KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Years after their triumphs, the U.S. women’s gymnastics teams that won Olympic gold are remembered for their nicknames nearly as much as their gravity-defying skill and their grit and grace under pressure.
The tradition started with the “Magnificent Seven” — Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps — who delivered the country’s first Olympic women’s team gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
At the 2012 London Olympics, the “Fierce Five” of Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross claimed gold. Four years later in Rio, the “Final Five” — Raisman, Douglas, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez — repeated the feat.
If Biles, the reigning Olympic and world all-around champion, leads the U.S. women to team gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games, she’ll have to do so with only three teammates. And they’ll have to come up with a nickname-worthy adjective to precede “Four.”
The decision to shrink the size of Olympic gymnastics teams from five members to four was made by the sport’s international governing body in 2015, pushed through by its then-president, Bruno Grandi, who had enormous sway over the sport’s management and a twofold agenda.
Grandi believed, on one hand, that gymnastics was drifting too much toward specialists at the expense of traditional all-around athletes trained to excel on vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor (among women), and floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar (among men). With fewer athletes on the team, the thinking went, all would have to be proficient on each apparatus.
But Grandi also wanted to give smaller countries a leg up, essentially, by narrowing the competitive gap between traditional powerhouses (such as the United States, Russia and China) and the rest of the world. If teams had fewer athletes, countries with less depth might stand a better chance.
The decision continued a trend of downsizing Olympic gymnastics teams that began in 2000, when teams were trimmed from seven to six. They were pared to five for the 2012 London Games.
The adoption of four-person teams wasn’t unanimous; it passed by a 29-7 vote, with one abstention. Among the critics was then-U.S. women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who warned that it would “hurt the spectacle” by eliminating opportunities for some of the world’s greatest gymnasts to make an Olympic team.
Gymnastics officials attempted to counter that line of criticism by creating up to two additional Olympic spots per nation for individual athletes to represent their country, just not in the team competition. That allowance represents a pathway — albeit a complicated one — for individual gymnasts to earn a spot with their performance at the previous year’s world championships and various World Cup and continental competitions.
As the 2020 Tokyo Games approached, gymnastics federations studied the new format more closely — in particular the caveat that allowed nations to earn those two additional spots for individual competitors (who will wear different-colored leotards to indicate that they’re not part of the four-person team). Grandi had since retired, and the entire idea was scuttled as overly confusing.
But the reversal came too late — in May, roughly 15 months before Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo — to abandon the complex qualification process that had been set in motion for 2020. So Tokyo will be an Olympic gymnastics “one-off,” before five-person teams are restored for the 2024 Paris Games.
So far, the machinations of the four-team format have been of interest mainly to national gymnastics federations, coaches, gymnasts and the sport’s most ardent fans. But as the countries start the process of choosing their 2020 Olympic teams in earnest, the consequences are coming to the fore.
Here at the U.S. gymnastics championships, which serve as one step in an Olympic team selection process that won’t conclude until June, the four-person dynamic looms in the background. Explained Tom Forster, high-performance coordinator for the U.S. women’s national team: “When you shrink the team, it becomes a little more difficult to — as an example — use a pinch hitter. If something happens to one athlete, and another athlete you brought in is really helpful on one event but can’t help on another, you’re in trouble. So we tend to look more at all-arounders.”
In qualifying — the stage at which the 12 competing nations are pared to eight for the prestigious team competition at the Tokyo Olympics — all four athletes must take part in all four events (in the women’s competition). The top three scores will count. Then, during the team competition itself, three gymnasts will compete in all four events, and all three scores will count. That means the U.S. team won’t have the luxury of naming an event specialist to the squad because she might be needed in other events if a teammate is injured.
If the rule were in place at the 2016 Rio Games, it might have meant omitting Kocian, who competed only on uneven bars in the team final but proved to be an essential role player in clinching gold. Had it existed for the 2012 London Games, vault specialist Maroney, who was key to securing gold, might have missed the cut.
Looking to the Tokyo 2020 selection process, the U.S. women again have a wealth of promising all-arounders vying for the chance to join Biles — whose skills at 22 are more dominant than ever — on the four-person team. Among the likely contenders competing at nationals are Riley McCusker, Morgan Hurd, Leanne Wong, MyKayla Skinner (a 2016 Olympic alternate) and Grace McCallum. The competition concludes Sunday night.
The U.S. women should have little trouble clinching two extra spots for individual competitors. That’s the route vault specialist Jade Carey of Phoenix hopes will land her a first Olympic berth. Beam specialist Kara Eaker could pursue the strategy, too.
The U.S. men, who haven’t won an Olympic team medal since claiming bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games and haven’t won gold since the 1984 Los Angeles Games , are eyeing the four-person team as a potential benefit.
“I think it’ll play to our advantage,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said. “[The top countries’] sixth- or fifth-best guy and our sixth- or fifth-best guy would have a bigger gap, and that’s what would make it tough for us in the team competition. If you cut those out and just put your three best [on the team], the gap is much less. So I think it’s going to play to our advantage.”
When in Tokyo ...
The size of gymnastics teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was reduced from five to four, but the best nations can earn up to two additional spots for gymnasts competing as individuals. The change was approved by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) in May 2015, only to be revoked this past May after being deemed too complicated. But the change of heart came too late to undo the process for Tokyo, so it will be in effect for the 2020 Olympics only. Here’s a look at the basics:
In both the men’s and women’s competitions, teams will have four gymnasts instead of five. Gymnasts competing as individuals can earn as many as two additional spots per team, whether in the all-around or on a single apparatus.
Why make the change?
FIG’s then-president, Bruno Grandi, wanted to emphasize all-around gymnasts over event specialists. He also wanted to narrow the competitive gap between powerhouses such as the United States, Russia, China and Japan (which could field multiple medal-contending teams) and countries without as much depth.
How will teams qualify?
The top three teams from the 2018 world championships have qualified for Tokyo. (For the women, that’s the United States, Russia and China. For the men, it’s China, Russia and Japan.) The top nine from the 2019 world championships, excluding those that clinched in 2018, also will qualify for a total of 12 teams. Each country has until June to name the four members of its Olympic team.
How can extra spots be earned?
In multiple ways, based on performance at the 2019 world championships, 2020 World Cup events and the 2020 continental championships. One slot will belong to the country; its gymnastics federation will choose the athlete. The other slot will be earned by individual athletes and is not transferrable.