The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Things Are Happening – July 3, 2021

A. China’s team

The Chinese Olympic team will be Zhang Jin, Ou Yushan, Tang Xijing, and Lu Yufei, with Guan Chenchen joining Fan Yilin in the individual positions.

This team has left me both pleased and skeptical. Which is typical. This group of four makes a lot of sense. I thought the team would be way less reasonable than this, especially following yesterday’s men’s debacle.

I do obviously have some concerns, namely that this is not the mathematically highest-scoring team China could have produced, which may end up being significant in a tight race against Russia for silver. On the other hand, this is probably the “safest” of the good-scoring teams China could have come up with (as much as that is a thing that might exist), with the most believable routine options and backups as needed. We’ve seen that theme a lot this summer. Though in this case, China did not simply go, “Byep, that’s what the all-around rankings said,” so one can hope there was at least a single mote of strategy involved somewhere.

Significantly, it was national champion Lu Yufei—not Tang Xijing—who upgraded her vault at the final test to a DTT to confirm her absolute necessity for the team as a believable competitor on all four events in the team final. Meanwhile, Zhang Jin won the all-around at both of the two final tests, hitting like the most trustworthy beam worker in all of China and showing three team-final ready events that it would be truly egregious to leave off the squad. (Now, the Chinese men did just that by leaving Zhang Boheng off the men’s team and sacrificing perhaps a full point of scoring potential in a way that Japan and Russia will very much appreciate, but that’s their problem.)

As for Ou Yushan’s selection, I basically view her has Too Big To Fail. On talent, she’s the best all-around gymnast China has, and her potential beam and floor scores, as well as her DTY from the first test, are fundamentally irresistible and essential to China’s hope of getting anywhere close to a peak score. But, Ou’s inclusion is not without terror. She’s certainly not the most consistent option, and she did not compete floor—where she should have China’s best routine—at either test. Putting Ou up is a risk, but to me an absolutely necessary one.

With the final spot, the math tells us that it should have gone to Wei Xiaoyuan. (Actually, the math tells us that Wei and Guan Chenchen both should have been on the highest-scoring team, but with Guan and Ou not doing floor today and Wei’s floor being occasionally iffy, I don’t think that was ever realistic.)

If you trust Ou Yushan, Zhang Jin, and Lu Yufei to take care of vault, floor, and beam (…) with their high scores there this year, then you’re left looking for only a bars routine, where Wei Xiaoyuan provides the highest score. That’s why Wei has a real argument for being snubbed here, and it has been quite the impressive comeback for her to be part of a highest-scoring team option after seeming totally out of the running after a weaker showing at nationals.

But I do see why China went with Tang Xijing. If we’re being honest, I don’t think there was ever going to be a team that Tang wasn’t on, and the decision probably didn’t actually come down to “Tang or Wei?” even though I think it should have.

Wei had a really strong day in the final test to finish tied for second in the all-around, but overall this year her story has been a good bars routine, with a major consistency liability on the other pieces. Tang is far more likely to provide multiple hit routine possibilities in the team final and, perhaps most critically, has a beam you wouldn’t mind putting up. In the previous paragraph I said, “if you trust Ou Yushan, Zhang Jin, and Lu Yufei to take take of…beam” but also…GAH. Putting Wei with that group just screams Beam Meltdown. I don’t know if Tang’s going to hit beam at the Olympics, but her average there makes a better case.

Still, at the Olympics, the Chinese team may find itself ruing its bars score. This selection has maximized the team’s scoring potential on vault and floor, which I think was a big focus and a smart move (and Lu Yufei’s vault upgrade takes some pressure off of Tang Xijing to bring back the DTY). Expect a Chinese team at this Olympics that is much more competitive on the leg events. But, China is leaving a LOT of good bars workers off the main team, and if that score falters, there may be some fingers pointed at the absence of Wei Xiaoyuan.

Meanwhile, Guan Chenchen got the +1 in a fairly unsurprising development. She has the routine content to be Olympic champion on beam but probably not the other events to get herself onto the actual team.

B. Belgium’s team

Overshadowed by the more dramatic Chinese selection, Belgium also announced its women’s team for the Olympics as Nina Derwael, Maellyse Brassart, Jutta Verkest, and Lisa Vaelen.

Derwael and Brassart were definite locks, but the other two spots could have gone many different directions. Well, some different directions. Alternates Fien Enghels and Noemie Luoun as well as Margaux Daveloose were all very realistic possibilities. I imagine Verkest’s excellent showing in the Euros all-around final helped her case quite significantly, and both Vaelen and Verkest went over 13 on floor at the FIT Challenge just last weekend. It was likely that FIT Challenge showing that got them onto the team over Fien Enghels, whom I would have expected to see here.

Now we’re just waiting on the Italian women and the Ukrainian men.

C. Skinner goes pro

I mean…not surprising. MyKayla Skinner confirmed that she’s going pro following her naming to the Olympic team, will retire after Tokyo, and will not be returning to Utah for her final year of eligibility in the 2022 season.

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