US Olympic Gymnastics Team 2012: Evaluating Gabby Douglas' Place in History

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US Olympic Gymnastics Team 2012: Evaluating Gabby Douglas' Place in History
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One year ago, Gabrielle Douglas was the great unknown—a sideways jumble of charm, talent and maddening inconsistency.

Today, she's the best gymnast in the world, and the most celebrated member of America's best gymnastics team since 1996—maybe ever.

If you hadn't noticed already, things can change mighty fast in the world of women's gymnastics.

Douglas still has two event finals to go before her London dream ride ends, but the question is already worth asking: Where does Gabby Douglas rank among the greatest female American gymnasts of all time?

Let's take a look at what I would consider the major criteria in that discussion, and where Douglas ranks in each.

 

Pioneering Significance

This is the scale by which Mary Lou Retton, Cathy Rigby or even Marie Walther could be considered among the best American gymnasts ever.

Even though Retton won all her hardware at a boycotted Olympics and Rigby/Walther never touched the podium, each played vital roles in popularizing the sport.

And among the three, Retton is a clear standout. Her arresting brand of pixie charm turned gymnastics into an American cultural phenomenon, branding it is an important Olympic sport and, in particular, highlighting its appeal to young women.

We won't know until later what kind of impact Douglas will have along these lines, but it could be significant.

Say, for instance, the American team 12 years from now has three or four African-American gymnasts. There's no algorithm to say that Douglas was the genesis of that shift, but most folks will draw that very conclusion. She is, after all, the first ever African-American all-around Olympic champion.

Overall, I'm less inclined to weigh pioneering significance in these types of conversations. I'll make an exception for Mary Lou Retton, since her impact was so immense.

But if we want to say the greatest female gymnast in American history was the one that left the greatest cultural footprint, then shouldn't we include Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci?

Those two, simply by the strength of their international celebrity, meant as much to the growth of gymnastics in this country as Retton—perhaps even more.

Seems like a messy criterion, doesn't it?

 

Olympic Accomplishments

All that pontificating out of the way, let's get down to what the women did in the arena of competition.

Douglas already has a place alone in this category as the only American ever with both a team and individual all-around Olympic gold.

On the one hand, you could argue that she's the only American gymnast to capture her sport's two most important prizes. On the other, you might say that the team gold is less a reflection of her individual greatness than it is a credit to the program's overall strength.

Should we really penalize, say, Nastia Liukin, for running up against a fantastic Chinese team (legal or otherwise) in 2008?

Then there are the other unique accomplishments of note: Shannon Miller's seven career Olympic medals, the five medals Miller, Liukin and Retton each won at a single Olympiad and the two gold medals Miller and Douglas have on their respective resumes.

Each Olympic record has its own merits, and Douglas' name comes up more than once.

 

Longevity

This one's tricky.

Since it's so rare and blatantly conditional, how do we treat those who competed in multiple Olympic Games?

Do we treat them with suspicion, like an aberration borne out of good health and good timing?

Or do we celebrate them as warriors in a sport that swallows up most athletes before they reach their third decade?

It seems you have to strike a balance.

We wouldn't call Dominique Dawes the greatest American gymnast ever because she appeared on three Olympic teams. I would think that we want to recognize that accomplishment while also noting that she probably wouldn't have reached those heights if the 2000 team had a bit more talent.

Obviously, we don't know if Gabby Douglas will resurface in Rio. The question becomes then, does that even matter?

 

Non-Olympic Fare

I'll let you do your own legwork on this one.

Clearly, we have to be careful in how we evaluate things like national championships, since the strength of the American program has improved so dramatically over the last few decades.

Then there's the matter of world championships. And while medals won before the world certainly matter, there's no doubting the preeminent significance of Olympic medals.

 

Final Thoughts

All that said, I'll open the floor.

Where does Gabby Douglas rank right now among the greatest American gymnasts ever? Where might she rank if she picks up additional medals on high bar and beam?

For my money, Shannon Miller still has the greatest competitive resume of any gymnast in American history.

But does that make her the greatest?

Leave your answer in the comments below.

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