As the women's gymnastics teams enter today's medal round, the United States team—as nearly every article about gymnastics has mentioned—is heavily favored to win the gold. It would be the first for America since the Magnificent Seven did it in Atlanta in 1996. This squad already has its own moniker, the Fab Five. But the Atlanta gymnasts didn't get their nickname till after they'd won the gold.
And while the preliminary round showed that the United States remains the frontrunner, it revealed that the Russians are nipping closely at their chalky heels—much more closely than originally thought. Here what (and who) to watch for today:
The Scoring System: The scoring is perhaps the most confusing thing for viewers who only tune in every four years. "Where did the Perfect 10 go?" people still ask me. The 10.0 scoring ceiling—the mark of flawlessness that made Nadia Comaneci a legend—was eliminated in 2006, after the start-value controversies in the 2004 men's all-around in Athens. It was replaced with an open-ended system.
Here's the quick breakdown of how it works: There are two panels of judges. One scores the exercises strictly on difficulty, by adding up the value of the elements and connections. Depending on how ambitious their routines are, different gymnasts are aiming for different point totals—their start values—from this panel. These guys don't care if your legs were bent on your twists (unless it was so bad that your layout should be downgraded to a tuck) or if you wobble on beam.
Judging form is the job of the second or "B" panel of judges. Starting from a score of 10, they're the ones who subtract points for things like hops on landing, bent knees, and falls. Then the difficulty score is added to the execution mark and that's how you end up with marks like 14.666.
Broadly speaking, good scores are in the high 14s, great scores are into the 15s, and exceptional ones reach the high 15s. Rarely, a brilliant one will go all the way into the 16s. Only one gymnast scored that high in preliminaries—Great Britain's Beth Tweddle on the uneven bars, her signature event. Tweddle could very well repeat that feat, and the United States' McKayla Maroney could possibly break the 16 barrier on vault. (She did it at last year's worlds.)
It's hard to generalize about what a score means, because some events, such as floor exercise, are judged more tightly than others. Aly Raisman earned the top floor-routine score in preliminaries, notching just a 15.325. There was only one other score over 15 on that event.
Vault: If you've watched even five minutes of NBC's broadcast you've heard the announcing trio discuss the Amanar at least a thousand times so I'll keep it brief here. The vault is hard—it's got 2.5 twists—and is worth 0.8 points more than the next-toughest commonly used vault. That's a big scoring advantage if you can eke one around. The U.S. has four Amanar-vaulting gymnasts, but only needs three for the finals. For about a year, the U.S. was the only top team to have any Amanars in its repertoire at all, but Russia looks like it has closed some of the gap with two of its own, though not as clean or as powerful as the Americans' version of the vault.
Uneven Bars: For the audience, the highlights of this event are the high-flying release moves and dynamic transitions between the two rails. The judges, however, are fixated on handstands. With every swing and pirouette, the judges are looking to see if the gymnast finished perfectly vertical atop the bar. Not exactly riveting stuff for the lay viewer, but this should help explain, at least in part, why that exciting routine with a crazy release move didn't get the big score.
If the U.S. has a big scoring advantage on the vault, the Russians can come close to neutralizing it on the uneven bars. Their top gymnast, Viktoria Komova, is the defending world champion on the event. Both Komova and Aliya Mustafina have 7.0 start values for the skills they'll use. By contrast, Gabby Douglas, America's top competitor on bars, competes a 6.6. The other two Americans start a couple of tenths lower than that.
Balance Beam: The big story to come out of women's preliminaries was the elimination of world champion Jordyn Wieber. Aside from the hand-wringing over the now-controversial limit of two gymnasts per country, which kept Wieber from advancing, many viewers wondered why she scored lower than usual. The primary reason was uncredited connections. Getting a high start value is dependent on linking skills, and Wieber hesitated too long between some of her key elements, missing the points she would have gotten for connecting them. Without those connections, her difficulty score dropped by 0.4 or 0.5 points. Subtract execution points for a decent sized wobble on one leap, and you get the 14.7 she received.
Even though Wieber won a bronze medal on the beam at the last year's world, the U.S. is leaving her off the beam roster for team finals, probably worried that she would get hammered again on her connections. This means that the U.S. will go with Raisman, Douglas, and Kyla Ross. Though Raisman and Douglas qualified to the beam final, Ross was also a top-eight finisher but did not make due to the two-per-country rule. This should be a strong beam lineup for the U.S.
This group can be equaled by Russia. Komova has upgraded and she will be joined by Ksenia Afanasyeva, who, like Komova, made finals on the balance beam. Rounding out the trio for team finals is Mustafina, who seems to have recovered her spirit 15 months after tearing her ACL.
