If you listen to USA Gymnastics and NBC, it's one of the most important Olympic tune-ups. If you listen to the rest of the world, it's a glorified showcase for American athletes. So maybe it's fitting that the American Cup's highest-scoring female gymnast wasn't even entered in the competition.
Sixteen-year-old Gabrielle Douglas was only there as an exhibition athlete, given the opportunity to test out her routines in front of a 12,000-strong crowd at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, since the two slots allotted to the U.S. were already filled by defending world champion Jordyn Wieber and Alexandra Raisman, who finished 1-2 as expected. But when Douglas finished her final floor exercise, she asked her coach Liang Chow, who also coaches Olympic champion Shawn Johnson, for a calculator, presumably to add up her scores and see where she would have placed. At the end, she was nearly three-tenths ahead of Wieber, who picked up her third American Cup title.
That three Americans would land atop the scoreboard was hardly a surprise to those who have followed the competition over the years and have noted with occasional derision that the meet often feels like a domestic meet to which a few foreign athletes happen to be invited. In 2008, half of the eight-person field was American and they captured the top four spots. Saturday's competition felt a lot like that (at least on the women's side)—a late winter re-ranking of the American girls.
Among dedicated fans the event is often called the "Scam Cup" or, more the point, the "Scamerican Cup." The real "scam" isn't any sort of outright cheating—the American judges haven't colluded with the Germans to produce a favorable result—but instead the lopsided nature of the event, in which the very best U.S. athletes at the peak of their game are pitted against a group of up-and-coming gymnasts that have been sent by their federations merely to gain experience and exposure. Seasoning for them; a victory lap for us. The whole event, not just Douglas's routines, feels like an exhibition.
"In the past, Scam Cup was the American TV event where other nations sent specific athletes for whom it was no issue to lose to the American star of the day," says Rick McCharles, a Canadian coach and former FIG judge who runs the Gymnastics Coaching blog.
With the exception of Larisa Iordache of Romania, no foreign female gymnast with legitimate Olympic aspirations showed up at the Garden this year. Iordache, a favorite to win medals in London, only came of senior age this year and needs as many chances as she can find to get her competitive feet wet. It's the only reason Romania sent her to New York, and she took bronze behind the Americans.
To hear the NBC hype machine tell it, this isn't a small international meet nearly five months before the Games; it is a prerequisite to winning the Olympics later that year. "No pressure Jordyn," Tim Daggett, one third of the network's commentary team, said as Wieber began her floor exercise, her final performance of the competition. "The last two Olympic champions from the United States won this in the year of their Games in Madison Square Garden."
This came shortly after a fluff piece, which had Carly Patterson, the 2004 Olympic all-around gold medalist saying, "whoever wins the American Cup going into the Olympics, wins that gold medal." While I have no doubt that the victory for Patterson as a 16-year-old was personally significant and a wonderful shot of confidence, the competition itself can hardly be characterized as a bellwether. What about the winners of the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 titles? None earned gold at their Olympics.
The way Patterson and the NBC trio described the American Cup trophy made it sound like a lucky rabbit's foot—win it, hang it on your backpack, rub it for good luck and then win the Olympic all-around title five months later. To prove this point, on hand at the meet were Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci—Olympic champions all, and all winners of the American Cup. (In fact, when Comaneci won the inaugural American Cup in 1976, she scored her first international Perfect 10s, several months prior to that famous performance in Montreal.) The Romanian-born Comaneci is a rare exception in another way: over its 36-year history, there have been only a handful of non-American winners on the women's side. (Click here to see a full list of winners and an awful lot of American flags.) The last time a gymnast from abroad won the meet was in 2001 when Russian Elena Zamolodchikova, a double Olympic gold medalist from the Sydney Games only six months prior, took the overall title.
So why isn't there a strong field of foreign competitors at the American Cup on the women's side?
A big part of the problem is timing. This meet is held early in the season and most top gymnasts are still in the midst of preparations for the Olympics and the major competitions that immediately precede the Games. "I'm not surprised China declined," McCharles says. "They have a very exacting game plan for winning the Olympics and they like to keep some cards hidden."
The Cup's organizers have had better success attracting a big name foreign gymnasts during "off" years. Last year, Russia sent 2010 World Champion Aliya Mustafina. This year, she and all of the other Russians, the U.S.'s main competition in London, stayed home.
(The Russians were also said to be angry after last year's competition when Wieber was inserted at the last minute to sub for an injured American athlete. According to the rules, athletes are supposed to be invited to the American Cup based on their respective all-around finishes at the 2010 World Championships, a competition that Wieber had been too young to even compete at.)
The Americans have no right to complain; they don't exactly make a habit of hopping across the pond to compete at the other events on the World Cup circuit.
"It is a well-known (and much deplored) fact among gymnastics fans that the U.S. does not travel to many meets throughout the year," says Brigid McCarthy, an Australian journalism student who helms The Couch Gymnast, another popular gymnastics site. "It interrupts their somewhat centralized training system, and they tend to focus solely on attending big meets such as Worlds and Olympics, and their domestic meets."
The men, on the other hand, have always managed to attract a deep international field to the American Cup and, about one-third of past winners have come from other countries. This has lead to the perception that the men's meet is fairer to foreigners, which might have encouraged top male athletes to agree to compete. This year American Danell Leyva narrowly defeated an impressive international roster that included Britain's Daniel Purvis, Germany's Marcel Nguyen, and runner-up Nikolai Kuksenkov from the Ukraine, all top ten finishers in the all around at the most recent world championships.
"American girls, not guys, were often over-scored at the American Cup," says McCharles. His assertion—that scores, which are subjective by nature, were unfairly high for the U.S. women—is virtually impossible to prove. But just the perception that that the meet doesn't treat foreign women fairly has acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, harming the prestige of the American Cup. Though the U.S. women mostly deserved their last decade of wins, the damage had been done long before the current crop of gymnasts even started competing.
So once again, after Saturday's competition concluded, some fans were crying "scam" online. Wieber's and Raisman's bar marks were too high and Iordache's were too low, they claimed. But meddling with the marks to the tune of a few tenths wouldn't have changed the overall results, so why the suspicion?
It's in part due to the nature of the sport's fans, says McCarthy. "Gymnastics fans have quite the habit of reading conspiracy into a lot of things and I think it has come from gymnastics having been such a secretive world of behind closed doors training for so long."
But perhaps anyone would suspect mischief and favoritism after enduring NBC's commentary. Aside from the unrelenting jingoism, their banter was rife with mistakes and unkind words for foreign competitors. Al Trautwig decided that Marcel Nguyen, one of the top all-around gymnasts in the world, hails from West Germany. The trio cruelly suggested that Rebecca Tunney of Great Britain was "damaged" and in need of some time with Dr. Phil after her disastrous beam set in what was only her second international competition as a senior. And as Iordache performed, they claimed that she's the first Romanian to come along in years that can swing bars, seemingly forgetting that Ana Porgras actually medaled at the 2009 Worlds. Yet no matter what these three say, they never seem to endanger their jobs. Like Supreme Court justices, these guys have received a lifetime appointment to the broadcast booth.
If their aim through all of this hyperbole and dramatization was to confer international significance upon this meet, they utterly failed. The Americans shocked no one by taking the top spots. The U.S. women may be dominant right now and the clear favorites for London, but American Cup success doesn't prove it. The drama is purely made-for-TV. The only genuine surprise on Saturday was Douglas' "unofficial" first place finish. She may not have left the Garden with the talisman Cup but she got something even better in a reputation-based sport like gymnastics—buzz.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics. She also blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.