The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Things Are Happening – February 22, 2019

A. Li Li Leung

The big news of the week was the appointment (finally) of Li Li Leung as the new president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, a shocking upset of the supposed front-runner for the position, a cheesecloth full of spiders. Leung was herself an elite gymnast, competed at Michigan, and most recently worked for the NBA in a vice president position.

My baseline approach here is that we don’t really know anything yet. She seems…fine? She doesn’t have any immediate social media red flags, so that beats Bono, and she doesn’t seem like if someone tried to make a robot inspired by your mom’s book group and then spilled grape soda all over it right before the unveiling, so that beats Perry. Our standards are not that high, so she’s already the leader.

That means, at least, that we’ve reached the “let’s wait and see how she does” phase, which we never got to with Bono because she was too horrible to begin with. That said, “clean slate, fresh start, let’s support her” is farther than I’m willing to go. Surprise, surprise. The initial concerns raised by Manly and co. about her marketing background, while taken to the rhetorical extreme, are valid. We’ve been burned too many times, and anyone who takes control of this garbage barge must be subject to more criticism and vigilance than simply “new person with a clean slate” might otherwise allow.

That’s because, if we’re being honest, “continued bad” is the most likely outcome here. The entire USOC and NGB system is probably too fundamentally toxic for any simple USAG CEO hire to do anything to change, even if that person seems perfectly fine and professional as Leung does. That’s cynical, yes, but a year from now, I’m probably writing this post with the A. heading “Everything’s still terrible.”

So to me, trying to put on a slightly more charitable hat, I’ll go with measured skepticism. Wariness until proven otherwise. Leung might forge a positive direction, but as the representative of USAG, she has so much work to do to reverse our base assumption that everything USAG touches turns to garbage. She gets a chance to do that, but she has to do it. Then actual support can come.

For instance, it’s not enough simply to say that she’s going to work with the USOC to try to resolve decertification. First, she must prove that USAG doesn’t deserve decertification, that the priorities have changed from an organization that views itself as purely an Olympian marketing vehicle to one that understands it is first and foremost a youth sports non-profit, where the gym with a few L8s is clearer on the radar than which magazine wants to do an interview with Simone. Because we haven’t met that organization yet.

The most damning message of the Ropes and Gray report was not that USAG had rotten people in charge (which it did) but that it is fundamentally not set up to do its most important job—regulation and oversight of gymnastics in the United States and enforcement of rules—regardless of who might be in charge. The USAG we know has viewed what was happening at local gyms as specifically not its responsibility, at best a side burden to deal with if there’s time (which there never was) rather than THE WHOLE JOB. And that doesn’t just apply to issues that reach the level of being a SafeSport violation. It’s so much broader than that. It’s the whole athlete experience.

Leung, therefore, must make a point to represent not just a change in personnel but a change in the actual institutional purview of the organization. The answer to the question “why does USAG exist and what is it here for?” must be new—because the past answer was wildly unsatisfactory. Leung must show that she understands there’s more to USAG than sponsors and Olympians, that she’s working to fix the mistakes not just of the Penny years but of the Perry years (year) (some of a year) as well, that business is now being done in a professional manner without the swirl of seat-of-the-pants, reactionary decision-making or unwritten standards, that the culture of brand protection and secrecy has been eradicated, that child-safety experience is viewed as a more compelling qualification than “I know her from golf.” Prove to us that decertification wouldn’t be a good thing, then you can talk about reversing it.

Leung has also pledged to resolve the lawsuits quickly and equitably (a key word there, probably means something very different to USAG than to survivors), which is essential if USAG is ever going to get itself on the path of being a sport-unifying organization and not continue deserving decertification. To do that “moving forward” thing people keep talking about. USAG must do more work in bringing Nassar survivors into the decision-making process—both for the image of reconciliation and for the perspective they will bring on organizational priorities—but that’s OBVIOUSLY NEVER going to happen in any meaningful way while the lawsuits are still outstanding. Neither party would accept that. All of this “survivors want to be involved in decisions”/”but they didn’t contact us”/”YOU didn’t contact US”/”we DID try to reach out to survivors”/”no you didn’t”/”I’ve never heard from USAG”/”yes you did” back-and-forth that we get EVERY DAMN TIME is just theater until the lawsuits are resolved. And that theater needs to be closed.