Floor exercise: When you watch floor exercise, you might be wondering, do those turns and leaps really matter? Yes—they really, really do. In the current version of the Code of Points, floor exercise difficulty is by counting the eight most difficult elements, at least three of which must be "dance" moves-leaps and turns. This is why you'll see many gymnasts stop, lunge, and square their upper bodies before launching into a triple spin. If a gymnast means to do a triple spin on one foot and comes out of it before all the revolutions are completed, she might only get credit for a double and her start value will take a hit.
A successfully completed quadruple turn may not get the audience to applaud, but you can be damn sure the gymnast's coach is celebrating this as much as he would a stuck double pike. Seriously. It matters as much. (Just ask Komova-she fell out of a spin last year and lost the world title to Wieber by the slimmest of margins.)
Speaking of leaps, you might notice that a lot of gymnasts are bounding out of their passes with awkward leaps and stag jumps. They're trying to avoid landing deductions. Up until 2009, the women were allowed to lunge backwards out of their passes so long as it was controlled, with no penalty for taking a step back. Now they must stick like the guys: both feet together, no moving. To get around this, many have added bounding jumps to the end of their passes. This strategy has an additional bonus, connecting the acrobatics to a jump can add difficulty to the overall score.
Though dance elements are important, Raisman, the U.S. standout and anchor on the floor, is noteworthy for the most exciting tumbling of the competition along with the highest start value on the event. As many people know, Raisman, who is Jewish, performs to the only Jewish song Gentiles can recognize—"Hava Nagila."
Wieber is also a force to be reckoned with on floor, despite her small errors in the preliminaries. She opens with an impressive double twisting double somersault. Rounding out the group will be Douglas, despite a rough outing on floor in prelims, in which she bounded out of the floor area on her second pass.
Teams besides the United States and Russia: Neither Romania nor China is a real threat to the top two. China's best all-arounder, Yao Jinnan, is not in peak form after returning from an injury, and crashed on nearly every event Sunday. Though they have wonderful bars and beam, they lack difficulty on the floor and have not shown any Amanars to compete with the top two.
Ditto for the Romanians. Like China, they finished well behind the U.S. and Russia in preliminaries. Though they've shown improvement from just a year ago at worlds, when they failed to make the podium, they have a huge difficulty deficit on bars, historically a week event for Romania. Also, their rising star Larisa Iordache has been suffering from heel pain and hasn't looked sharp. Look out for uber-veteran, 25-year-old Catalina Ponor. Since emerging from retirement, the triple gold medalist from 2004 has restored all of her difficulty and then some. She had a shaky day during prelims but still made it finals on beam and floor.
The gold medal race, however, comes down to the U.S. and Russia, which seem pretty well-matched when it comes to difficulty—at least intended difficulty. The United States has been hitting consistently all year, and the gymnasts have demonstrated over and over that they can handle all that difficulty in competition. Russia can be brilliant, but is inconsistent.
The gymnasts who missed out: NBC will presumably continue to bring up the two-gymnasts-per-country rule for melodramatic effect. Perhaps they'll insinuate a catfight between Wieber and Raisman, who are legit friends according to Raisman's mother and the gymnasts' own Twitter feeds.
While NBC may be acting like the rule is new, the two- or three-gymnast limit has been around for decades. It was instituted so that powerhouse countries like the Soviet Union wouldn't storm the top of the all-around standings, occupying spots 1 through 6. (This outcome was entirely within the realm of possibility. They were that good.)
And as Bekah Harbison, a gymnastics blogger noted, many gymnasts, not just Wieber, have been impacted by this rule.
In reality, Jordyn was simply met with the same fate that many expected Aly Raisman to be faced with. People tend to forget that every member of the 2011 World's team would have qualified without the "2 per country rule" and that Gabby Douglas qualified just 1 place lower than where Wieber sits currently.
I agree with Harbison—I doubt that there would've been quite the uproar had Raisman been the third (and unfortunate) American. This had been the outcome that everyone had been expecting.
That said, the need for the two-per-country has more or less disappeared. Back when the rule was instituted, all gymnasts competed on all four events, meaning everyone could potentially make the all-around final. In that scenario, the USSR or Romania could place their entire rosters in the marquee event because both countries were so deep.
However, this couldn't happen today in Olympic competition because not everyone competes on all of the apparatuses. There are many gymnasts who specialize, competing on just one or two events. These gymnasts aren't even in the running to make it to the all-around final. This means that aren't as many all-around gymnasts to choose from, which produces a depleted field. The two-per country rule weakens the field even more.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.
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, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.