So this is happening now. Officially.
The IOC has finally deigned to deliver its spineless, toothless, lots-of-other-things-less message on Russia that if you conduct an expansive, multi-sport, state-sponsored program to cheat, subvert doping regulations, and actively undermine the ideals of the Olympics…it will work out mostly fine for you in the end. Go have fun in Rio, you crazy kids.
In its infinite wisdom, the IOC put its foot down to say that the buck stops…26 other places that aren’t here BEST FRIENDS AGAIN?!?!?!?!
At least we can keep ourselves warm at night by snuggling up with the silver lining to all of this, that we get to see the Russian gymnasts at the Olympics. Phew. Mustafina makes it all better.
The depressing part of this whole ordeal for the Russian gymnasts is how much they have been let down by their country. We’ll never actually know for sure, but the gymnasts—female gymnasts especially—probably are innocents in all of this. Still, every one of their accomplishments in Rio (let’s hope there are some, he says nervously eyeing a German hospital) will be tainted by the bad name their sports officials and athlete peers have given Russian sport. Sadly, that’s the kind of taint that can’t be switched out through a hole in the wall. You think the headline would be Spiridonova Wins Bars Gold? No. That Cheating Russian Cheater Wins Bars Gold.
But enough of that nonsense. (Actually, the real tragedy here is that I’ve been forced to talk about things that aren’t gymnastics for multiple paragraphs. I’m the victim.) To the sports part!
Russia has been looking the normal amount of in-several-pieces-on-the-floor heading into these Olympics, woefully absent the talents of Komova and Afanasyeva that could have rendered this a very special team. Still, a group able to wheel this many jewel-encrusted, medal-worthy routines out there should be able—and be expected—to medal barring a case of 2015-itis. Much will depend on which Mustafina shows up, but come on. It’s Mustafina. She’ll pull it together.
Angelina Melnikova – 2016 Russian champion and (unofficial) European AA champion, young enough to still have hopes and dreams, will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting
Aliya Mustafina – 4 Olympic medals, 11 World medals, defending Olympic bars champion, hero, role model, regal bird of prey
Maria Paseka – 2015 vault champion, world record for Amanar improvement in a single quad, bee farm
Daria Spiridonova – 2015 bars champion, bars, bars, bars, bars, bars, please don’t make me do the others, bars, bars, bars, bars
Seda Tutkhalyan – 2014 Youth Olympics champion, is going to have to do beam, light the candles, we still believe in you
Projected Olympic Lineups
Vault – (Tutkhalyan) Melnikova, Mustafina, Paseka
Bars – (Paseka) Melnikova, Mustafina, Spiridonova
Beam – (Spiridonova), Tutkhalyan, Melnikova, Mustafina
Floor – (Mop with a bucket for a head), Mustafina, Tutkhalyan, Melnikova
I guess the expectation should be that Spiridonova will have to dawdle her way through a floor routine in qualification since Paseka didn’t do floor at Russian Cup. As for bars, Paseka has been much stronger there this quad, which is why I have her in the qualification spot, but I’d love to see Tutkhalyan get a chance at the AA.
The presumed top all-arounders will be Melnikova and Mustafina, but part of me would live for the oft-dismissed and slighted Seda going full Raisman on one of them in qualification to get a spot in the final. That actually may be the best argument for why Tutkhalyan won’t do bars in qualification. If Valentina, Flotsam, and Jetsam plan on Melnikova and Mustafina in the AA, they may not want to give Tutkhalyan a chance to snatch one of their spots.
The team final lineups are very straightforward. (Too straightforward, to the point where any further injury would be devastating.) Russia really doesn’t have a choice in the matter, other than possibly swapping Tutkhalyan in on vault for one of the other DTYs if hers looks better in qualification. Usually, the Mustafina, Melnikova, and Tutkhalyan vaults are all at a very similar level.
Russia’s performances on vault and bars in the team final should be very competitive. Given hits, they would keep Russia right up with China and any other possible surprise contenders in the race for Best Non-US Team. That DTY, DTY, Amanar trio will serve Russia well, and while I do think Russia gets held up with those DTY scores sometimes (compare to Great Britain’s superior vaults at Euros), I don’t see that changing at the Olympics. On bars, Spiridonova and Mustafina are both medal contenders who should go well into the 15s, and Melnikova will be less than a half point behind them for what should be a top-2 total, top-3 at worst.
If it were all about vault and bars, Russia would have a great argument for silver and we wouldn’t be entertaining all these other GB-themed possibilities about which other countries could sneak into the medals. But sadly, beam and floor are both things, meaning that instead of being a favorite for silver, Russia is fighting for its medal livelihood.
The issue on beam is one of reliability much more than ability. Theoretically, a lineup of Tutkhalyan, Melnikova, and Mustafina would be among the best in the competition, but also…Russia. I know, right? It’s a really compelling argument.
Russia’s beam is not a guaranteed disaster by any means. In her limited senior career, Melnikova has looked relatively solid, and while Mustafina’s yearly trajectory is always a Rorschach test, we all learned long ago not to bet against her pulling it together for the big moment. But then there’s Seda, who in the last 12 months is a combined 1-for-6 on beam at Worlds and Euros. So that’s a worry. If Russia hits all three beams in the team final, it will be a Gymnastics Christmas Miracle.
