Now that the chalk dust has settled and the U.S. Olympic team selection by the "committee of experts" has been deliberated, gymnastics fans are attempting to make sense of the exhilaration, confusion, and sorrow of the U.S. Olympic Trials and shift their focus toward London.
Team USA has benefited considerably from the dissolution of the Soviet Union--with loads of superb coaches immigrating to America to run gymnastics schools with their technical knowledge and coaching philosophies in tow, to say nothing of the individual efforts of the current gymnasts and their families.
In Tokyo last year, the U.S. women claimed the world team title by an enormous margin, with their physicality proving to be too much for the challengers to handle. It's probably worth noting, though, that if patterns are anything to go by, Team USA was also a dominant winner at the World Championships held in Anaheim (2003) and Stuttgart (2007), but went on to be an upset on the sport's greatest stage-the Olympics--in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Right now, that elusive team gold medal is the Americans' to lose, but much will hinge on the training program and decisions of National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi in the days leading up to the competition.
Realistically, only four teams are competing for the medals. USA, Russia, Romania, and China will square off in what should be a promising marquee matchup. Team USA had a 2.317-point lead after the first event in Tokyo due to the strength of the Americans' vaulting--and they never looked back.
This time, expect the vaulting deficit for the challengers to shrink. While USA is still the clear favorite, I predict the lead will alternate throughout the Games and we'll be seeing some exciting competition from those other three outstanding teams.
Much of the media has counted China out, but both Huang Qiushuang and Yao Jinnan had the scoring potential to win the world all-around title last year, and team depth is no longer a factor in the 5-3-3 team format that was instituted in 2001. With the finest execution of the field, I still believe China, the defending Olympic champion, is a significant threat.
Romania looked less than sensational in Tokyo, but the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Champions are on the upswing--and just in time. Veteran leaders include triple Olympic gold medalist Catalina Ponor and Olympic Floor champion Sandra Izbasa. And if you haven't heard of Larisa Iordache before this year, don't be embarrassed. Gymnastics doesn't get the attention it deserves in the popular media until the Olympic Games, but this 16-year-old possess the highest scoring potential of any gymnast in the world.
Opinions vary widely on how Russia can be expected to perform, but there is no dispute that their London squad will be the strongest team they've assembled since the Soviet break-up. The Silky, slender Viktoria Komova has a dancer's physique and is the spitting image of her mother Vera Kolesnikova, the 1986 Goodwill Games Champion. I believe Komova epitomizes artistry, and must serve as the young leader if Russia is to challenge for gold.
As for the events themselves, the balance beam is where Team USA may second-guess its team composition. Romania is sure to gain ground on this event as consistency defines their tradition. Russia's balance beam performances have not been consistent of late, but they have the potential to hold their ground. Beam wobbles, missed connection bonuses, and falls can erase any team's dreams for gold in the blink of an eye.
Floor exercise will also be a critical event in revealing the Olympic team title, as it will be the last competition for the finalists. I believe it was a costly mistake by Karolyi to not encourage fresh choreography for floor routines for the three U.S. gymnasts likely to compete in the team final. As usual, I want all competitors to nail their performances and have the gymnasts determine the results rather than the politics of judging, but subjectivity and previous performances are a fact of life in judging and this fact may hurt Team USA in the final rotation. If artistry is truly a virtue in gymnastics, the advantage could go to the Romanians and Russians.
Team USA didn't accidentally become the top team on the planet last year, but Romania and Russia will represent a substantial step up in competition since Tokyo. I know it sounds like hedging, but there is a real chance that Romania and Russia could stay close to Team USA after vaulting and surpass them as they build strength on their respective key events. That said, I'm sticking with what I've said since the U.S. Nationals and predicting that Team USA will capture the gold medal after four hard fought rotations of gymnastics.
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