The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Olympic Uneven Bars Preview

Today, let’s talk about bars, which should feature the highest profile, most exciting gold medal battle of the women’s competition at the Olympics. At least as long as everything goes to plan. It is bars after all.

Rules – Each athlete will count her 8 most difficult skills, including the dismount, for her difficulty score. Routines must also include a flight element from high bar to low bar, a same-bar release skill, the display of different grips, and a pirouetting element with at least a full turn.

TIER I

Nina Derwael (BEL) and Sunisa Lee (USA)

Derwael is the two-time defending world champion with the 2nd-highest difficulty score in the world. Lee owns the highest difficulty in the world as well as the highest score recorded on bars in 2021 with a 15.300. It should be a good one.

The 6.8 peak difficulty score for Lee is a very slight check in her column because it looks like Derwael is planning to go for at best a 6.7. Still, that’s just one tenth, and it’s going to get more complicated than that with both athletes facing some fraught composition decisions.

Lee performs that 6.8 difficulty only when she is exactly on, and if she’s not, she will adjust to her backup composition, which should put her at 6.5. It will be an interesting strategic conundrum for Lee because she’s still capable of winning Olympic silver with her backup 6.5 routine but is probably going to need to lean on the 6.8 to win gold, all things being hit.

That said, Derwael has decisions of her own to make with her potential composition. After missing on bars on the first day of the FIT Challenge, Derwael removed the new and slightly controversial Nabieva 1/2 from her routine in the event final to go down to a 6.6 difficulty. That’s a safer and probably more comfortable routine for her, but one that also has to introduce more skills and more cast handstands to get up to a 6.6 difficulty and is therefore risking a lower execution score as well.

Efficiency of composition is going to be a major factor here because even if both athletes perform their peak difficulties and Lee ends up owning a one-tenth edge, Derwael’s counter-advantage would be her more efficient routine. Lee takes 10 skills (plus 3 cast handstands and a giant swing) to get to her 6.8 difficulty score. This includes a blind change to get facing the proper direction for her piked jaeger, and a giant full to fulfill the turn requirement, neither of which count among her 8 most difficult elements. Derwael, meanwhile, takes 8 skills (plus 3 cast handstands and no giant) to get to her 6.7, with no elements besides cast handstands that don’t contribute to her difficulty score.

Because everything is a deduction and every additional element is a deduction risk, having fewer total elements is a huge deal for execution. (In addition to her difficulty, Derwael has owned the highest E score in each of the last two worlds finals, including scoring .333 higher than Lee on execution in the 2019 final). But, if Derwael goes down to the 6.6 routine she did a couple weeks ago, she mostly loses that efficiency edge, which will be at least as significant if not more significant than the actual difficulty score in deciding who comes out on top.

All of which is to say this is shaping up as an extremely close race, where slight composition adjustments will be everything.

TIER II

Fan Yilin (CHN)

The most likely spoiler to the top duo and most likely additional medalist would be 2015 and 2017 world champion Fan Yilin. Fan is currently going for a peak 6.5 difficulty score if she connects everything (she has added an inbar full to the 6.3 she performed at nationals), so that’s slightly lower than what Lee and Derwael will aim for but also right in the mix. Fan will mostly be hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2016 Olympics, where her pirouettes were hammered to such a degree in qualification that she missed the event final entirely despite entering the competition as a reigning world champion.

Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova and Anastasia Iliankova and Viktoria Listunova (RUS)

Expect difficulty scores of 6.3 from everyone in this batch of Russians except Listunova, whose addition of a Fabrichnova dismount can put her at 6.4. All four will be expected to record medal-level totals as they battle in qualification to see which two will make the bars final. And I do expect two of them to make the bars final, both of whom will rank among the top medal contenders. At every phase of Russian Cup, all four got almost exactly the same scores as each other, so it should be a fun journey. (In this context, fun is a word that means tragic.)

