The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Olympic Beam Finals: A History, Part 3 (2000-2016)

I was reminded via DMs that I never did the third part. So…here’s the third part? (Part 1, Part 2)

Sydney 2000

1.Liu XuanCHN9.825
2.Ekaterina LobaznyukRUS9.787
3.Elena ProdunovaRUS9.775
4.Claudia PresacanROU9.750
5.Tatiana YaroshUKR9.712
6.Maria OlaruROU9.700
7.Ling JieCHN9.675
8.Elise RayUSA9.387

Quite unusually, the beam final in Sydney was a chill and undramatic affair compared to the magma tsunami of controversies that marred most of the women’s event. The vault height embarrassment, Andreea Raducan’s cold medicine, and the Chinese age falsification were problems for another day. The beam final was just some gymnastics. No one even fell!

The two greatest individual stars of Sydney—Andreea Raducan and Svetlana Khorkina—both barely missed out on places in the final with 9.6s in qualification, and the absence of world silver medalist Raducan (as well as one of the strongest beamers of all time, Kui Yuanyuan, who was injured in qualification) opened the door for some unexpected medalists in what was largely a wide-open final.

The final became even more wide open when world champion and gold medal favorite, Ling Jie, did not receive her intended 10.0 start value. Ling had received a 10.0 start value in qualification, yet her exactly identical routine in the event final received just 9.90 (so perhaps the beam final was dramatic after all). The start value issue, coupled with a leg-up wobble on her beautiful back handspring + Onodi combination, spoiled what otherwise should have been the gold-winning routine.

Rather, it was her teammate Liu Xuan who took advantage to swoop in and snatch the Olympic title—despite originally qualifying in just 7th place—with her sublime Yang Bo, layout to two feet, and stuck double tuck. The only noteworthy error in the routine, a balance check on a stag ring, was not enough to derail her title hopes since all the competitors suffered something of that nature in their routines. Five out of the six judges agreed that Liu was the rightful champion, while the dissenting judge from Kazakhstan had Liu in 4th place behind Ekaterina Lobaznyuk, Elena Produnova, and Tatiana Yarosh—the three gymnasts from former Soviet republics, he says implying nothing at all.

Lobaznyuk did take her opportunity in the beam final to recover from the abject nightmare that was the team competition, in which she attempted a last-minute backup combination on beam and fell as part of a team-wide Russian meltdown that gave gold to the Romanians. In this instance, Lobaznyuk’s smooth and error-free routine, marred only by the casual day at Bondi Beach she took before her Arabian, was enough for silver.

The race for bronze proved close, with Produnova just barely edging out Claudia Presacan, probably exclusively on the strength of her dismount. Produnova stuck a remarkable double front to punctuate her routine, while Presacan stepped back on her simpler double back tuck despite working more solidly through the middle of her routine.

Tatiana Yarosh made an impressive save early in her routine, showing only a minimal adjustment when her entire foot slipped off the beam on a straddle jump, but it was enough of an error to keep her score down from the medal spots. Likewise Maria Olaru performed a routine free from truly major errors, one that might have contended for a medal in a more error-strewn final, but in this case she had enough form breaks to take herself down the standings.

Elise Ray ended up as the lone American to reach any event final in the Sydney women’s competition, only advancing to the final as the #9 qualifier after Yang Yun was eliminated by the 2-per-country rule. For Ray, however, a check on a punch front resulted in a missed combination, a 9.8 start value, and an 8th-place finish.

Athens 2004

1.Catalina PonorROU9.787
2.Carly PattersonUSA9.775
3.Alexandra EremiaROU9.700
4.Anna PavlovaRUS9.587
5.Courtney KupetsUSA9.375
6.Zhang NanCHN9.237
7. Li YaCHN9.050
8.Allana SlaterAUS8.750

The foundational story of the 2004 beam final was that of absences. A number of the very best beam workers of the quadrennium missed out on the final, including world champion Fan Ye and world bronze medalist Liudmila Ezhova who both had shaky performances in qualification to doom their chances. Meanwhile, pre-meet gold contender Oana Ban finished 5th in qualification yet fell victim to the 2-per-country rule, placing behind her teammates Catalina Ponor and Alexandra Eremia. Ban might have been subbed into the beam final nonetheless (a Romanian team special), though an injury suffered later in the team competition eliminated the question and ended her Olympics prematurely.

