America was cruelly denied the pleasure of watching McKayla Maroney prance across the podium after winning a gold medal on vault Sunday night. All she had to do was land on her feet, but she did not. Instead, she won a silver for falling on her butt more gracefully than her competitors.
Why were there so many falls? Women's vault would make a nice case study for pop economists to show how new rules made in a good-faith effort to increase fairness can have unforeseen negative consequences. The ruling gymnastics federation got rid of the old perfect 10 to introduce more objectivity and reward innovation. Simona Amanar, for whom the two-and-a-half twisting vault is named, didn't even medal in the 2000 Olympic vault final because she took too many steps, for example. The 10 was tossed out, and now gymnasts get an execution score worth 10 points and a difficulty score based on how hard the trick is. But the difficulty score jumps so much -- 0.7 points from the double twist to the two-and-a-half twisting Amanar -- that gymnastics have an incentive to do the harder vault even if they can't make it pretty in the air.
It's not just an aesthetic problem, it's dangerous. If you're good enough at a skill to be thinking of how your toes look in the air, then you can probably do it safely. Think of it sort of like the heirarchy of needs: first avoid face plant, then avoid ugly legs, then try to stick the landing. If you don't have time in the air to think about pointing your toes, then you are probably barely avoiding a face plant. Or not avoiding it, as we saw Sunday night.
On the other hand, these difficult vaults make for good TV. NBC did not show Canadian Brittany Rogers, because she didn't medal but also didn't crash. But we did see four or five replays of her teammate Ellie Black, who was doing a front handspring to one and a half flips and one and a half twists off.
Black is known for throwing impressive skills but with less impressive form. She didn't have enough height off the vault to land on her feet.
She got a zero for her first vault, because you have to land with your feet first before falling to get credit. She was smart not to do a second vault -- no point in risking further injury when she had no chance to win a medal.
While we are worried about Black's knees and other competitors' knees, we are actually worried for Yamilet Pena's life. All other competitors perform one-and-a-half flips off the vault. She does two-and-a-half front flips. That means if she's disastrously low or under-rotated, she could break her neck. Pena has only landed on her feet a few times in competition. That she had a kind of false start shows she knows how risky her vault is. This is worth 0.6 points more than the Amanar, and that's why she throws it, even though she rarely makes it.
It's possible that if she squeezed into a tighter ball and held on for longer, she could have stayed on her feet. But most gymnastics bloggers agree that she has poor technique, preventing her from getting enough power off the horse. Pena's strategy is to run up the score with difficulty points on her first vault, and then just land a relatively easy second vault, a double-twisting Yurchenko (one and a half flips, two twists). Her first attempt scored 14.566 and her second a 14.466, giving Pena an average of 14.516 and sixth place.
Russia's Maria Paseka did not fall, but we worry for her health, too. On her Amanar, she did more like two-and-a-quarter twists, instead of two and a half, and scored 15.4.
See this landing? Twisting into the mat like that is risking her ACL.
Her second, easier vault was much safer, but scored a lower 14.7. In the end Paeska averaged 15.083 and took home the bronze medal.
What makes McKayla Maroney special is that she is good enough to do her vaults easily and well. She goes higher than male gymnast Kohei Uchimura of Japan. Her legs are perfectly straight, her toes pointed. But last night, she was slightly off on her Amanar:
She drifted to the side and didn't get quite as much height as usual.
Compare that to team finals:
Of course, what is mediocre for Maroney — the 15.866 she scored made a gold medal all-but inevitable — would be amazing for her competitors. But NBC's commentators speculated that she was trying to go for a perfect stuck landing on her second vault to make up for the small deductions. And that's why she fell.
Even with the fall, she received a 14.3 — the score would have been a point higher without the fall — and gave her an average of 15.083 which was only good enough for silver. Others suggested she looked nervous, and that one arm looked weaker. Either way, if she'd made it as ugly in the air as her competition -- bent her knees to speed up her rotation -- she might have stood up. Instead, all Romania's Sandra Izbasa had to do was not fall.
Neither were perfect, but they were good enough. Izbasa got at 15.383 on her first vault, 15.0 on her second, for an average of 15.191 and first place.
People on Twitter were mad that Maroney did not lose gracefully, but I think that's not fair. She knew she could have won easily, and she was mad at herself. It's refreshing to see an athlete's personality peek through media-trained inoffensiveness.
Want more gymnastics? Check out our other GIF guides:
- Gabby Douglas's Awesome Night: A GIF Guide
- What to Watch For in the Women's Gymnastics All-Around Finals, in GIFs
- How the U.S. Gymnastics Team Crushed the Russians: A GIF Guide
- The Weird End to the Men's Gymnastics Team Final: A GIF Guide
- Why Jordyn Wieber Didn't Make It: A GIF Guide
- A GIF Guide to the U.S. Gymnastics Team's Biggest Rivals
- Get to Know Your U.S. Gymnastics Team Through GIFs