You guys, the Olympics start tonight. We’ll be recapping the three most popular Olympic sports: basketball, swimming, and gymnastics, and today, we’ll preview all their Olympic tournament business. Our gymnastics writer is Lindsey Green. Take it away, Lindsey.
While the all-around competition used to be the highlight of Olympic gymnastics, these days, the premier event is the team final. This is the best U.S. men’s team since 1984, and there’s a real chance both the men and the favored women could win gold. But there’s so much going on. Consider this your official cheat sheet of who’s who, what to know, and what to look out for in the gymnastics of the XXX Olympiad.
Kohei Uchimura: Best. Ever.
It’s rare in sports to have the excitement of being aware you are definitively watching the single greatest athlete ever to compete in their sport. With Kohei Uchimura, you are. Japan was once the men’s gymnastic standard of greatness before struggling in recent decades, but Uchimura has brought them back to relevance in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old finished a quiet second in the all-around in Beijing, but he has since been unstoppable, winning three consecutive World All-Around championships by wide margins. His dominance prompted Philipp Boy of Germany, who has finished second to Uchimura twice at the World championships, to say, “I’m in the wrong era.” This is Uchimura’s era. He is a virtual lock for the Olympic gold medal in the all-around and will likely lead his team to gold as well. Uchimura’s grace, precision, and humble personality will lead to plenty cheering him on to achieve his finest moment at the London Games.
Men Versus Women
It’s a rarity, but the USA men’s team is more exciting than the women’s this year. The women are favored for gold, but the men have the stories, the veterans, and the personality that has been lacking in U.S. men’s gymnastics since the gold-medal-winning team in 1984. While the team’s likely finish is silver or bronze, the fact that gold is a possibility for the first time in 28 years is reason enough to watch — and to believe.
The USA Women’s Gymnastics Team
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team is the hands-down favorite to win the gold, and they should be. But I’ve seen this story before. The USA team was also the reigning world champion in 2004 and 2008, and both times, they came home with silver. What do the 2004, 2008, and 2012 teams have in common? Zero returning Olympians. The 2012 team has only one team member (Alexandra Raisman) who has been to more than one world championship. This year, left on the sidelines were Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone. While neither Memmel nor Sacramone would have been a star of the team, they would have offered the leadership and maturity that define any great sports team. Both the 2008 Olympians deserved the consideration of alternate, at the very least. If the USA Team falters in the finals and comes home with anything less than gold, it’s time for Márta Károlyi, Béla’s wife and the one who has been choosing these teams since 2004, to go. (If anyone’s the sleeper on this team, though, watch out for Aly Raisman.)
Speaking of veterans, London boasts one of the best Olympics ever for returning athletes. On the men’s side is Jonathan Horton, 26. If you hear shouts of “USA! USA!” coming from the sidelines of North Greenwich Arena, it’s Horton willing on his team. In 2008, he helped lead the U.S. men to a most-unlikely bronze medal and then snagged silver for himself on the high bar. Despite foot surgery and disappointing trials, Horton’s value was not overlooked by the men’s selection committee, and he returns for his second chance at Olympic gold.
Catalina Ponor, 24, was a virtual unknown in Athens when she won three gold medals. She retired twice since then, but has returned to help Romania bring back the glory that has defined their nation in gymnastics. This year, she struck gold once again on the balance beam at the European championships. Ponor’s comeback is one to watch. Also, look for 27-year-old Beth Tweddle of Great Britain and 37-year-old Oksana Chusovitina of Germany.
John Orozco, the Kid From the Bronx
It’s the soft-focus story NBC loves, but you’ll love it even more: John Orozco’s story is impossible to resist. Boy grows up in the streets of the Bronx, works at his gym to help pay the family mortgage, does backflips outside the local pizza joint for extra cash, has dreams of elevating his family away from gangs and poverty … and then defeats reigning national champion Danell Leyva and earns his ticket to London at 19 years old.
John Orozco very well could be the story of London, but he’s already the story of New York. Outside of the great media-fodder potential, Orozco has the goods to lead Team USA to the podium and to potentially grab something for himself as well.
Jordyn Wieber Versus Gabby Douglas
The media is all over this one. Gabby Douglas defeated current World All-Around Champion Jordyn Wieber at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, setting off a press firestorm pitting the two against each other in an all-around battle “for the ages.” Don’t believe the hype: This is Jordyn Wieber’s crown to lose. Wieber is one of the most mentally stable gymnasts the United States has ever produced, while Douglas has yet to prove herself in the all-around at a major international competition. Douglas is a gymnast with the full package — strength, flexibility, and personality — while Wieber reigns with a steady consistency and a no-drama attitude. Wieber knows how to get it done under pressure, and if any gymnast was going to break the sixteen-year drought of current world champions being crowned Olympic Champion the next year, it’s Wieber
The Green Arrow
It’s been six years since gymnastics’ governing body made the decision to throw out the 10.0 scale and, thus, the identity of their sport. Since then, broadcasts have been muddled with constant rationalizations that go in circles of how to explain why gymnasts are scoring numbers like 15.2. These explanations have not worked. As a result, NBC implemented a new feature at this year’s Olympic trials. Next to the athlete’s scores, little arrows appear to help viewers finally understand what is good and what is bad. A green arrow is good. A red arrow is bad. A little like the glowing puck, sure, but also easier to understand.
It all begins this weekend. There’s nothing better than gymnastics at the Olympics.
Lindsey Green is writing about Olympic gymnastics for The Sports Section. You can e-mail her at Lindsey@ti14th.com.