Despite absences seeming to spell an up-for-grabs medal stand, the 2004 beam event turned out to be one of the least competitive beam finals ever in terms of the quest for medal positions. The top three clearly and obviously separated themselves from the remainder of the field.

That’s not to say the final was free of strife, however, with the race for gold between Catalina Ponor and Carly Patterson coming down to only the very slimmest of margins. Five of the six judges gave the duo identical scores, and only the judge from Argentina deemed Ponor the stronger performer, which cinched the medal order.

Ponor exemplified domination of the beam with an aggressive and speedy set free from wobbles, culminating in a stuck full-twisting double salto of…indistinct shape but nonetheless nailed. Patterson, too, was secure in her performance, showing the riskier individual elements—the standing Arabian and her eponymous double Arabian dismount—but she did not stick the Patterson dismount in the event final the way she did en route to the Olympic all-around title, taking a small hop that may just have spelled the difference between gold and silver.

Also causing strife was the lack of medal for Anna Pavlova, whose elegant routine full of dramatic and original combinations established her as a crowd favorite, but a large wobble on her full-twisting back handspring meant it was truly impossible to award her the bronze medal over the more secure and also rather impeccable routine from Romania’s Alexandra Eremia.

The remaining four finalists finished well back. Both Chinese athletes had the talent to win medals in this final, but falls doomed both Li Ya and Zhang Nan, with Li coming up short on a punch front and Zhang falling on her challenging round-off layout stepout mount (and then going on to perform a nearly spotless routine after that, because of course). A fall at a compositionally critical moment took Allana Slater far out of contention, while Courtney Kupets was doomed by a parade of wobbles and checks. Errors like these kept most of the competitors in this—one of the rougher Olympic beam finals of all time—from having any shot at hardware.

Beijing 2008

1.Shawn JohnsonUSA16.225
2.Nastia LiukinUSA16.025
3.Cheng FeiCHN15.950
4.Anna PavlovaRUS15.900
5.Gabriela DragoiROU15.625
6.Li ShanshanCHN15.300
7.Ksenia AfanasyevaRUS14.825
8.Koko TsurumiJPN14.450

Beijing ushered in one of the most drastic changes ever made to Olympic gymnastics—the introduction of open-ended scoring, with an uncapped difficulty score added to a maximum-10 execution score to arrive at the final total. Everyone was and continues to be fine with that, and it causes no controversy at all.

The mutation in routine composition was dramatic. Athletes were now required to count the 10 most difficult elements in each routine, meaning even the hyper-difficult, medal-winning performances from Ponor and Patterson in the 2004 beam final would have been rendered non-competitive at the 2008 Olympics because of a lack of difficult leaps and turns to pad out the repertoire of 10 counting elements.

The change in system allowed the very top athletes to rack up huge difficulty scores and remain competitive even with mistakes in their routines, a scenario that ultimately exacerbated the distance between the haves and the have-nots. This was illuminated in beam qualification, where the top 11 athletes all came from just three countries—the United States, China, and Russia. This meant that 5 athletes (Alicia Sacramone, Ksenia Semyonova, Deng Linlin, Bridget Sloan, and Yang Yilin) all had to be skipped over via the 2-per-country rule to get to Gabriela Dragoi in 12th place and Koko Tsurumi in 13th place to round out the collection of 8 gymnasts needed for the beam final.

Sacramone finished 4th in qualification, just .025 behind finalists Liukin and Johnson and very nearly scored a major upset in keeping the eventual Olympic beam champion Johnson out of the final (Johnson would have lost the tiebreak with Liukin because of her lower execution score), but Sacramone was not awarded her intended difficulty score in qualification due to slow connections, including out of her front pike mount—the element that would prove her undoing in the team final a few days later. The 2008 beam final very nearly had a quite different complexion.

