Amidst ongoing political messages relayed from the United States to China, and all-out war between Georgia and Russia, the 2008 Olympic Games have commenced. Notably, not even North Korea and South Korea walked together in the opening ceremonies, the most obvious defeat in an attempt to unify the world. How can something that brings the world together be so divisive? At least we take solace in knowing that for a few shining moments in every competition, the sport itself, and the medals, will unify us all, because the effort, the trials and the errors, the wins and the losses, the smiles and the tears, that’s what makes us human.
Gymnastics, a sport in which errors are the most obvious and greatness is achieved by the few, not the many, will hold a contention to which the world will look on with excitement. Having only achieved team gold in 1996, by the ‘Magnificent Seven’, the American women hope to make history by accomplishing this incredible feat once more. And do they have the most decorated roster since those ‘Magnificent Seven’! They are after all, the second women’s team in the United States to win gold at the World Championships. They won the team competition with a score of 184.400 points, 0.95 of a point ahead of the silver medalist Chinese team, the other great contender in these year’s Olympic gymnastics.
Meet the team:
Starting with Shawn Johnson from Des Moines, Iowa, age 16, who is the favorite to win the Women’s All-Around; we have much to look forward to. This young lady is the reigning 2007 World Champion. In her first senior year as a gymnast, she won the American Cup, three gold medals, including the all-around, in the Pan-American games, and came first in U.S. Nationals. This year she finished second in the American Cup, but came out on top in Nationals winning her second consecutive title. At the Olympic trials she earned a spot on the Olympic team when she captured first place. She currently attends Valley High School.
Russian born Anastasia ‘Nastia’ Liukin, age 18, daughter of Olympic gold medalist Valeri Liukin and World Champion Anna Kotchneva, apparently has it in her blood. She ties with Shannon Miller, one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, for most World Championship medals in the history of American gymnastics at nine medals. Among her many feats, she is a two-time National Champion. In 2007, she posted the highest score in the World Championships at 16.375. In 2008, she won the American Cup, and received second place at Nationals. At these nationals she scored a 17.100 on the uneven bars, the highest score for an American gymnast since the new code of points was instituted. She also received second place at the Olympic trials, earning herself a spot on the Olympic team, and has one of the hardest bar routines in the world. She currently attends Southern Methodist University.
Chellsie Memmel, age 20, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the 2005 All-Around World Champion, which makes her only the third American gymnast to achieve such a feat behind the likes of Shannon Miller and Kim Zmeskal. She has won a total of six world medals. She has two skills in the sport named after her and is one of three women in the world to complete a Dos Santos, an Arabian double front in a piked position. She was third all-around at the Olympic trials and at Nationals this year.
Alicia Sacramone, age 21, born in Winchester, Massachusetts, is the 2005 World Champion for the floor exercise. She attends Brown University and is a seven-time medalist at the World Championships. After a disappointing finish at Nationals that did not allow her to qualify for the 2004 Olympic trials, Sacramone returned to the elite gymnastics scene determined to make her Olympic dreams a reality. She is the 2008 National Vault champion and has been named to the 2008 Olympic team. She performs one of the hardest vaults in the world, a front handspring Rudi. As the oldest she also serves as a leader inside her team, offering advice and helping others in stressful situations.
Samantha Peszek, age 18 and born in McCordsville, Indiana came in third at the American Cup, after teammates, Liukin and Johnson. She, like Sloan is a solid all-around performer and has earned plenty of respect from team coach Marta Karolyi. She currently attends Cathedral High School and is a member of the 2008 Olympic team. Bridget Sloan, age 16, born in Cincinnati, Ohio is part of the Olympic team, and is one of the more solid competitors on the team. She is an all-around gymnast.
Jana Beiger, Corrie Lothrop and Ivana Hong are the alternates for the team.
The most decorated gymnast for the Chinese is the returning Olympian Cheng Fei, age 20, who is a vault and floor exercise specialist. She was fourth on floor exercise in Athens. She made history in 2005 for being the only gymnast in history to land a laid out Khorkina, which was then named after her ‘the Cheng’. She helped the Chinese win a gold medal in the 2006 Worlds. She is a two-time Chinese National Champion on floor, two-time Chinese National medalist on vault, and Chinese National champion on beam. In the World Cup finals in Brazil, she won the gold. She is also the woman to have appeared in the most Worlds Championships in Chinese history. She is accompanied by her teammates; all-around standout Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan , who won the all-around National title at ‘Good Luck Beijing’, Li Shanshan balance beam specialist, Deng Linlin an all-around standout, and uneveven bars specialist He Kexin.
Do not be fooled, however, because the Chinese are stiff competition in this sport. Their bar work is incredible, an area in which with the exception of Memmel and Liukin, we seem to falter. Their vaulting is not too far behind either, with two of the most difficult vaults in the world, performed by Cheng Fei. Their beam exercises are exceptional as well.
After reviewing both teams’ practice sessions, twice, I have come to the conclusion that although the Chinese skills are at a glance more difficult, the American skills are not too far behind, and the American women, are in fact, more consistent. Although these were just practice sessions, and I’m sure with the world watching, the results might differ, I have to say that the better team is the Chinese. This takes into account the grace and difficulty, and perhaps which of the two teams would be more pleasing to the very harsh international judges. However, in terms of execution as previously mentioned, the American team has an edge in that there were very few, if any mistakes or bobbles in their routines, which were corrected upon repetition. The Americans also have high difficulty numbers and in the end it will come down to the more consistent better executed routines. Every tenth counts.
HERE COMES THE SHOWDOWN
How are they going to be judged based on the new point system?
Gone are the days of perfect tens. The new gymnastics scoring system applied in 2006 is, instead of on a 1 to 10 scale, based on start value which depends on the difficulty rating of the exercise routine for each gymnast. Also, the deductions became higher: before the new point system developed, the deduction for a fall was 0.5, and now it is 0.8. This change was implemented to prevent gymnasts from achieving perfect scores, because they believe that no routine is truly perfect. The execution is still from 1-10, but the difficulty is a variable number. These scores combined make up the final score. Within the difficulty scores in everything but the vault, are elements lettered A (.10) - G (.70). For certain combination of elements they can receive .10-.20. Credit is only given to the eight or nine most difficult individual elements depending on the apparatus, as well as for the dismount. There is also credit for each element requirement performed (five per routine), and of course, errors will lead to deductions.
So in English… basically anything ranging from 15.000 and higher are decent scores, anything 16.000+ are great scores.
Judging from my knowledge of the sport, and the practice sessions and competitions viewed, I’m now going to do something totally out of character, by predicting the winners. Taking into account the talent and skill of both teams, and perhaps being a little hopeful, my prediction for the Women’s gymnastics team champion: USA, and for best all-around gymnast: Shawn Johnson, hopefully, these don’t come back to haunt me later. In the end, I bet they all deserve it anyway, judging from the years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears.
Finally, in light of the events that surround the Olympics, as an avid sports fan, I ask you all to please remember that no matter what the sport, no matter what the country, we are above all else humans and that is a link that no divisional boundary can break. Let these games unite us, if only for a moment, because in the end, the hard work of these athletes deserves praise, no matter what country or what place they make.