The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

But Why?: Reflections on the US Olympic Team

We officially have the US women’s Olympic squad. The four-woman team will be Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum, and the two individual competitors are Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner.

Which makes total sense and is logically sound at every turn.

Just kidding, it’s a clown fire, obviously.

So let’s get into it. We always knew it was going to be extremely close for the fourth spot on this team, and it ended up being even closer than that. But if we dive into the actual numbers from Olympic Trials, this is what we see.

Based on each athlete’s best score from trials on each event, we end up with these 3-count team scores

Biles, Lee, Chiles, Skinner: 177.662
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Wong: 177.396
Biles, Lee, Chiles, McCallum: 177.395
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Eaker: 177.329
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Jones: 177.296
Biles, Lee, Chiles, DiCello: 177.262

And based on each athlete’s average score from the two days of trials, we end up with these 3-count team scores

Biles, Lee, Chiles, Skinner: 175.080
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Wong: 174.981
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Eaker: 174.831
Biles, Lee, Chiles, McCallum: 174.730
Biles, Lee, Chiles, Jones: 174.681
Biles, Lee, Chiles, DiCello: 174.647

In both methods, the team with MyKayla Skinner comes out on top, followed by the team with Leanne Wong. The team with McCallum is in third and fourth place respectively.

What we saw at trials was a team of Biles, Lee, and Chiles that didn’t really need any help, but the routine that provided the biggest boost to the score was Skinner’s vault, thanks to her difficulty. That’s why I would have selected Skinner for for the fourth spot. She earned it with her results at trials more than the other contenders.

Now, it is very close and there are absolutely valid reasons to want someone like McCallum (though this argument also extends to Wong and DiCello) on that team instead of Skinner despite Skinner making up the highest-scoring group. Most significantly, McCallum provides more realistic routines on all four pieces. She would be a better Swiss army knife to slot into any and every role should someone get super injured, or someone get “I’m kind of injured but you don’t want to remove me from the team because I can still do bars,” or if you simply want to rest someone in the team final because it’s a long event and you’re going to win anyway.

There’s a reasonable and viable strategy behind selecting a non-Skinner, and it would have been more reassuring had Tom Forster cited something in that vicinity as a reason for selecting McCallum. Because it would have meant there was…any kind of strategy or idea here, or any reason for a person to be in this job instead of just a piece of paper with the all-around standings on it.

Instead, we got this cute little gem:

But isn’t the process…selecting an Olympic team? So wouldn’t “the integrity of the process” involve selecting the highest-scoring Olympic team based on the athletes’ results?

Tom says he didn’t want to change the integrity of the process, but he himself did change the integrity of the process by actively revoking the highest-scoring team and instead selecting a different individual, one who ranked as the third- or fourth-best option for that spot based on the actual results of trials.

He repeatedly said he wanted “the athletes to select themselves,” but that’s what Skinner did by being part of the highest-scoring team. McCallum didn’t select herself because she wasn’t part of the highest-scoring team. Forster and the committee are the ones who intervened to select McCallum in contradiction to what the results of trials dictated—exactly what they claim to want to avoid.

It’s like he’s stuck in a perpetual state of 1996 and is unwilling to recognize that individual all-around scores have no bearing on the team final score because of 3-up, 3-count and therefore should not be considered if the purported aim is to select the best team, or select the athletes who earned it with their results on the day, or to remove politics from the selection. He actively did not select the athlete who earned it with her scores and actively injected politics into the selection.

But that’s not even the weirdest part. I can get on board with the McCallum team. The reasoning behind it is pretty suspect, but the team itself makes plenty of sense, and I fully support the ability of a team selector to reject the highest-scoring team from a single trial if there’s a good reason to do so. But you need to cite that good reason, not a bad one.

The flat-out stupidest aspect of selection is the placement of Skinner in a +1 position along with Carey solely because she finished 5th all-around, even though that’s nothing, especially for an individual spot.

Skinner and Carey are two gymnasts with the exact same strengths and event final prospects who will cancel each other out at the Olympics, making this a supreme act of self-sabotage on the part of the selectors. The US already had two vault medal contenders locked onto the team in Biles and Carey, as well as two floor medal contenders in Biles and almost anyone else on the team depending on the day. The US in no way needed to add another potential medalist on those events because they were already highly likely to have two coming out of the previously established five team members. That’s just a waste.

Can Skinner come in and make the vault final and win a vault medal at the Olympics? Absolutely. At this point, she looks like a favorite to do so, but that doesn’t improve the USA’s medal haul because she’s just knocking Carey—whose trials Amanar showed that while she might lose to Skinner, she’s still able to vault among the best in the world—out of that spot.

The US is strong enough that the goal should be to put two potential medalists into every single final, and when already presented with Biles, Lee, Chiles, and Carey, the one remaining hole is a second possible medalist on bars to go along with Lee. That’s why Riley McCusker was such an obvious selection for the additional +1. Her bars added something that the other five did not already have, and selecting her despite a fall on the second day would have been an excellent example of a team director ignoring a single result (McCusker went 5 for 6 on bars this year) for a good reason: the selection of McCusker would have given the US more medal prospects.

I also do not subscribe to the notion that the +1 needed to function as a built-in all-around alternate. Only three people need to go in the team final on each event, and you have a team of four. Grace McCallum is already your built-in alternate. And if you’re really that worried about having a fourth routine in qualification should someone go down at the last minute, Jade Carey is right there. The other +1 absolutely did not need the all-around too.

For all the focus this year on how Jade Carey might lose the US an extra Olympic spot based on her team decision, Tom Forster effectively did just that himself by selecting Skinner for the +1 and placing two athletes in the individual positions who will function as a single gymnast, vying against each other for event final spots that only one of them can take. For all intents and medal-contending purposes, the US women now have five Olympians instead of six.

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