The race for the second Russian spot in the final proved even closer, however, with Ksenia Afanasyeva tying her Ksenia in crime Ksenia Semyonova on both difficulty and execution scores and getting into the final only on a third tiebreak.

Yet even with the changes in the code of points and greater forgiveness for mistakes, it was still not possible to win an Olympic event title with a fall, as gold favorite and top qualifier Li Shanshan learned when she veered wildly off line and fell on a full-twisting swingdown, ultimately finishing in 6th place.

Really the only gymnast who could hope to match Li on difficulty was Johnson, who suffered no such error, performing as securely as she always did to earn her highest beam score of the entire Olympics in the event final. Johnson was never going to have the very best execution score on beam, the result of deductions for back-leg height and chest position, but her performance in the beam final reflected improvements in those regards to earn that higher score and the gold medal, becoming the second Olympic beam champion from the United States.

Johnson ultimately recorded the second-best execution score of the final—a major accomplishment for her in and of itself—with only her teammate and all-around champion Nastia Liukin receiving a higher execution mark. Liukin’s routine was pristine, with exceptional positions and an absence of wobbles, but she did not have the difficulty to match Johnson and would have needed Johnson to make some small errors. That didn’t happen, and Johnson took the gold by two tenths overall.

The great heartbreak of the 2008 beam final may belong to Anna Pavlova, who finished fourth for the second consecutive Olympics, this time coming even closer to medal glory with just half a tenth separating her from bronze medalist Cheng Fei. While Pavlova didn’t really have a convincing argument for deserving a medal in 2004 because of a clear error in her routine, the same was not true in 2008, where a large break from Cheng on her full-twisting back tuck left lingering questions as to why her execution score still ended up higher than Pavlova’s.

The judges themselves were split on which athlete deserved the bronze medal, with three judges (Greece, South Korea, and Luxembourg) giving the higher score to Pavlova, and the other three judges (Germany, Great Britain, and Israel) giving it to Cheng.

The remaining athletes didn’t have much of a case to challenge Cheng and Pavlova as part of the bronze drama. Gabriela Dragoi’s great success was making it to the final at all—and she truly pulled out the best routine she could have hoped for on the day—but her difficulty score of 6.5 was three tenths lower than Pavlova and Cheng to begin with, keeping her in a hole compared to the medal contenders.

Meanwhile, Ksenia Afanasyeva’s story was one of broken connections. She didn’t make any individually huge mistakes, but hesitations left her with a difficulty score 8 tenths lower than she received in qualification, the exact same amount as the penalty for falling. Meanwhile Koko Tsurumi—the first Olympic beam finalist from Japan since Keiko Ikeda’s back-to-back ventures in ’60 and ’64—fell on a side somi after a valiant interpretive leg dance to try to stay on, taking her out of contention.

London 2012

1.Deng LinlinCHN15.600
2.Sui LuCHN15.500
3.Aly RaismanUSA15.066
4.Catalina PonorROU15.066
5.Ksenia AfanasyevaRUS14.583
6.Larisa IordacheROU14.200
7.Gabrielle DouglasUSA13.633
8.Viktoria KomovaRUS13.166

Following 2008, a rule adjustment allowed gymnasts to count their 8 most difficult elements instead of 10, which had some effect on routine composition in freeing the gymnasts from having to pad out their routines by shoving in so many mid-difficultly elements, but the overall themes from 2008 largely continued in 2012. The usual suspects remained the usual suspects, with the top 14 gymnasts in qualification all coming from China, Russia, the United States, and Romania.

Qualification may have been somewhat predictable in its national demographics, but that doesn’t mean it was free from drama. Echoing the Sacramone situation of 2008, American Kyla Ross was eliminated from the final by the 2-per-country rule after finishing just .025 behind her teammate and the eventual bronze medalist Aly Raisman.

