The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Why Romania Got It Wrong

Today, Romania kind of, sort of, probably, maybe, a little announced that Catalina Ponor will compete at the Olympics this year (because Romania) with Larisa Iordache as her second-in-command court jester, and to that I have to say….hrm. Incorrect.

It’s a difficult choice with arguments for both, but Larisa Iordache would have been the more prudent selection. Consider this the counterargument in favor of Iordache.

This quad is already lost for Romania. Nothing that happens at the Olympics will salvage it because the team didn’t qualify, but some manner of medal would at least symbolically indicate that there’s still life in the Romanian program. The only consideration for this spot should be who is more likely to be somewhere near medal form at the Olympics. At the Olympics. Not right now. At the Olympics.

That person is Iordache. Let’s break it down.

The first problem for Romania is that none of the performances at last week’s nationals were good enough to merit a medal if repeated at the Olympics. (Well actually, I take that back. Some of those beams from Ponor and Iordache would have medaled at worlds last year because that final was a tire fire, so you never know.)

At this point, to get a medal, the Romanian representative would have to rely on mistakes from others or improve markedly before August. That’s the first check in Iordache’s column. She is the more likely to improve between now and August 7th since she was competing at maybe 11% of capability at nationals, and while Ponor still looked a little hospitally herself, she was at a solid 45-46%.

I’m normally all for rewarding the one who brings it on the day and earns it in competition, but if neither looks like a sure medal bet, go with the one who just might look better given a little more time to come back from injury.

Now, since the Olympics are just a month away, we can’t expect a miracle for Iordache. She wouldn’t have time to return to her normal, legitimately-top-three-in-the-world level, but she would have some chance to get a little cleaner and a little closer and perhaps steel herself to chuck a random DTY.

Based on nationals, however, Romania has elected to bet on Ponor’s ability to medal on beam or floor over Iordache’s ability to improve. (Why Ponor is even doing vault at this point, I have no idea…)

On beam at nationals, both Ponor and Iordache showed a good one for 15.1s and a bad one for 14.3-14.4s. Ponor looked the more prepared and refined of the two, which is her primary argument, but that’s exactly why they should have picked Iordache. An under-trained Iordache’s peak beam score matched Ponor’s peak beam score (all of these scores were a kitten hiccuping rainbows, but we can compare them with each other), and Iordache would have that extra month to get somewhat less under-trained. Maybe add a skill back to make her difficulty more competitive. I’m not saying she necessarily will, but once again at least you’re allowing for the possibility rather than shutting it down.

The two are not all that different on beam even now, which means Romania is going with Ponor over Iordache based on…her ability to medal on floor? It could happen, of course. It did in 2012 when it seemed unlikely going in, but Ponor is not a medal favorite on floor. That would be Biles, Raisman, and Steingruber. Then there’s Murakami and Miyakawa. Shang. Frags or maybe Downie. Probably a Russian (I’m not putting Afan here because she has her own problems to deal with). It’s a lot of people. Ponor would be right in the mix with that group but would not be expected to medal without some help.

We can probably say a similar thing for Iordache in the all-around. Under normal circumstances, most would be predicting Iordache to get an AA medal along with Biles and Other American. She’s not there yet and won’t be by the Olympics. It’s too much to ask, but with the race for bronze so wide open, Iordache could be somewhere vaguely in the fight given a month more of training. At least qualifying in the top six would seem possible (it took only a 56.5 at worlds last year top six, though it will take more this time), which is critical in terms of exposure.

Exposure is key for Romania right now, and those top six AA qualifiers are the gymnasts the world feed follows. That’s a big part of this as well. Iordache does the all-around. The all-around is more important than event finals, so if you have someone who might finish sixth in the AA, that’s a bigger deal than someone who would do the same on floor.

Am I calling a medal for Iordache? No. But am I calling one for Ponor either? Not really. So why not bet on the one with the bigger possible prize, and the one with more upside? The one who could get a little better. The best gymnast in your country. You have nothing to lose at this point, Romania. Go big or go home!

And if the ship goes down, then the ship goes down, but at least it went down taking a risk with your best gymnast.

Plus, let’s be honest, that ship already went down.

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