The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Would Simone 2013 Beat Gabby 2012?

You know that thing where it’s been a couple days since you posted, and you don’t know what to write about because there’s a pandemic, but then something falls right into your face?


My beloved number babies at 538 posted a piece today on how the Olympic timeline has been unkind to Simone because of GYMNAST AGE. This piece generally would have benefited from taking an era-specific look at the age of successful Olympic gymnasts rather than an overall view because the trend of the last couple decades has been one of increasing age of medal-winning gymnasts, which provides compelling counter-evidence to the conventional wisdom of “age + gymnastics = bad” on which this argument is based.

The average age of the WAG medalists at the 2016 Olympics was 20 (up two years compared to 2004 when the average medalist age was 18), and Simone was the second youngest of the bunch in Rio. That she would stick around for another Olympics, at which she’d then be one of the elder stateswomen, isn’t an odd or remarkable development.

On the issue of Simone’s timeline, it’s hardly a strange or uncommon revelation that turning senior the year after the Olympics makes for a rough schedule. Yes. Rebecca Bross on line 3. It hasn’t really mattered in Simone’s case because she’s Simone, has done an accomplishment or two in her time, and isn’t really in need of “what if” thinking the way an athlete like Bross might be. But she nonetheless had the least charitable of birth years.

Any contention, however, that Simone’s career accomplishments might actually have changed given a different birth year is more controversial. Specifically, this article contains the offhand assertion that Simone likely would have won the 2012 Olympic all-around title.

Now, as Aimee Boorman has said on 1834 occasions, Simone was not ready yet in 2012 even if she had been eligible for those Olympics, and the results bear that claim out. In 2012, Simone was a super-talented, but still scruffy, emerging ball of rubber who lost to Lexie Priessman and Maddie Desch at junior nationals and who would not have been a major contender for the Olympic team that year regardless of age division. Her scores were not nearly high enough.

In fact, Simone’s existence serves as the prime argument against pushing too hard too early because she’s the best gymnast of all time but was never at any point the best junior in the nation. Meanwhile, all these junior stars are entirely dust by the time they turn senior and never make a team, and no one has decided to learn any lessons from that.

Anyway, the counterargument here is that because Simone was not age-eligible for those Olympics, her training path was never designed for her to have reached her potential in 2012. So of course she wasn’t at Olympic level in 2012. Why would she be? If she had been eligible, then plan would have been different, and she may have been a completely different athlete in the summer of 2012. Because it didn’t happen that way, we’ll never know.

What we do know is that Actual Simone in 2012 was not at the level required to make an Olympic team, let alone win the Olympic all-around.

The complete statement in the piece is “Biles debuted as a senior the following March and won her first all-around gold at the World Championships later that year, so she likely would have done the same at the 2012 Olympics if her age-16 season had happened to fall just a year earlier.”

So, it doesn’t look like we’re claiming that Actual Simone in 2012 would have won the Olympic AA (she obviously wouldn’t have and that’s a preposterous thing to say) but rather that Simone at her age-16 quality (so, Simone 2013) would have won the Olympic all-around title, which is a more interesting contention to dig into.

It’s still a bold claim. So bold that it rankled the gymnastics community and even made Will Graves try to tweet about the code of points, which was like

But was it wrong?

Let’s dive in. Could Simone 2013 have actually defeated Gabby 2012?

To begin with, Simone’s victorious score in the 2013 final was two points lower than Gabby’s winning score in 2012…

…sadly, that information is entirely meaningless because of changes in routine evaluation between 2012 and 2013.

As Will points out, D-score changes between 2012 and 2013 were not too dramatic. Simone’s 2013 D-score was 0.8 lower than Gabby’s 2012 D-score, and while some of that can be attributed to the lowering of the Amanar by 0.2 and changes in connection value on beam that led to lower difficulty scores, it doesn’t account for all of it. Gabby is quite likely still coming out on top in difficulty compared to first-year-senior Simone.

Even if you plug Gabby’s 2012 routines into the somewhat harsher 2013 code, she still comes out ahead of Simone on difficulty by a single tenth.

The more significant change between 2012 and 2013 came not in D score but in E score. The average four-event execution score in the 2012 Olympic all-around final was a whopping 1.540 higher than it was in the all-around final at world championships the following year. The execution scores at the 2012 Olympics were comically high, and the traditional post-Olympic crackdown (in more ways than one…) rendered the 2013 numbers quite a bit lower for all athletes. In 2012, it was still possible for the best athletes to get a 9 in execution, even on non-vault events. By 2013, 8.6 had become an amazing E score.

Now, you can’t necessary attribute this entire 1.540 difference to changes in execution judging. We’d expect the overall quality of routines in an Olympic year to be higher than the quality of routines in the year after the Olympics, when many of the best athletes of the era are taking naps or dancing with various stars or learning about hair extensions. Some of this difference is simply that…the athletes in 2013 weren’t as good as a group. But it’s indisputable that the execution evaluation in 2013 was also much harsher than in 2012.

Aliya Mustafina is a very helpful example in this regard since she competed the all-around throughout both the 2012 and 2013 competitions and found her average all-around execution total in 2013 about 1.2 lower than it was in 2012, with her “hit day” execution score around 0.9 or 1.0 lower. Not quite the whole 1.5, but certainly a large and significant difference.

What I’m saying is, it’s possible to get Simone there. Barely. And only by taking the high end of that 1.5 execution difference and making a Simone-favored assumption or two about difficulty and routine composition. Then, you could account for that two-point difference between Gabby 2012 and Simone 2013.

Which is why I’d agree with the assessment that it’s a reach. You have to make the most charitable assumptions in favor of Simone to get there, and therefore can’t make the offhand claim that Simone would have won the London all-around, even at her 2013 level.

But at the same time, it’s not a totally preposterous notion. Simone 2013 against Gabby 2012 would have been close. It would have been an any-given-meet prospect depending on whether Gabby showed up with her best gymnastics or not. In the 2012 all-around final, she showed up with her best gymnastics.

What has been helpful in going back and watching these Simone routines from 2013 is the reinforcement of just how much she improved from 2013 to 2015/2016. In 2013, we see a gymnast who is still pretty scrappy in the form department, with more leg separations on bars, not hitting most of her leap positions. It’s someone who would not have defeated a number of other top gymnasts from other eras, probably including Gabby Douglas. This isn’t the “winning both the D score and E score competitions” Simone that we would come to know shortly.

Because Simone’s results have been constant for the last 7ish years, we casually tend to assume that the gymnast herself has been a constant as well. She hasn’t.

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