World beam silver medalist Yao Jinnan had a nightmare in qualification to miss the finals entirely, and world beam bronze medalist Jordyn Wieber introduced a controversial combination into her routine in 2012—a front walkover to full-twisting back tuck to balk walkover—which was (predictably) not given full credit by the judging panel and sent Wieber to 4th place among the Americans.

The most significant qualification development, however, took place among the Romanians. In a surprise, Diana Bulimar qualified ahead of her more heralded, medal contending teammate Larisa Iordache. Yet before the final, Bulimar was pulled from the competition and replaced by Iordache because Iordache was accurately perceived to have the more likely chance at a medal. In the final itself, however, Iordache had a gigantic break on her full-twisting back tuck that caused her to dance around the edge of the beam for a short century trying to save it, taking her out of medal contention.

Ultimately, the 2012 beam final featured a dominant display by the Chinese, with Deng Linlin and Sui Lu comfortably separating themselves from the rest of the competitors with the most secure routines in the final—as well as the most difficult. Even though they separated themselves from the competition, separating Deng and Sui’s routines from one another proved a more difficult task. The gold decision came down solely to which athlete got credit for which attempted combinations, and ultimately it was Deng—who had missed the final four years previously because of 2-per-country—receiving one tenth more in difficulty than Sui, accounting for the entirety of the margin of victory.

The Deng victory was impressive but also provided the catalyst for a judging adjustment in subsequent years. Deng’s routine largely featured her doing an impressive element, then walking backwards to do another, then walking backwards to do another, lacking the flow and continuous choreographic movement of beam of old. In reaction to the pervasiveness of routines like Deng’s over the course of the 2009-2012 quadrennium, 2013 brought with it a stricter evaluation of pauses, rhythm, and choreographic composition of routines.

Several athletes in the final might have challenged the Chinese gymnasts for gold/silver had things gone differently, but #3 qualifier and all-around champion Gabby Douglas showed her first true break of the Olympics in the beam final with a dramatic mistake, missing her foot on a switch 1/2 and hobbling back until she found herself hanging upside down under the beam. Meanwhile, #2 qualifier and all-around silver medalist Viktoria Komova was tense from the very start and ended up with a two-fall performance to send her to last place.

Their mistakes opened up a final spot on the medal stand for a number of possible athletes, and the race for that bronze gave the 2012 final its true defining moment. The 2004 champion Catalina Ponor had a dramatic error of her own (a theme of this final), suffering a large break on a full-twisting back handspring that forced her to model walk halfway down the beam to save a fall. But save a fall she did, ultimately settling her with a total of 15.066 and a difficulty score of 6.6, which had her in third place with one competitor remaining—Aly Raisman.

Raisman suffered some balance errors in her own set, as well as a pair of borderline connection hesitations (neither of which she received credit for). Because of those issues, her score came in at 14.966 with a difficulty score of 6.2, putting her in 4th place and giving Ponor the bronze. Raisman, however, submitted an inquiry on the difficulty score of her routine, and after review, the panel determined that one of those borderline connections should have received credit, bumping her difficulty up to 6.3 and her total score up to 15.066—tied with Ponor.

Raisman was no stranger to finishing in a tie in 2012. Several days before, she had fallen victim to a much-maligned tiebreaking rule in the all-around final in which the low score of the four routines was dropped to determine which athlete would place higher (essentially meaning that the winner of the tiebreak was the one with the single weakest routine, because of making sense). That tiebreak put Raisman into 4th place in the all-around final, behind Aliya Mustafina with whom she had tied.

In event finals, however, a more reasonable tiebreak was used, with the decision going to the gymnast with the stronger execution score. Neither Raisman nor Ponor was ever exactly known for her pristine execution on beam, but in this case it was Raisman’s lack of large error that allowed her to triumph on execution despite Ponor’s higher difficulty score.

