The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Olympic Balance Beam Preview

For my next trick, I shall attempt a preview of the Olympic beam competition. Because I am a fool, who does fool things.

Rules – Each athlete will count her 8 most difficult skills, including the dismount, of which at least three must be acrobatic elements and three must be dance elements. Routines must also include a connection of two dance elements, a turn, an acrobatic element series, and acrobatic elements both forward (or sideward) and backward.

TIER I

Simone Biles (USA)

Biles has been world champion on beam on three occasions, most recently in 2019, and enters the Olympics as the favorite for this title, even if her favorite status is not nearly as clear cut on beam as it is elsewhere. In the all-around and on vault and floor—as long as Biles does anything even remotely close to what she is capable of—she will win gold. On beam, however, Biles could hit a strong routine in the event final and still not win, mostly depending on which athletes from China make it into the final and how they do. Here, Biles will not necessarily have the most difficulty in the competition, and she does not own the highest score in the world, so the outcome is less securely in her hands.

I do still consider Biles the favorite, however, largely because her difficulty is the most predictable and reliable among the select handful who have potential difficulty in the high 6s (i.e., she’s always going to get credit for her dismount and the combination bonus there). Save for a dance combo or two, her beam difficulty is not too subject to hesitations or how strictly the judging panel has been told to evaluate combination speed. For Biles, she has to make a big error not to score well on beam. A bunch of slight hesitations or nervous moments isn’t going to be too disastrous.

The issue of whether she will perform her eponymous beam dismount is sort of moot when it comes to the beam final because the additional one tenth makes it not worth performing—but even if she did, the landing tends to be comfortable enough that it shouldn’t materially change her chances.

Ou Yushan or Guan Chenchen or Lu Yufei or Zhang Jin or Tang Xijing (CHN)

Brace yourselves because the fight to see which two Chinese athletes make it into the beam final will be an existential crisis biopic, with five very realistic contenders for the two spots.

If everyone shows up in qualification and hits everything they’re capable of, the qualifiers should be Ou Yushan and Guan Chenchen, who own the two highest beam scores in the world this year with Ou at 15.633 and Guan at 15.466. The difficulty from both is astronomical, and Guan boasts the highest D score of the quint on any apparatus when she was credited with 7.0 at Chinese Nationals in 2020. If we assume they hit to the best of their ability, both have an excellent shot at being Olympic beam champion and would be clear medal favorites.

Complications: There are five potential Olympic beam medalists on this one team, and Ou and Guan are also probably the two least consistent beamers on the Chinese squad. And even if they stay on beam, there’s no guarantee they’ll be the top two scorers. Lu Yufei has also broken 15 this year, reaching 15.1 at the first trial, so even a pause in the middle of some 0.2 connection can change who ends up making the final.

Zhang Jin and Tang Xijing, meanwhile, may be considered the underdogs to make this final for China because their scoring potential is a bit lower (though still at medal level), but in a helpful contradiction, I would also classify them the two most consistent beamers on the team. Neither Zhang nor Tang has fallen or scored below 14 on any beam routine in 2021. Their event final hopes will probably be at the mercy of how their teammates perform, but if qualification turns out to be nervy or fallsy, don’t be surprised if one or both of them makes it into the final. In fact, as long as Fan Yilin doesn’t pull out a secret beam (but also please do), Zhang is the only Chinese beam worker at the Olympics who has made a world/Olympic beam final before.

Sunisa Lee (USA)

Lee is definitely capable of winning an Olympic medal on beam. She may need a slight dash of help in the quest because if everyone does perfectly I’d rank Biles, China Qualifier 1, and China Qualifier 2 as the three most likely medalists (that is, at least before knowing who China’s qualifiers are), but it’s beam, and Lee should be right up there.

Her last three beam scores have been 14.700, 14.733, and 14.733, which speaks to a growing consistency of medal-level performances. There aren’t a lot of people who can peak at that level, let alone do it regularly, and if she does it again at the Olympics, she’ll also keep herself clear of any 2-per-country threat. Lee has a reasonable edge on Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum, but both Chiles and McCallum are still capable of going over 14, so it wouldn’t even necessarily take a fall or a beam grab to open the door to one of them to make the final instead.

TIER II

Flavia Saraiva (BRA)

If there’s any justice. Saraiva is one of the strongest beam workers in the world, with difficulty, amplitude, and leap execution to spare. In 2016, she qualified to the beam final in 3rd place behind only Biles and Laurie Hernandez—and ahead of eventual champion Sanne Wevers—while in 2019, she qualified to the final in 4th place…but there always seems to be an issue when it comes to finals, leaving Saraiva without any world or Olympic medals to her name thus far. On ability, she is a potential medalist here.

Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos (FRA)

De Jesus Dos Santos is the current European champion on beam, just outpacing the defending Olympic champion Sanne Wevers in the final after an extremely solid on-the-beam routine punctuated by her upgraded full-twisting-double tuck dismount. DJDS finished 5th on beam in 2019 (of those who finished ahead of her, only Biles returns), and if she’s able to land this new dismount with enough control to make it worth it, that could be the boost she needs to get into the medal department.

