The China Five


And the award for least controversial selection process of 2016 goes to China.

…Right? Or…wrong?

As the Chinese Championships draw to a close, it would seem to be way too clear who the five members of the Olympic team should be (hard as Wang Yan may try to bequeath her spot to someone…anyone else), a devastating blow to those of us whose second-favorite sport is playing around with team permutations.

But then China comes through in the clutch! Yesss!

[I’m amending this post to reflect the chatter coming through after nationals that China’s nominative Rio group is Shang, Fan, Mao, Wang, and LIU TINGTING, with Tan Jiaxin as an alternate.]

In my best impression of Tim and Elfi standing in front of a piece of black construction paper and flinging people’s magnet-names anywhere, here’s how I saw the team setting up after nationals.

Because China’s top gymnasts are all (essentially) specialists, the team is somewhat handcuffed as to which gymnasts can be chosen. Shang Chunsong is just SO much better than everyone else and an absolute lock, and Fan Yilin continues to be the best bars worker and a top-3 beam worker, two scores that are far too valuable to leave behind. It’s a testament to Fan’s lock status that she can fall on bars in TF and fall on beam in EF and still remain largely a sure thing because…who is taking that spot from her? Her bars routine can score a legitimate half-point better than the second-best Chinese bars worker, and one fall on beam is basically peak consistency in this group.

Shang Shang Shang
Fan Fan

Already, even with just two people set, the selection gets extremely tight because neither Shang nor Fan can vault in TF, meaning that all three other team members must have a usable DTY or more. Anyone else without a reliable 14.8 vault is already eliminated from the process. This removes early-quad gem Huang Huidan (“She looks like JULLLLIA, who is ELEEEEVVVVVVEN”) from consideration in spite of her returning with a pretty TF-worthy bars routine. Because of Huang’s lack of vault, she can’t be on the same team as both Shang and Fan, and since she’s the least necessary of the three, she’s out.

Floor is also quite prohibitive. In the TF at the national championship, Mao Yi, Wang Yan, and Shang scored nearly a full point higher than any other floorsy, and right now they look like the three options capable of breaking 14 at the Olympics, a necessary benchmark in the quest to beat a hit meet from Russia. (Hit meet…Russia…oh, how we joke.)

Mao has done herself a gigantic favor at these championships. I didn’t think she was that much of a sure thing before this competition, but her meet-finishing second place in the floor EF emphasizes how much the team absolutely needs her on two events. Poor little Wang Yan, however, has dropped in the team chart with her performances, culminating in a disastrous EF showing on the fourth-consecutive day of competition (what is this schedule?) with 6 million falls on floor and 18 billion falls on beam.

I still say a decision can’t be made solely on that performance, with Wang clearly not at 100%. Her vault should be the best in the country, and the team needs her too much on vault and floor to leave her home, especially given the DTY crashes from the other vaulters and the much smaller Ds from the other floor choices. If Wang is a risk, she’s a risk the team must take. The team selectors seem to agree with me. Before this event, however, she would have seemed an absolute lock to me. That’s no longer the case.

Still, if we add Wang and Mao to the group, that’s four of the five spots taken care of, leaving some glaring holes that must be filled by the fifth and final member.

Wang Shang Shang Shang
Mao Fan Fan Wang

We tend to take Chinese bars for granted, just sort of assuming that you can pick up any five Chinese gymnasts and there will be at least a few 6.8 D scores clanking around in there somewhere. But, neither Mao nor Wang are usable on bars, so if they’re on the team, China desperately needs another high-scoring bars worker. That’s not to say they’re disasters. They can get through (and Mao can actually be quite lovely on bars), but their routines aren’t nearly CHINA enough to come close to filling that spot in TF. The final team member must have TF bars and a good DTY. Beam is be theoretically less urgent than the other two events because Wang could go on beam in TF, but also….GAHHHHHHHH.

It’s not ideal, but on a five-member team, you’re going to be making compromises somewhere, but it seems the team coaches are not willing to compromise with Wang on beam. More than anything, Liu Tingting is on the team as a third, less-terrifying beamer who can let Wang stay far, far, far away from the apparatus.