Listunova has the difficulty edge right now, but she does not typically end up ranked as the top Russian on bars by execution, so that difficulty alone won’t necessarily give her a lead, especially with the landing risk of that Fabrichnova compared to the comfort of the full-twisting double tuck the others perform. Urazova owns the best bars average among the Russians in 2021 and is probably the one I trust the most to hit her routine and finish her pirouettes vertically enough for a score in the high 14s. Urazova is my safest bet for the final.

Meanwhile, Melnikova and Iliankova have the potential to produce the two most impressive routines of the bunch on their day (Iliankova gets cool points for going for the biggest same-bar releases) and could easily be the two to get into the final—as long as they withstand their potential stumbling blocks. The piked Jaeger has proved harrowing for Melnikova at times this year, while Iliankova’s score is often dependent on how much she looks like a starfish during her Yezhova and how much that affects her execution. Those skills will be critical.

Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos (FRA)

De Jesus Dos Santos has increased her difficulty score to 6.3 (as of the FIT Challenge a couple weeks ago) with the addition of an all-important Nabieva. While DJDS has typically come up a bit shy of being among the best bars workers in the world (she was second alternate to the final in 2019), this added difficulty should be exactly what she needs to get into a final this time, or even into the medal mix depending on how things go. Her execution is certainly able to keep pace with the best bars workers.

Elisabeth Seitz (GER)

The veteran sage of the group, Seitz made her first world bars final back in 2010 and has remained pretty much exactly as competitive to this day as she was at that first worlds, enduring many highs and lows and being personally victimized by the women’s technical committee. Seitz won her lone world bars medal in 2018 (a bronze) and famously finished 4th in the 2016 Olympic final, just 0.033 behind Sophie Scheder. She’ll be among the select few with a difficulty total over 6.0 at the Olympics and should be considered a favorite to make her third Olympic bars final.

Simone Biles (USA)

Uneven bars is the one event on which Biles will not enter the Olympics as the gold medal favorite, but she is certainly in contention to advance to the event final, especially since the snub of Riley McCusker has established Biles as the 2nd-best bars worker on the US team, clearing a path to the final.

Biles won a silver on bars at 2018 worlds and came just a tenth short of medaling in 2019, so the precedent for her being in the medal mix is certainly there. I do, however, think her 6.2 difficulty score will prove slightly more of a hindrance in getting close to the medals this year since other contenders have emerged and/or upped their difficulty in the specific quest for a medal here. Whereas for Biles, this is the “I mean, whatever” final.

Lu Yufei (CHN)

While Fan Yilin is—by a pretty clear margin—the best bars worker on China’s Olympic squad and shouldn’t face a two-per-country threat, there are other Chinese athletes who can score well (and will need to do so if China is to stay competitive on bars in the team competition). I’d rank Lu Yufei as the best among them. We’ve seen strong bars numbers from Lu this year, including a couple 14.8s that if replicated at the Olympics would be enough to make the final. Not since 2017 have two Chinese gymnasts made the bars final, a streak that China will be looking to end.

TIER III

Rebeca Andrade (BRA)

There are several athletes who come into the Olympics with lower difficulty than the major medal contenders but who have the execution and comfort with their routines to overcome that. Chief among them should be Andrade, who most recently did a 6.1 difficulty in Doha and has been performing cleanly enough for mid-14s, which I expect to be around the cutoff for the Olympic final.

Hatakeda Hitomi (JPN)

Hatakeda has now joined the 6.3 club with the exact same routine composition as Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova. Since that routine is putting both Russians in medal contention, it can do the same for Hatakeda, a clean bars worker who now has the composition to match, even if we haven’t typically seen high bars scores from her.

Jonna Adlerteg (SWE)

Adlerteg has among the more competitive difficulty slates in the Olympic field and can go into the 6s if she puts it all together at once. She’ll be an underdog for the actual final because her execution score is typically not as high when she does her most difficult releases, but she’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

Kim Bui (GER)

Bui has long boasted an efficient and challenging bars routine with the requisite D +E flight combinations to rack up the connection bonus, though at this point I imagine she’s going to have to dismount with something more difficult than a double pike to get herself into an Olympic event final.

Sanne Wevers (NED)

I mention Wevers here just because she might do the clear-hip Nabieva 1/2. Which would be excellent.

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