Meanwhile, Ksenia Afanasyeva defied the odds to appear in her second straight Olympic beam final in 2012, meaning if I were writing this about the 1950s, I would assume she was a magnificent beam specialist based only on that information. But for any future historians looking back on this moment, Afanasyeva was not a beam specialist. Her best event was floor, and how she made two Olympic beam finals remains her greatest unsolved magic trick.

Rio de Janeiro 2016

1.Sanne WeversNED15.466
2.Laurie HernandezUSA15.333
3.Simone BilesUSA14.733
4.Marine BoyerFRA14.600
5.Flavia SaraivaBRA14.533
6.Fan YilinCHN14.500
7.Catalina PonorROU14.000
8.Isabela OnyshkoCAN13.400

In the Olympics of Simone Biles, she had been more or less preordained to win five gold medals because of no chill anywhere ever, but this expectation largely ignored the fact that beam is beam.

Biles qualified to the beam final in the top position and would have won the gold medal in this final with one of her strongest routines, but a short landing on a punch front forced her to slip backwards and grab the beam, a major deduction that took her out of realistic contention for gold. It was Biles’ difficulty—as well as a shaky final overall from the other competitors—that allowed her to hang on for bronze even with a major mistake.

It’s worth noting, however, that a Biles victory would not have been a guarantee even without that one error. She had a couple other hesitations and broken connections that may have put her below the routine from Sanne Wevers even if Biles hadn’t grabbed the beam. It would have been close.

As it was, turn queen Sanne Wevers used her supreme ease with combinations of spinning elements to snatch the highest difficulty score of the final, and without any significant errors to speak of in her routine, she soared right to the top spot. In Rio, Wevers became not only the first Dutch woman ever to reach an Olympic beam final (let alone win it) but also proved that there was room to be successful with contrasting styles and a diversity of composition approaches in 2010s gymnastics. Wevers won while eschewing the high-value acrobatic elements that most gymnasts relied on to build up their difficulty scores. The one who defeated the ever-dominant Americans didn’t do it by beating them at their own game but by developing her own game and then being the best at it.

The only gymnast who came close to challenging Wevers was the other American in the final, Laurie Hernandez, who performed her own extremely solid and beautifully extended routine to earn the highest execution score of the day. That feat got her close to Wevers, but with Wevers pulling out the most difficult option from her Mary Poppins bag of possible beam compositions in the final, Hernandez’s set 6.4 difficulty was not quite enough to take the top spot despite her performing as well as she could have hoped in the final.

Wevers and Hernandez were the clear class of the 2016 beam final, though there were others (in addition to Biles) who might have caught them on a different day. Missing the final entirely were Gabby Douglas and defending Olympic bronze medalist Aly Raisman, who were subject to 2-per-country after tying for 7th in qualification, yet ranking as just the 3rd and 4th Americans. China’s Shang Chunsong was also a likely medal pick heading in but finished just 17th in qualification in controversial fashion for a routine without major issues, while 2015 world bronze medalist Pauline Schaefer of Germany had a major error on her eponymous side somi with 1/2 twist in qualification to just barely miss out.

Within the final itself, legitimate medal contenders Fan Yilin and Flavia Saraiva were both done in by the same skill—their best skill—a layout to two feet. Saraiva competed last in the final and had the opportunity to pass Biles for bronze with a hit routine, but the huge break on her layout took away that possibility.

The 2004 Olympic champion Catalina Ponor reached her third Olympic beam final in Rio, becoming just the second athlete in history to accomplish that feat, joining the great Vera Caslavska, who competed in the first three Olympic beam event finals ever contested—1960, 1964, and 1968. In this case, a critical broken connection on an Onodi and a couple larger checks kept Ponor from contending the way she had in her previous finals.

Like Wevers, the participation of Isabela Onyshko of Canada and Marine Boyer of France in this final marked the first time athletes from their respective countries ever reached an Olympic beam final, freeing this final from the nationality monotony of the previous two Olympics. While a fall on a back tuck full kept Onyshko from contention, Boyer came very close to winning a medal, hitting fairly well in the final with a few checks, but lacking the huge difficulty score or precision to pass Biles.

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