Monday, July 2, 2012

Does the 5-Gymnast Team Kill the Specialist?

In case you haven't heard (Sarcasm light is on), Team USA was named this weekend, and it wasn't without controversy. Part of the polemic stems from the selection of the event specialists. Why was McKayla Maroney named to the team? Why was Anna Li chosen as an alternate over, say, Alicia Sacramone? Why wasn't Naddour selected as 1 of the 5?

This is my attempt to make sense of it all. In my view, the answer lies in the new format. Based on the selection committees' decisions, it appears that being a decent all-arounder is crucial to making a 5-member Olympic Team.

As gymnastics fans know, the format for the 2012 Olympics has changed. Rather than having a 6-gymnast team, now, the Olympic Team consists of 5 athletes. On the first day of competition,  4 gymnasts compete on each apparatus, and 3 scores count. In team finals, 3 gymnasts compete, and 3 scores count. This gives teams a little wiggle room, but if an athlete is hurt during competition, then, the coaches will have to come up with a new lineup--perhaps counting on someone who did not expect to compete on a certain event.

In this situation, a team needs to be able to count on every gymnast to do every event. Don't get me wrong, there's still room for an event specialist, but that athlete must be prepared to compete on all the apparatus.

The Women

We can see this philosophy in the makeup of the women's team. Prior to the announcement on Sunday night, most gymnastics fans knew that Gabriel Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, and Kyla Ross were going to London. The biggest question was whether Martha would choose Elizabeth Price or McKayla Maroney.

Price burst on the scene this year, wowwing the media with her effortless Amanar vault and her sky-high double-double on floor. Maroney, too, has an awesome Amanar--arguably the best in the world--but she, unlike Price, faltered at Trials. She struggled both nights on bars; she fell on beam on night 1; and her 3rd tumbling pass is always heart-attack-inducing. (Luckily, she landed on the spring floor both nights.)

Given these errors, it was possible that Martha would overlook Maroney for her inconsistency, but the Queen of the Vault was selected despite her blatant errors, which suggests that Maroney was selected mainly for her vault score and for a chance at Olympic gold in event finals. Martha did, after all, give both Maroney and her coach big high fives after seeing her Mustafina. Was it just coincidence that Martha was beaming after seeing her two vaults? I think not.

So, on Team USA, it would seem that there is room for an event specialist, but we must make a distinction here. In the women's competition, there were 2 types of specialists: the true specialists who only competed on their chosen events, and then, there were those who competed on all 4 events, even though their strengths lie on 1 event. Anna Li, Rebecca Bross, Nastia Liukin, and Alicia Sacramone fit into the first category, whereas Maroney fits into the second category.

Maroney, unlike the 2-event specialists, competed all 4 events, even after incurring a mild concussion at the Visa Championships. In so doing, she showed the selection committee that she could compete on all 4 events if they really needed her to do so.

Given the U.S.'s recent track record, the team needs athletes who can compete on all four events. How many of the gymnasts were injured in 2008? And we can't forget Sacramone's terrible injury in 2011 at the World Championships. What would happen if someone injured herself during the competition in London?

Let's say they named Alicia Sacramone to the 5-member team. In that scenario, if 1 of the all-arounders were injured during the first night of competition, the team would have to count 3 scores, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the athletes, or Sacramone would have to compete bars and floor. When's the last time Sacramone did a kip? Maroney, on the other hand, could compete all 4 events if she had to.

Perhaps that is why Maroney was named to the team instead of someone like Sacramone, and perhaps that is why the veteran vaulter was not named as an alternate. Indeed, even in the choice of Anna Li, it seems that maybe--just maybe--the selection committee went with someone who could do all-around if things went terribly awry. No one would want to see Anna Li do, say, a full-twisting Yurchenko at the Olympics, but if she had to, she could. She competed it at UCLA, and more recently, she did it at the Secret U.S. Classic.

The Men

On the men's side, things work a little differently. This weekend, the gymnasts (with the exception of Sam Mikulak on Saturday) competed all 6 events. Every last one of them, which means that no gymnast found himself in Li, Bross, Liukin, or Sacramone's position. That changes the stakes slightly.

