at the end of the year should kickstart her 2013.

Q - Qiao: OK, Q's are tough, so we're using the Chinese spelling of Chow Liang's name. But his transformation of Gabby Douglas (along with help from wife Liwen Zhuang) makes him coach of the year.

R - Raisman: Aly definitely got it done in 2012, and proved that hard work and consistency are a potent combination.

S - Shawn: Johnson's DWTS silver kept her in the news, and overshadowed her retirement announcement in St. Louis (another S) at the Visa championships. Now what? Stanford?

T - Tie-breakers: Of the infuriating tie-breakers that tarnished the London Games, the worst was that which bumped Ukraine out of the men's team medals.

U - Uchimura: His Olympic gold in London completed an all-around sweep of the quadrennium, and with room to spare. Factoid: From 2009-12, he won one apparatus gold (floor, 2011).

V - Visa: OK, we're struggling here, but Visa has become synonymous with U.S. gymnastics competitions. Or maybe Vanessa Ferrari is a legitimate choice for her impressive form, six years after winning worlds.

W - Wieber: It's not easy to meet expectations, and even harder to be humbled on global television. But Jordyn bounced back as a role model for attitude.

X - X-rays: Sadly, the sport continues to create its share of injuries. But the sport of gymnastics is one huge family. Visit the "Get well Jacoby Miles" Facebook page when you get a chance.

Y - Yang Hak Seon: The Korean teen dominated vault in London with his own creation: handspring-front with triple twist (7.4). His second vault, a Lopez (Kasamatsu-double twist), might have been the best ever.

Z - Zonderland: Epke had certainly paid his dues on high bar, so it was only fitting that he achieved his biggest title in one of the most thrilling apparatus finals in history.

Happy New Year.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 21 September 2012 10:45    PDF Print
Stretching Out: Analyzing an Arbitrary Tie-break Procedure
(20 votes, average 2.40 out of 5)

The chalk has settled, gym enrollments are booming, and the Fierce Five — who are now Four, after McKayla Maroney suffered a broken leg — are touring the land and soaking up the love they earned with their Olympic success. So while the rest of the gymnastics world rejuvenates, here are a few thoughts on the past few months.

TIE-BREAKER BROKEN

Those pesky tied results in London really threw a wrench into things, didn't they? Just think about how happy everyone would have been had they just let the scores stand. As we reported in our pre-Olympic issue of IG, ties were indeed possible in London.

"In the past, if we would have used all possibilities to break the tie, we could have ended up with a tie anyway, even at the Olympics," said Nellie Kim, FIG-WTC President. "It just did not happen because there were (so) many steps to break the tie. And now, with the new system (for London), there may be a tie."

The tie-breaker that bugged me the most was the one between Alexandra Raisman and Aliya Mustafina, who tied for third all-around with 59.566. At its very core, the all-around is a four-event test of a gymnast's abilities; a quadrathlon (for women), if you will. Irrefutably, the women's all-around is vault, bars, beam and floor. No ifs, ands or drop-the-lowest-score-and-add-the-remaining-three. The Olympic all-around final, the most important women's individual competition that exists, suddenly became the Arthur Gander Memorial.

By adding the top three scores of Mustafina and Raisman, the all-around bronze, or at least three-quarters of it, went to the former.

My argument concerning this result has nothing to do with comparing the relative virtues of the tied gymnasts. Personally, I prefer Mustafina's style of gymnastics but respect Raisman's competitive consistency. And there certainly are two ways to look at dropping the lowest score. Mustafina was actually rewarded for bombing beam worse than Raisman did. You could even say that she got the medal because she actually fell off an apparatus, even though Raisman beat Mustafina handily on three of four events.

But Mustafina supporters can say that she also earned the highest mark, a 16.10 on bars (which was only 0.20 higher than Raisman's vault score). Her 13.633 on beam, however, was significantly lower than any of Raisman's four scores. Pick your poison.

Since it was the all-around competition, the first "step" in the tie-breaking procedure should have been obvious: Use the qualification scores to break the tie. In Competition I, Raisman ranked second with 60.391, Mustafina fifth with 59.966. Case closed.

While that is not the perfect solution — what is? — it's much more fair than giving a gymnast a mulligan on one event. You might as well pick their names out of a hat. Imagine the resulting backlash had Raisman and Mustafina tied for the gold!

Blame the IOC for pressuring the FIG to avoid ties in London. The FIG honors tied results in world championships, which is how it should be.

"The issue of how to resolve "dead-heat" situations has long given rise to debate, but the FIG has taken a firm position and chosen to adhere to the principle of equal ranking," wrote Bruno Grandi in his September "Letter from the (FIG) President."

MCKAYLA MARONEY

The 2011 world vault champion has had a string of bad luck, hasn't she? She leads the U.S. team in the dubious category of being carted out of an arena this year.

The first was at Visa championships in St. Louis, where she balked on a 3.5 twist and slammed onto her back. The second was last week during the Ontario, Calif., stop of the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions. She broke her left tibia on a layout flyaway off bars. How can anyone break their leg on a simple dismount like that? It's easy when you're performing in an unfamiliar setting with the strobe effects of laser lighting. I was surprised she was doing anything remotely challenging on bars in the first place, since it's her weak event. I would have kept it really simple — and definitely no dismounts. Who is advising this girl?

In between those two injuries, Maroney couldn't come up with the goods in the Olympic apparatus finals when she crashed her second vault. And that was under ideal lighting conditions. She had to have been the unhappiest silver medalist in London.

Back to the Kellogg's tour, Alexandra Raisman followed Maroney with her own leg(s) injury when she peeled off the same set of bars. Thank goodness they were not using a 3-up-3-count format. It looked like Raisman had to improvise on the low bar when she went the wrong way on a handstand, and was simply tired by the time she got to the Maloney. (And the bar workers had just finished a group dance number on floor.) She went for it but slipped off and landed on her belly. Her skidding knees missed the landing mat. Ouch. Fortunately, Raisman was not seriously injured.

 


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