Jordyn Wieber is no doubt depressed as hell that she failed to qualify for the all-around competition this Thursday. The International Federation of Gymnastics’ ill-advised two-gymnasts-per-team limit kept the gold-medal favorite out of the final, despite her fourth-place finish overall, only .6 points behind the leader, Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova.
The result has sent the already excitable former gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi into spastic fits on television, where he is barely able to conceal his rage, calling it a “travesty” that the “reigning world champion” would not be competing. “It’s not right,” he sputtered on NBC. Wieber’s exit also deprives the media of the rivalry it was so eager to push between the sparkly, bubbly upstart, Gabrielle Douglas, who qualified for the final, and the serious, sturdy perfectionist, Wieber (shades of 2008’s Shawn Johnson-Nastia Liukin showdown in Beijing). Now the narrative has shifted to something else: Wieber wuz robbed! With the Summer Olympics just every four years, the crown jewel of gymnastics may never be hers.
But Wieber shouldn’t feel bad. She’s in good company. Many of the greatest gymnasts in the world have not won the all-around gold medal. In modern gymnastics, winning the coveted individual all-around competition is not the only demarcation of a champion for the ages.
Indeed, many of the athletes who have won since Mary Lou Retton made American gymnastics history in 1984 have been completely forgettable. Some were eminently competent gymnasts who happened to have a better night. Does anyone remember Tatiana Gutsu? A Russian slip of a gymnast, she beat out American Shannon Miller—America’s most decorated gymnast, with 16 world and Olympic medals—in Barcelona in 1992 by the tiniest margin on record—.012 of a point.
Let’s not forget poor Romanian Andreea Raducan. A fantastic gymnast with both great style and technique, molded out of the leftover pixie dust of Russia’s Olga Korbut—another legend who never won the all-around—Raducan managed to persevere through the blighted Sydney Games to win the gold, only to be stripped of her medal for taking a cold medicine that contained pseudoephedrine.
Other “losers”: Nellie Kim, the Russian arch-nemesis of Nadia Comaneci; Alicia Sacramone, one of the most decorated American gymnasts of all time; Oksana Omelianchik, the Russian sprite who pioneered the multipronged tumbling passes on the floor exercise that are necessary to win today. (You know, when they do something that defies the laws of physics and then immediately do another combination at the end? She helped invent that.) Then there’s Natalia Yurchenko, the Russian world champion whose vault serves as the basis for many of the routines performed in the London Games. Had the Soviets not boycotted Los Angeles, Yurchenko very well could have won the all-around, and we might not have had Mary Lou Retton as champ. And don’t forget Kerri Strug, the gymnast who clinched the gold for the Magnificent Seven in 1996 and who was not able to compete in the all-around after injuring herself on the winning vault.
Some winners might have been the stronger gymnast on that night but failed to leave a legacy. American Carly Patterson, the Athens all-around champ, is a blip in the pantheon of gymnastics history. When you stack her international crowning individual achievements—a single World Championship silver all-around medal, and her gold all-around at Athens—against the woman she unseated during the all-around competition, Russian diva Svetlana Khorkina, she barely registers in the history books.
Khorkina, a three-time Olympian, arguably one of the greatest gymnasts of the past 20 years—nearly as amazing as Nadia, greater certainly than Mary Lou—had so much influence in the sport that she has eight moves named after her, at least one in every single apparatus, more than any other gymnast, male or female. On the world stage, she has so many individual medals—21 in the World Championships and Olympics; not to mention her 11 gold medals at the European Championships—that she probably needs a separate room at home to store that hardware.
In an understatement, Dwight Normile, editor of International Gymnast magazine, said of Khorkina: “She was very unique.”
And yet Khorkina was never an Olympic all-around champion. In her first Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Games, she was beat by herself on her best event—the uneven bars—falling disastrously during the all-around competition. Her teammate Ekaterina Serebrianskaya, more perfect that day but a far less historically important athlete, took the gold. (Who? Exactly.)
Khorkina’s second Olympics, at Sydney in 2000, was also a travesty, though no fault of her own, when the vault was mistakenly set two inches lower than required. The mistake caused several gymnasts—including Khorkina, again the favorite to win—to fall. Khorkina was 5 feet 5 inches, a towering giant in the sport of gymnastics, and the lowered vault meant that Khorkina landed on her knees and permanently, she thought, knocked her out of medal contention. She went on to her next event, the bars, not knowing that the vault was incorrectly set and that she’d get a second shot, and promptly fell apart, falling from the bars. On that event, there would sadly be no do-over. Khorkina later called Sydney a “black spot in my soul.”
In her final Olympiad, Khorkina was once again a favorite, but lost to Patterson by .176. Alternately proud and contemptuous, she dismissed Patterson’s eked-out win as “fixed.” “I’ve seen a much tougher opposition than her,” she said. “Let’s see how long she can remain on top. Can she keep going and compete in two more Olympics like myself?” After all, at the age of 25, armed with a fistful of medals and history at her back, Khorkina had rightfully earned her imperious nickname, the Queen.
Wieber should take solace in her exclusion from this year’s individual all-around. In her short, senior-level career, she is already a dominating force. At last year’s World Championships, she came away with a gold for the all-around, helped the Americans win the top spot against the powerhouse Russian team, and nabbed another bronze in the torture device otherwise known as the balance beam. In her other international competitions, she has a bevy of gold medals and is a three-time American Cup champion.
At 17, she is just getting started, and the way that gymnastics has evolved in the past decade, with the emphasis placed on specialists over all-arounders in team competition, gymnasts are no longer instantly retired by the time they hit 18. She may come back as a specialist, or she may be like Khorkina and stick around for one or two more Olympics, despite the difficulty in the gymnastics Code of Points. We may or may not see her in another four years. But it doesn’t matter. She’s already a champion.