Jordyn Wieber was hyped as the all-but-certain gold medalist in the individual all-around gymnastics competition, but on Sunday night, she didn't even make it out of prelims. She didn't crash to the ground after some spectacular mistake, and she wasn't hurt. So why was last year's world champion outpaced by her teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas? Allow us to explain, in GIFs.
Wait, so what did she lose?
Sunday night was prelims, which is actually a qualifying round for three separate medal competitions: team finals, the all-around individual finals, and the individual event finals. Wieber wanted to a spot in the all-around finals. And while the top 24 gymnasts qualify for the individual finals, only two per country are allowed. Wieber finished fourth-best for the all-around finals, but she came in third on Team USA, thus she doesn't get compete for a medal on Thursday. So it's not that she lost the all-around, it's that she didn't even get the chance to try for it.
Was she over-hyped?
No. Wieber is very good. Again, she was fourth-best among all competitors, behind two Americans and one Russian. She was all-around world champion in 2011. She was national champion two years in a row. She does hard tricks and does them well. (GIF via the true joys.)
But she didn't fall on her face. Why did she lose?
Wieber came in third on the U.S. team not because of one big thing, but because of a bunch of little things. Let's go event-by-event.
On vault, Wieber performs the difficult Amanar vault — that's one-and-a-half flips plus two-and-a-half twists. A couple years ago, hardly any women attempted it in competition, because it's so dangerous. If you don't get your twists around fast enough, you're still twisting as you hit the mat — risking a torn ACL. At the 2011 world championships, Wieber's only Amanar-armed foe in the all-around was her own teammate, Aly Raisman. But since then, everyone else has only gotten better. Everyone on the American team can do an Amanar now. So can a couple Russians. So Wieber lost her advantage there. She scored a 15.833, Douglas scored a 15.9, and Raisman scored a 15.8, shown at left.
I first started wondering about her chances right after trials, when I was making a GIF guide to the American team. While it was easy to pick the stand-out events for each of her four teammates, it was harder for Wieber. Gabby Douglas runs up her score against Wieber on bars, and Wieber needed to minimize the damage there Sunday. She did not. She made several errors, and scored a 14.833. Douglas scored a 15.333.
Wieber lacks Douglas's natural swinging ability, so she has to do stuff that plays to her advantages -- her massive upper body strength. At left, she's doing two Weiler kips in a row. These take a ton of strength because the centrifugal forces are pulling her body away from the bar. It's a cool trick, but unlike bar elements requiring less strength and better timing and rhythm, which put your body is in the air -- like Douglas's Tkachev to Pak salto combination from Sunday night...
…Wieber's tricks use a lot more energy. She gets tired late in her routine, and makes mistakes, as she did last night. Here, watch how in Sunday night's competition she almost falls off the high bar after her pirouette:
Bars is Raisman's weakest event too. Gymnastics bloggers used to bemoan the death of the sport based on Raisman's bar routine. But in the last year, she's gotten much better. She pointed her toes this time, her legs were straight, she had a good landing on her dismount. Raisman got a 14.1, which isn't good, but it's much better than the horrible 12.9 she got at last year's world's.
(Photo via Reuters.)
This is one of Wieber's better events -- she got a bronze medal on it at world championships. She's usually very steady. But her routine is constructed in a way that she loses a lot of points if she doesn't do everything perfectly. The score is calculated by an execution score worth 10 points, and a difficulty score that's unlimited. You get a bigger D-score by doing hard tricks, and you get even more points if you do the hard tricks one after the other, without stopping your movement. But Wieber lost points because she couldn't connect her hard tricks. This combination -- a front handspring, full-twisting back tuck, back handspring -- has given her trouble all year. Here's an earlier competition, where you can see there's not really continuous movement between the tricks:
Wieber did better than that Sunday. But she didn't get credit for her connections, so she got only a 6.0 difficulty score. By contrast, both Douglas and Raisman had D-scores of 6.5. Look how Douglas connects her tricks Sunday night, keeping continuous movement:
And Raisman has a difficult Patterson dismount -- that's two flips with a very early half twist:
Further, Wieber, who doesn't have a balletic style, struggled with her leaps. Last night, the obvious mistake on this leap is the huge wobble. But her split was sub-par too, as you can see in this slow-motion gif.
After she finished her beam routine, you could hear her coach talking to her about "making it up" on floor. NBC's commentators thought he was talking about event finals, but he meant the all-around. She'd lost four tenths of a point on the last two skills alone, he said. After beam, he knew it would be close. Look at his face:
Here Wieber has powerful tumbling.
But it's not close to Raisman's, who qualified first for floor finals and has the hardest tumbling out there.
And where Raisman used to be weak -- dance -- she's improved. Like in this leap, her split hits 180 degrees, and she throws her head all the way back:
Douglas bounced out of bounds and got a 13.766, which is bad, but not bad enough to put her in Wieber's reach Sunday. Weiber stepped out of bounds too, after a slightly-off leap out of her tumbling run. She got a 14.666. That put their all-around totals at 60.391 for Raisman, 60.265 for Douglas, and 60.032 for Wieber.
Should I feel sad?
Yes. Wieber is very talented and a hard-worker. She's been working her whole life for this.
Should I feel outraged?
No. Sure, there is plenty of outrage out there. "The sting of this injustice is painful," Wieber's coach John Geddert wrote on Facebook in reference to the two-per-country rule. He continued:
"To penalize an athlete or country for being OUTSTANDING is not in the spirit of sport and certainly not the spirit of the Olympic Games. It is wrong and simply the trickle down effect of the entitlement generation where everybody expects/demands a piece of the pie regardless of whether or not they have earned it or not...
We will accept defeat with the same class and dignity as we accepted the numerous victories."
Aside from the fact that the last sentence is directly contradicted by those preceding it, this statement is wrong for several reasons. The "entitlement generation" seems like a reference to Millennials -- but it's old farts who are making the rules. Also, saying that a personal defeat is a sign of everything that's wrong with the world is not the dictionary definition of dignified. (Then again, maybe he means entitlement in the Medicare sense?) Gymnastics is not an outlier in how many athletes get to attend the event. Only one team from each country qualifies to men's and women's synchronized diving, for example. Surely the Jamaican Olympic trials for sprinting left some talented runners behind -- only three athletes from each country get to go to the Olympics in those events. Jeneba Tarmoh, who tied for third-place in the U.S. team qualifiers for the women's 100-meter dash, doesn't feel so great right now, either.
"The U.S. women learned Sunday that there actually is such a thing as too much success," wrote the credentialed reporter blogging from the Games at Gymnastics Examiner. This is ridiculous. What would have been a preferable outcome? For Wieber to score in 25th place and hurt the team's standing? Then there's Kim Wooster, who complains, "What gives me pause, and should to everyone, is that Jordyn had no choice in where she was born." Again, it's absurd on its face to argue that Wieber was somehow hurt by the bad luck of being born in the richest country on earth that also happens to have a high-quality national gymnastics program.
It is sad, but sometimes the unexpected happens at the Olympics. That's why it's exciting.
Want more gymnastics? Check out our other GIF guides:
- What to Watch For in the Women's Gymnastics All-Around Finals, in GIFs