We Olympic fans enjoy the gymnastics at the Summer Games almost as much as we do the Winter Games' figure-skating competition. But while most of us understand a little about the "figs," or at least know a double axel from a sit-spin, we are fairly clueless about the gymnastics and wouldn't know a double Arabian from "The Merchant of Venice."
Nor will you know when you finish reading this preview of the gymnastics competition. But here are a few things that might enhance both your appreciation and understanding of the Olympic gymnastics, which begins this weekend, with the men's teams competing tomorrow and the women's teams on Sunday.
Two Days: Both team competitions extend over two days. The preliminaries determine which eight teams go on to the team finals on Monday (men) and Tuesday (women).
In the preliminary round for both men and women, the 6-5-4 formula is used. Five of the six team members compete on each apparatus (six for men, four for woman), but only four scores count toward the team total. In theory, it doesn't really matter how well a team performs, as long as it finishes in the top eight, since there is no carryover score to the finals. But judges do form impressions and the U.S. men, for example, will be hard-pressed to challenge the Chinese world champions if they don't finish in the top three on the first day.
First-Place Blues: There is one hidden pitfall tomorrow. The U.S. men don't really want to finish first in the preliminary competition. The random draw for the rotation in Monday's men's team final puts the first-place team at a disadvantage. Whichever team finishes first has to be the first up on the fifth event, the parallel bars, and last and eighth up on the final event, the high bar. That means about a 45-minute wait at a critical juncture in the championship. And new rules, implemented since Sydney, do not allow the competitors to warm up once they take the floor again, or to keep warming up in an adjacent practice gym while they wait to perform. It's hard to go off the floor, return 45 minutes later, and still perform at peak ability.
6-3-3: This is not a new defense Bill Belichick is implementing for the Super Bowl-champion Patriots. It is a critical new number though, the biggest change since the Sydney Olympics. In both the men's and women's finals, the 6-5-4 formula of the preliminary round is now out the window. There are still six team members, but only three compete in each event--and all three scores count.
This has some critical implications. Since no score is discarded, major mistakes, like a fall off the balance beam or a step off the mat in floor exercise, can now be fatal to team hopes. The new formula also encouraged coaches to add specialists to their teams. For the women's final, for example, three women will perform on floor, beam, vault and uneven bars. That adds up to just 12 rotations. Since the three American stars--Courtney Kupets, Carly Patterson and Courtney McCool--will probably perform three times each, that means the three others might only do one event each. That allowed USA Gymnastics to pick two experienced performers, Annia Hatch, 26, and Mohini Bhardwaj, 25, who excel at the vault, the U.S. team's weakest event.
The shift to 6-3-3 from 6-5-4 helps some U.S. rivals more than it does the Americans, particularly in the women's competition. America boasts extraordinary depth in its women's national-team pool; half of last year's world championship team didn't make the cut for this Olympic team. One team the rule change could help is the Russians, whose gymnastics program has slumped in recent years. If the Russians had to go five-deep in the final, they couldn't stick with the Americans. But three-deep could put them back in the medal hunt.
The All-Around: The 24 competitors in the individual all-around (as well as for less prestigious finals for the individual apparatus) are determined from the first day of competition. No competitor can make the all-around final unless they perform in every round. And only two Americans (or two competitors from any country) can make the all-around final regardless of how high they score. In the men's competition, the two U.S. all-around finalists are pretty much ordained: Paul Hamm, the reigning world champion and first American ever to win that title, and Brett McClure. But among the American women, the two-finalist limit per country should create a tense competition within the competition with reigning national cochampions Kupets and Patterson and up-and-comer McCool all bidding for a spot. All three could finish among the top five (and certainly top 10) individually, but at least one of them will be odd-woman-out of the all-around finals.
Since '84: Regardless of the new rules and wrinkles, this represents the strongest tandem of teams for America since the 1984 Games. The women are reigning world champions, while the U.S. men took silver behind the Chinese at the last two world championships. Athens should mark the first Olympics since those L.A. Games where the U.S. medals in both team competitions as well as both individual all-arounds.