Larisa Iordache (ROU)

Iordache has been making beam finals since her debut senior season in 2012, when she won European silver and went on to make the Olympic final. This year, she should be considered a solid contender to make it back to the final again after 9 years because she has the difficulty, and we know she can get those 14s. That’s exactly what she did to win the European beam title in the fall of 2020. The 13.466 she achieved with a miss at the 2021 European Championship may have been fantastical, but it does speak to the general scoring potential she might have when she’s on.

Ellie Black (CAN)

If there’s one thing we know: never overlook Ellie Black. Black was a world beam finalist in 2017 and 2018 and recorded a 14 on beam at 2019 worlds in the all-around final. She has been scoring 14s throughout 2021 at the Canadian virtual events and owns the best beam average this year of any athlete outside the US and China. She’s the only one I trust.

Sanne Wevers (NED)

The defending Olympic champion must be given defending Olympic champion credit. We know that when Wevers throws out her best difficulty and all the turns are flowing, she can score with anyone in the world, and probably with the best execution score. But for the last five years, we’ve seen that routine from Wevers less often. Not never, though. She pulled out a good one at Europeans this year to take silver, but it has been a while since Wevers got 14s on beam, which is really what it should take to be a medal contender this year. She’s going to need to pull out the whole notebook in Tokyo.

Viktoria Listunova or Vladislava Urazova or Elena Gerasimova (RUS)

I know, but still. The Russian beam record this year has been (at its most charitable)…checkered. Basically, everyone is falling on every routine. But, if Listunova or Urazova hit, their scoring potential is excellent and going comfortably into the 14s is a very doable prospect. If they can survive their mental heritage, they’ll be right up there among the finalists and the top contenders, so they must be considered realistic challengers.

As for Gerasimova (it looks like she has been moved to a +1 individual position if Professional Leotard Spying is any indication), she…might be slightly more likely to hit? But I also rate her scoring potential as a little lower than Listunova’s or Urazova’s, so she would be at the mercy of their scores. As for Melnikova, I don’t dare even include her name as I would settle for one single beam hit for any score.

TIER III

Nina Derwael (BEL)

While Derwael gets most of her attention for bars, she’s also one of the most competitive beam athletes in the world, one who has been reliable for mid and high 13s for several years. Not to mention her 4th-place finish on the event at 2018 worlds. If everyone is awesome on beam in qualification, I see Derwael getting pinched out of the final because her scoring peak is a bit lower, but not everyone is going to be awesome. Some of the major contenders are going to fall and miss out, and Derwael is among the most likely gymnasts to be able to take advantage.

Ashikawa Urara (JPN)

Despite earning the apparatus world cup spot for beam, Ashikawa has been floating under the radar of contenders, mostly because we just don’t see her at high-profile international meets. What she has proven over the last couple years is that she’s probably the most consistent beamer in the entire field and her record is covered in high 13s and the occasional 14. Before a miss at the All-Japan Event Championships, she was on a two-year competition hit streak, which is truly insane. Don’t forget about Ashikawa.

Marine Boyer (FRA)

The 4th-place finisher from the 2016 Olympics certainly has huge scoring potential and must be considered a final contender, though her track record on beam in 2021 has bumped her from tier II to tier III for me. Her beam average this year has been just 12.7, and her last two beam scores were both in the 11s. She’s going to have to pull it back together and figure out that hitting thing in Tokyo.

Pauline Schäfer (GER)

The 2017 world champion should always be considered a threat because she is obviously strong on this apparatus and will be competitive as long as she gets through her signature preposterousness. Her scores, however, have tended to get stuck in the lower 13s zone in recent years, which is not going to be a competitive number at this Olympics.

Sarah Voss (GER)

Like Schäfer, Voss is on Germany’s team largely to try to save the day on beam, which she can do. The year started roughly for Voss on beam, but she pulled it together during the German selection process to show the kind of routines that got her a spot in the event final in 2019, where she ultimately finished 7th.

Jessica Gadirova or Jennifer Gadirova or Alice Kinsella (GBR)

For all the other things we can say about the British team selection, this squad has some real ability on beam. Kinsella is not that far removed from her European championship on the event and both Gadirovas impress here and there with high 13s when it happens to be their day (encouragingly, both Gadirovas hit the 13 mark for both beam routines at the final trial event). The talent is there if the field cooperates.

Rebeca Andrade (BRA)

I like Andrade’s chances on floor and bars better than on beam, so I wouldn’t bet on this as her event final, but she will occasionally pop up with a high 13 like she did a Pan Ams. If she does that again in Tokyo, you never know…

Eythora Thorsdottir (NED)

I have no actual expectation that Thorsdottir is going to make the beam final at the Olympics, but it’s just so delightful.

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