To me, the final team spot seemed tailor-made for vault and bars specialist Tan Jiaxin, whose DTY scored the same as Wang’s Kas full at worlds last year and who has competed bars in TF for the last two years. Plus, she’s probably the best backup floor option should one of the necessary gymnasts fall to pieces or continue being Wang Yan.

Wang Shang Shang Shang
Mao Fan Fan Wang
Tan Tan Wang Mao

Not so much.

Those of us who want things to be actually interesting and not super boring and predictable were intrigued by comparing the performances of Liu Tingting and Tan Jiaxin on the first day, and now we can count the team coaches among that group.

On day 1, Tan was sort of…eh. She showed a DTY that came nowhere close to rumored-Amanar standard (not just anyone can get an Amanar rumor), and she scored lower than Liu on bars. Liu, by contrast, showed a DTY, along with a beam routine that would be a welcome alternative in TF. Her second-place beam finish in EF reinforced that she is a best-case-scenario beamer for China.

That first day gave us a tantalizing glimpse of this potential team, the one China is going with for now.

Wang Shang Shang Shang
Mao Fan Fan Wang
Liu Liu Liu Mao

I was ALL ABOUT this team after day 1, but subsequent days gave reason for pause. Liu later crashed her DTY, and Tan outscored Liu by a notable margin in the bars EF. If this Liu Team were the final five, China would be relying on Liu’s DTY to be good enough and using her bars routine in TF instead of Tan’s higher D.

But, as the founding principle of this blog acknowledges, fear of a balance beam situation is a powerful force, both for good and for evil.

Putting Liu on the team basically says that China is willing to bleed some scoring potential on bars in the hope that they’re gaining a full point on beam by avoiding Wang’s (basically implied) fall in the team final. We’ll see…

If you’re that scared of Wang’s beam, this makes a lot of sense. But if you’re that scared of Wang’s beam…

Wang is in the five for now, but if she continues being such a fall risk, we might wonder whether she’s jeopardizing her seeming-lock spot. Her vault has a two-tenth difficulty edge over the DTYs, though that is often lost in execution, and struggles on her tucked double double have made floor less best-in-the-country than it should be. So…is this team really worth considering as well?

Mao Shang Shang Shang
Tan Fan Fan Mao
Liu Tan Liu Tan

This would not be China’s highest potential score, losing the theoretical benefit of Wang’s vault  and using a significantly lower-ceiling floor routine from Tan, but I’m throwing it out there.

There’s also the possibility that leaving Tan out of the group for now is a motivator/mind-game type scenario of “You get that Amanar, or you’re not going to Rio.”

Because of the necessity of this core group of specialists, there are few other viable team compositions worth exploring. Chen Siyi has a worthwhile-ish DTY but could not fulfill the needs on other events. And sure, you could find a way to shoehorn a glorious beacon like Zhu Xiaofang into the five, as long as you don’t mind the team being worse. The remaining alternates named to the nominative team are Luo Huan, who has a wonderful beam but has been quite terrifying in competition, and Liu Jinru, who is a vault and floor backup should anything happen to the necessary gymnasts.

The Shang, Fan, Wang, Mao, and Tan collective was the presumptive team before nationals, but it seems the lure of the shiny new toy in Liu, and the fear of Wang’s beam, has changed some minds. It’s an exciting move but one that will generate a lot of second-guessing, especially if China isn’t as competitive on vault and bars as necessary without Tan in the group. Though if Liu hits at a day 1 level at the Olympics, we’ll be hailing her as the greatest thing since sliced Kui Yuanyuan.

The Shang, Fan, Wang, Mao, and Liu team would produce a slightly different dilemma in qualification than a presumed team featuring Tan. With Tan, China would have been able to put up only two AAers in qualification, Shang and either Wang or Mao. This nominative team, however, would ask Shang and Liu to go in qualification, with the option of either Wang or Mao as a third AAer. Interesting.

Wang was China’s second AAer last year, and is supposed to take that spot, but Mao is starting to make a very compelling, less fall-y case for herself. If Wang is really in the doghouse, the team could keep her off bars and beam in qualification and give Mao a shot as an AAer. She did place second in the AA final.

Wang is probably the higher-potential choice (than both Liu and Mao), but falls falls falls. Is Mao becoming the safest choice of the trio? That’s certainly what it looked like in this competition. This is what makes the qualification start-list reveal pretty much the most exciting part of competitions these days.