All the potential event specialists were Maroney-gymnasts, in that they competed in the all-around. So, what made the difference between them? Alexander Naddour and Brandon Wynn could have been chosen as event specialists. Naddour is America's top male gymnast on pommel horse, and Wynn was second only to Jonathan Horton on rings. Both gymnasts could have been selected for their performances on their respective events, but Wynn did not make the team, while Naddour was chosen as a replacement athlete, even though he was part of the 2011 World team.

Jacob Dalton, on the other hand, made the team, but he had a slight edge on Naddour and Wynn. He was a 2-event specialist and a decent all-arounder. That, I believe, made the difference.

As I stated in the women's section, being an all-arounder is extremely important. While the men do not have quite the same injury track record as the women do, ankles and knees take a beating in this sport--Just ask Sam Mikulak or Justin Spring--and hand injuries are never out of the question, either. Orozco's hand cramp seemed scarily similar to Paul Hamm's hand injury in 2008, and if something similar were to happen during competition, Team USA may have to count on Dalton. The assumption is that Dalton, who was 6th at the end of Visas and Trials and the 2012 NCAA All-Around Champion, would pull through in ways that the 9th-place finisher (Wynn) and the 11th-place finisher (Naddour) might not.

Dalton's other advantage is the number of events that he has mastered. It might strike us as odd that Naddour did not make the team. In the past, Team USA has been able to use a pommel horse specialist. Alexander Artemev fulfilled that role in the 2008 Olympics, and Alexander Naddour, at the 2011 World Championships. But we had more members on the team at the time. With 5 men competing on 6 events, if a gymnast excels on 1 event and that's all he can contribute, then, his other 4 teammates must be spectacular on the remaining 5 events.

That is a lot of pressure to put on the other 4 members of the team. By excelling on both floor and vault, Dalton makes it a little easier when it comes to developing lineups for the team competitions.

Not to mention his toe point, which will make international judges swoon.


So, does the 5-gymnast team kill the specialist? My answer is somewhat ambivalent.  It does, but it doesn't. It doesn't, in the sense that there still is space for an athlete who is stellar at 1 event, or, in the men's case, 2 events. It does, in the sense that a gymnast who wants to be a specialist better be ready to perform on any apparatus just in case disaster strikes.

More importantly, the gymnast's all-around score better appear on the leader board in the arena. That is to say the specialist better finish in the top 8 in the all-around. At least, that is the precedent in the USA. We will see how the other countries handle the 5-gymnast format.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is there room for an athlete who can compete on only 2 events?

1 comment:

  1. If Alex Naddour was a Zhang Hongtao - capable of scoring close to 16 on horse each and every time, he probably would have made the team.

    China is so deep in specialists Hongtao could not even make their six man team.

    99 % of it was decided by a computer, not humans. I believe who could fill in because of injury was taken into account, but I doubt it was the deciding factor (except for the clear benefit of taking somebody like Mikulak over Naddour outweighing the risk of Sam not being ready by London). That said, the projections I have seen show the team with Mikulak potentialy scoring higher than one with Naddour instead.

    If an athlete is good enough, consistent enough, fills a big enough hole AND there are enough other "all arounders" on the team, even a one event gymnast could make a 5 man team.

    Brandon Wynn never had much of a shot, as Horton, Leyva, and Orozco were decent at his specialty.

    Ironic that Naddour left Oklahoma partly over conflicts about exactly what events Naddour should focus on. Williams wanted him to train all six to help the team, but Naddour wanted to concentrate on the events he thought would make him a lock (PH and SR).

    The odds of a one event gymnast making a 5 man versus a 6 man team go down, but they are not zero.

    That said, the philosophy in the USA MAG program appears to be leaning towards having everybody do all six, but seriously what was the point of having Ruggeri get up on SR and PH, or having Wynn even touch the horse? So they could get hurt doing it? What if Ishino really had done well enough to fit into the team and the rings problem he had on Day 2 ended up taking him out altogether?

    My guess is China will have on in TF - Chen Yibing on SR.