You've met your American gymnastics heroines, now it's time to understand their mortal enemies. The American women's gymnastics team are the favorites to win the team competition, the individual all-around, the vault, and maybe more at the London Olympics. But there are still lots of foreign ladies to root against. Among them is He Kexin, who was named to the Chinese team Tuesday and who was suspected of being underage at the Beijing games in 2008. She's not the only woman who could steal the gold from the American teenage stars. Allow us to introduce to you the women's gymnastics bad guys, in GIFs.
Russia will be the U.S.'s toughest competition in the team final. They're fascinating to watch if you're used to media-trained American athletes who always smile and always thank God and never say they want to murder the other team. Not the Russians, as you can see from the photo posted by the Russian gymnastics federation below.
One of the big things that separates the Americans from other teams is that every single American teammate has an Amanar on vault -- that's when you dive backwards onto the vaulting table and push upwards to do one and a half flips and two and a half twists. That vault is worth 0.7 points more than the next hardest vault that most women do, which has a half twist less. That gives America a big advantage in start value -- the maximum total score before deductions are taken. After the Americans, the Russians have the most Amanars, with three or four of gymnasts competing them, according to reliable source Aunt Joyce. Where Russia has an advantage over the U.S. is on bars, where they have more difficulty and perform those tricks more beautifully. Teammates are: Viktoria Komova, Aliya Mustafina, Anastasia Grishina, Ksenia Afanasyeva, and Maria Paseka.
Viktoria Komova is came in second place in the all around behind American Jordyn Wieber at the world championships in Toyko last year. She is known for her elegant dance, flexibility, and difficult bar routine. Some dance skills can be just as difficult as some flips, as you can see in this Gymnastics Gifs image:
She represents the more balletic Soviet style that dominated until the cold war ended. Don't see the connection? While the political world is constantly prattling on about Ronald Reagan triumphing over an evil empire, the gym world is still mourning the end of an era when communism thought it would be capitalism by scouring the countryside for athletic 5-year-olds, taking them from their parents, and teaching them perfect body control all day in what was a kind of Olympic labor camp.
Here Komova is gracefully doing a combination on the beam you don't see that much anymore:
Aliya Mustafina is the 2010 world champion, and she was expected to own the Olympics until she tore her ACL last year. (Photo via Facebook.) She's a fan favorite for her style and competitiveness -- at 2010 worlds, she reassured her coach, "Don’t worry, I will win."
You can see the fan love by the many gifs dedicated to her game face, or as it is admiringly called on the gymternet, her "bitchface." Here's one:
And another, via starkofwinterfell:
Before her injury Mustafina was strong on all four events. With her knee injury, she had lots of time to work on bars. Her dismount is unique, with one-and-a-half twists plus two flips, via Stansastia:
She still winces when she lands some tumbling runs, though.
Anastasia Grishina is another ballerina and could compete for an all-around medal. (Photo via Associated Press.)
The 2008 Olympic champions are strong on beam and bars, where they do very difficult tricks in combination -- one after the other -- to earn extra points. They're weak on floor and vault, in part because their most powerful gymnast, Olympic medalist Cheng Fei, recently snapped her Achilles in training. Team members are: Yao Jinnan, Sui Lu, Huang Qiushuang, Deng Linlin, and He Kexin.
He Kexin was the subject of the age controversy in 2008, and she's a perfect illustration of why it was considered cheating to have an illegally young team member. In 2008, He was officially 16, but had told local media that she was 14. She was teeny-tiny, and could flip her body quickly around the bars. Now, at age 18 or 20, she's still tiny compared to an average young woman. But the "puberty fairy," as the gymternet calls it, has given her hips and boobs. Those are great for teenagers who want to pick up dates. They're not great for teenagers who want to twist around in the air. Think about throwing a pencil and an hourglass in the air: which one would spin more times? As she's gotten older, He has gotten less consistent on bars -- she's slower, she falls more, she has less endurance. That's why this year, the 2008 gold medalist barely made the Olympic team. Puberty doesn't doom all gymnasts, but it takes many of them time to get used to their new bodies. Yes, it's terrible, and there will be several handwringing essays on this very topic this summer, guaranteed.
Aging aside, last month He's coach said in Weibo that she's now competing a bar routine with the highest level of difficulty in the world. The GIF at below, via Gymnastics GIFs, is her trademark skill.
Another angle, via monigymnastics.
Yao Jinnan is China's top seed. Her coaches had to bribe her to get to to do a difficult vault, according to a translation of a Chinese news segment posted on Chinese Gymnastics Flowers. The coaches in China seem to be a little less sensitive to the feelings of their teen students. Yao's coach Weibo'd the photo at left. The team showed reporters how some of the gymnasts wear special plastic-lined pants to make them sweat more and lose weight, and a reporter sniffed the sweaty pants on camera. Yao told Chinese TV, "I want to have a good competition at the Olympics, but I’m nervous about it. I want to do well so the coaches won’t scold at me."
Yao is more powerful than most of her teammates, as you can see with this tumbling pass here:
That's hard because her body is stretched out, making her flip head-over-foot more slowly than she would if she were bunched up in a ball. But Jinnan, like her team, shines on bars and beam. This skill will likely be named after her:
If gymnastics were Harry Potter, Romania would be Hufflepuff -- not flashy, but sort of slow and steady. Romania is bad at bars, solid on beam, and a few members of the team have the Amanar vault. Team members are: Sandra Izbasa, Catalina Ponor, Diana Chelaru, Larisa Iordache, and Diana Bulimar. For another dramatic example of how gymnasts have to adapt to changing bodies through their teens, check out this photo of the Romanian team. The women who have been to an Olympics before are on the far right and left, the young n00bs are in the middle.
(Photo via Reuters.)
Larissa Iordache has the best shot at winning an all-around medal for Romania. She has the fifth-highest possible score in the world, after Americans Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, and Aly Raisman, plus Komova, the Russian.
On beam, via monigymnastics:
Iordache has strong tumbling too:
Catalina Ponor was first named to the national team in 2002, won three gold medals in the 2004 Olympics, and retired in 2007. Her comeback this year has been really exciting, in part because she has a lot of personality. Her outfits are a little risque both inside and outside the gym. (Photo via Associated Press.)
She's good at beam, via FYeahGymnastics!.
And two others to watch
Oksana Chusovitina is possibly an alien or the product of a Soviet genetic experiment. She's 37 years old. She competed in her first Olympics in 1992 for the Soviet Union. She competed for Uzbekistan in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics. When her son -- yes, she's even given birth to a son! -- got cancer, she moved to Germany to get him better treatment and began competing for the German team. She won her second Olympic medal in 2008 in Beijing. Her specialty is vault.
Beth Tweddle, competing in her third Olympics for the U.K., is amazing on bars.
Want more gymnastics? Check out our other GIF guides:
- What to Watch For in the Women's Gymnastics All-Around Finals, in GIFs