Russia would have much more luxury to absorb some problems on beam—even last year, three beam falls put them only 0.4 behind 3rd-place GB—if floor weren’t such a conundrum. The degree to which we’ll be missing Afan during these Olympics will be extreme. The Russian routines we saw at Euros were just squeaking into the 14s, which will put them at a disadvantage to a country like Great Britain.
I’m very interested to see what these floor D scores end up being because Melnikova and Mustafina are living almost entirely at the mercy of turn credit. Because of turns, they boast potential D scores that are surprisingly fine, but be sure pull out your snootiest opera glasses for those routines because we’re all going to have a lot to say about which turns should get credit. “HEEL DROP” is the new “OUT OF BOUNDS.”
Melnikova, for example, appears to be attempting a 6.4 D on floor if she gets all her turns and combinations, but there’s no way. If she’s having a bad turn day, or if the judges have received instructions to get spiky about crediting those turns, she could be down as low as 5.7 in a snap, making it very difficult to get out of the low 14s. It’s such a risky game, but Russia has little choice but to play it. Mustafina did manage to add a full-in to her routine at Russian Cup, so it’s not 100% turn-based anymore, though she did also look like she needed an IV of meldonium immediately afterward.
As for Seda, she’s less dependent on turns, but she can get quite scraggly in the execution department and usually ends up hanging around the high 13s.
Russia probably has enough scores in reserve to be able to withstand a single issue like Mustafina dragging herself through floor, or Tutkhalyan falling on beam, but if those problems start to add up, they don’t have the margin over the rest of the field to remain comfortable.
If we work under the assumption that Melnikova and Mustafina will be the Russian AAers, they should/could (respectively) be in reasonable contention for a medal. Melnikova really ought to be getting a 58 for a hit meet, perhaps even a high 58, and that’s about what I expect the bronze medal requirement to be since there aren’t really any guaranteed 59-60 gymnasts in the field who aren’t American.
Melnikova is among those gymnasts who should score 14 on every event and can verge on 15 everywhere except floor, which few of the challengers can claim. I do believe that the fight for bronze is wide open with approximately 683 possible contenders, but if we’re honing that field, Shang and Melnikova (with perhaps some never-gonna-happen Steingruber wishes in there) are the most likely candidates.
And then there’s Mustafina. Very little we have seen so far this year would say, “She’s an Olympic all-around medalist!!!!!” or even “She’s a live person!!!!” but that’s entirely meaningless when it comes to Mustafina. In terms of ability and potential score, she is the most talented non-American in the competition, and a best-case-scenario meet for her would not only be worthy of bronze but quite possibly silver. Now, I don’t think she’s at that level, particularly because of having to wind herself up just to get through three floor passes these days, but I’m not ready to dismiss her from the medal race yet. Mustafina.
Vault – Because of her Amanar and Cheng combo, I’ve been naming Paseka among the likely vault medalists heading into the Olympics. If she hits both of those vaults, she will get a medal, the only concern being that her Cheng at Russian Cup looked distinctly Nabieva in all categories. Should that continue, Paseka will have to withstand some unexpected challengers, but if not, she should be on cruise control for a medal once again.
Tutkhalyan also performs two vaults, a DTY and a Lopez, though she is not particularly likely to make it back to the final.
Bars – Russia should manage two bars finalists in Spiridonova and Mustafina, as long as everything goes to plan and we pretend that Mustafina’s Russian Cup bars performance never happened. Spiridonova has that critical 6.7 difficulty to put herself among the most likely gold-medal challengers, and if she does her usual routine, I do like her for a medal at the very least. Perhaps the gold. The only problem I’m running into is if Fan, Downie, Spiridonova, and Kocian all do their thing, who is the odd woman out? FOUR-WAY TIE AGAIN. (Don’t kid about that…)
As for Mustafina, the 6.5 routine she performed at Euros probably doesn’t have the difficulty to put her in that first tier of gold-medal contenders right now, but she is the leader of the second tier. I’d rate her as a likely finalist, and her track record of bars execution scores does put her in a position to make up the difficulty difference without much too trouble.
Beam – Stay tuned to see which 8 different acro series Mustafina attempts to get credit for at the Olympics. The legend of Aliya v. The Acro Series is one of the longest-running and most compelling rivalries in all of gymnastics, but as long as she gets something out there, she is more than in the mix on an event that, right now, is basically just Biles and WHATEVER. Two Russians in the final? Sounds good to me. Random medal for Mustafina? Why not. It’s what usually happens. Mustafina has a gold and bronze already this quad on beam, so she just needs a silver to complete the set.
Aside from getting credit for an acro series, Mustafina’s current beam routine is actually relatively low-risk compared to those doing back fulls or the Wevers “ahhh, please don’t screw this up for us”-style Spinderella routines.
Floor – Russia has legitimate medal contenders on the other three events, but floor is where things fall off. Without Afanasyeva, it’s unlikely that Russia will make much of a mark in an event final. I’d probably bet on Melnikova to be Russia’s highest floor score, but there are a number of mid-14s standing in front of her.