If Leung can accomplish those initial stated tasks, then we’re onto something. Until then, her grade must be a calm incomplete.

B. Melbourne World Cup

Qualification has concluded in Melbourne, the second stop on the eight-event tour to determine the Olympic qualifiers from the apparatus world cups, and it was…a little weird.

I say that because a sparse women’s field meant that nearly all of the competitors in qualification advanced to finals, so little has been determined yet. Many qualification points will also go un-awarded because there were fewer than 12 people participating on events, and I am wildly disappointed in anyone who didn’t photobomb bars qualification and get 7 Olympic points.

As always, check out the points system and pre-Melbourne standings here. I’ll update the standings at the conclusion of finals.

One finals-miss of note is Vanessa Ferrari, who did not advance to the beam final in her return after a hand down in the middle of her routine (I think, it was tough to tell on the bootleg stream) and a stumble-sit on her double pike dismount. Ferrari did, however, qualify in first place on floor and is the frontrunner to take 30 points there.

On beam, anyone who hit made the final, as did many people who missed—including top qualifier Zhao Shiting who fell on her layout and still finished in first. Chuso also advanced to the beam final because of staying on the apparatus. How her execution score was one of the highest in the field even with all the falls, I do not understand, but as has been previously established, she gets a pass on “your execution score needs to be a 2” complaints because Chuso.

On the men’s side, we had a bit of a scare on high bar as Epke fell on a Kovacs in qualification, but because of reasons like Epke and difficulty, he was still able to advance to the final, only just. Phew. In other Dutch news, please note that Bram Verhofstad got Olympic qualification points on high bar and not floor because the world is upside down. Fortunately, Casimir Schmidt did advance to the floor final. If you’re wondering when this site is going to turn into a full-blown Dutch MAG fanpage…it’s soon?

In general, the men’s events are showing far stronger fields at this qualifier, largely because the Chinese team is playing WE WANT ALL THE SPOTS and sending dozens of its epic event specialists, who never make teams but can score 18s on their apparatuses. Each country, however, can earn only one spot through this individual apparatus qualification method, so for the Chinese men, that’s going to get real.

Finals will begin tonight at 2am ET/11pm PT for those of us in the US, and can be streamed on the Olympic Channel. Gymnastics slumber party?

C. National Team Camp

The US women are currently attending a national team camp to be used for selection of the Jesolo team (we already had a nominative roster that seemed realistic, but we’ll see how much it changes) and the Gymnix team.

The gymnasts attending the camp are…damn everybody. Even Trinity Thomas, who is right in the middle of NCAA season, will be there for some reason that I don’t super understand since she’s not going to be aiming for those March assignments. Why have her go to this camp at all? If you want to see her current level, just turn on the SEC Network. Also of note, Victoria Nguyen—now of Everest—will be in attendance, so your life is better.

So many gymnasts are on the roster for this camp because those athletes who have already been assigned to world cups still have to attend camp to prove their competition readiness (why Martha, what big eyes you have). Plus, those teams for Jesolo and Gymnix are typically larger, so there will be many athletes aiming for those spots.

Teams for Jesolo and Gymnix will be announced Saturday night.

D. AAI Award semifinalists

Your yearly popularity-contest controversy has arrived! Yippee hooray! AAI has announced the initial slate of nominees for the AAI Award (a.k.a., Best Senior Award), and as always, it’s really weird. You have some obvious suspects, some “oh good, I’m glad that smaller school senior is getting recognition” suspects, and some preposterous snubs.

Kentucky’s like, “Cool, we don’t have any amazing seniors on our team or anything…”  And the “I don’t know her”-ing of Abby Milliet and Kirah Koshinski is kind of bizarre.

This will narrowed down to a group of finalists, and then the winner is announced around nationals.

E. Gymcastic

Lots to do, lots to do! This week, we have thoughts on the hiring of Li Li Leung, a recap of Winter Cup including the best splats and some strange national team decisions, and the latest NCAA developments. Plus, chats with Christy Linder and Deanna Hong about being a gymnastics photographer/videographer.

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