Here were a few of my general observations from the women’s qualifications…
The world of women’s gymnastics is desperate for strong all-arounders. As much as I respect and admire Simone Biles for her continued dominance, leading by almost exactly four points over her nearest competitor (even after some wobbles on beam and a minor break on bars) is a bit ridiculous. Could she really fall FOUR times and still win? It may not quite be that straightforward but that’s approximately the level of domination we’re talking about here. Where is the competition? Obviously Aliya Mustafina is sorely missed in this competition, and Larissa Iordache – expected to be one of Simone’s closest challengers – was shockingly off her game after having a brilliant last year of competition. Viktoria Komova didn’t compete floor, though she is at least finally approaching her top form again. I was glad to see Giulia Steingruber grab a somewhat surprising 2nd place overall, and excited to see Olympic champion Gabby Douglas qualify in 3rd….yet found myself scratching my head as to how the 2nd and 3rd place all-around gymnasts at the world championships could both end up there after having falls on beam. In fact Gabby pretty much BOMBED that beam routine – missing all three major connections, suffering two major wobbles, and completely missing her feet on her standing full. Yet she’s third best in the world? Something is wrong with this picture. I definitely miss the days when a step or small wobble meant the difference between gold, silver, bronze, or even a medal at all, and when we had at least 6-8 contenders who could realistically vie for all-around medals, and you had to watch to the very last dismount to see which gymnasts rose to the top. I suppose it will be interesting to see who ends up with silver and bronze in the all-around final, but overall the level of competition for this coveted title is seriously lacking.
The team competition appears equally anti-climatic, although things could certainly get at least a little closer in the 3-up-3-count format. Out of curiosity I re-calculated the team scores for the USA and Russian using only their top 3 and came up with:
Still about four points, but considering most of this difference came on floor, the Russians may not be as far behind the Americans as it may first appear. In fact, using the top 3 scores, the Russians did outscore the Americans on both bars and beam. If we take out floor altogether, the totals suddenly look dramatically closer:
A difference of just 0.382!
And that’s without Aliya Mustafina. Clearly she would add quite a bit to this team, in particular on floor, where the Russians had only one score over 14 (Afanayseva’s 14.633). Mustafina could likely add a few tenths on both bars and beam as well. Viktoria Komova also competed a jam-packed floor routine this summer including a new double layout, but sat out this event in qualifications. So if this team could get a healthy Mustafina, a 100% Komova on all four events, and put in another Amanar on vault (which Afanasyeva and Komova are both capable of doing), we could actually have a great battle next summer in Rio.
The good news is the fields for the event finals here in Glasgow look pretty strong. There is good representation from lots of different countries and there appears to be some great gymnastics to look forward to. It will be both sad and strange to see no Romanians in the event finals, but refreshing to see TWO Dutch gymnasts in the beam final, and several other countries outside the typical top four on all of the events. Aside from Simone being all but guaranteed medals on floor and vault, I’d say the fields are pretty wide open and unpredictable as to who will win medals. So I think in terms of suspense, the event finals will likely be the highlight of the world championships on the women’s side.
Back to the all-around, I think it’s important for the sport that we ask ourselves what has led to such a weak field and lack of competition, and what can be done about it?
I’d say first and foremost, the rules are too hard. There’s still way too much emphasis on difficulty and this leads to many of the potentially best all-around gymnasts either getting injured or choosing to specialize. It’s simply too demanding on the body to perform the difficulty being pushed by the current rules on all four events – unless you’ve got a superwoman body like Simone Biles, who has been remarkably resistant to injury. Don’t get me wrong – I do like a lot of the difficult skills and I feel that women’s floor in particular is showcasing a lot more spectacular tumbling passes than ever before, but I want to see a variety of approaches to achieving high scores. It may work for some gymnasts to throw huge tricks, but for other gymnasts, a more artistic approach is healthier and more practical. I’d like to see these gymnasts have equal opportunity to achieve big scores and be competitive.
In order to allow for more competitive all-around gymnasts and a closer overall competition in the team and all-around, I’d suggest the following changes as initial approaches:
-Reduce the severity of deductions and allow for half-tenth intervals – for example 0.05, 0.1, 0.15, 0.2, 0.25, etc. Execution scores actually felt way more accurate back when smaller deductions could be taken. I think today’s large one-size-fits-all deductions of 0.1, 0.3, 0.5 is part of what is creating all these boxed scores in the 8.5-9.0 range and not allowing for execution scores well into the 9’s, even when they are well deserved.
-Reduce the deduction for a fall from 1.0 to 0.7. A full point is simply too harsh, especially give the difficulty being demanded by today’s rules.
-Change the women’s floor landing requirements back to the way they were and allow for well controlled lunges to receive no deduction. The stiff landings with awkward hops and steps and sometimes even more awkward forced leaps has not been a good change for women’s floor, and I see no artistic or safety benefit to this rule at all. Gymnasts are being penalized way too much for landings on very difficult and tricky tumbling passes and it is causing execution scores that are way too low.
-Lighten up the handstand requirements on pirouetting skills (especially elgrip skills) on women’s bars. Gymnasts are doing ridiculously complicated combinations of elements that were unimaginable 20 years ago and are getting crucified with 0.3 and 0.5 deductions all over the place and receiving execution scores in the low 8’s for routines that look spectacular. Bars is a dynamic, fast paced event and asking gymnasts to finish every single skill perfectly in a handstand or receive large deductions is completely unreasonable. Gymnasts are being penalized more for these deductions (sometimes even on silly skills like a kip cast pirouette on the low bar) than they are gaining from doing connected release skills. It’s no wonder the scores often make no sense.
-For beam and floor, have at least two judges that are designated as the “artistry panel” who can give anywhere from 0 to 7 tenths for the artistic value or creativity of the routine. The two judges’ points would be averaged and added to the final score. This would allow a huge incentive for a gymnast to go “above and beyond” for presentation, originality, choreography, and form, and could really help boost the score of a gymnast who may not have as much difficulty but has a lot to offer artistically. The current rules allow only for deductions for lack of artistry – for example, on floor – a 0.1 or 0.3 deduction for “insufficient artistry”, a 0.1 deduction for “inability to play a role or character,” a 0.1 or 0.3 deduction for “weak relationship between music and movements…” Believe it or not, there are actually 13 different categories of possible deductions on floor under artistry, composition and choreography, and music – all with different levels of possible deductions (0.1 for some, 0.1 or 0.3 for others, 0.5 for others…). First of all, there is no way in the world all of these would ever be able to be applied consistently because that is way too complicated, and furthermore this does nothing but potentially penalize gymnasts who are very bad artistically rather than reward those are very good. Floor and beam need a “bonus system” to truly incentivize and reward gymnasts who separate themselves artistically.
So there are some of the general thoughts that went through my head as I watched the women’s qualifications. Next I’ll post some more specific thoughts on the performance of the Americans in particular.