The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Why Didn’t Ashikawa Urara Make Japan’s Worlds Team?

This week’s big news in the Actual Sport of Gymnastics department: Defending world beam champion and Olympic beam finalist Ashikawa Urara has been left off Japan’s team slated to compete in Liverpool this October. Instead, the team will be made up of five newcomers to world competition in Miyata Shoko, Kasahara Arisa, Yamada Chiharu, Sakaguchi Ayaka, and Fukusawa Kokoro. 

This led the esteemed members of the Conclave of the Blue Bird to proffer the following query:

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So here’s the why: Japan uses a deeply specific system in which selection is taken out of the hands of selectors and is based exclusively on all-around ranking and scores at domestic competitions over a series of months.

First, the top 3 gymnasts in the all-around following three days of competition—two days of All-Japan Championships in April and one day of NHK Trophy in May—automatically earn their spots on the worlds team. Those gymnasts were Miyata Shoko, Kasahara Arisa, and Yamada Chiharu. 

The athletes who finished behind those three, in spots 4 through 10 in the rankings, were the only ones eligible for the 4th spot on the team, with selection based not on all-around ranking but on whoever added the most to a 3-count team score when joining Miyata, Kasahara, and Yamada. For this spot, selection waited until after last weekend’s All-Japan Event Championships so that these prospective specialists had another chance to improve their averages (only their best 2 scores on each apparatus from across the selection competitions counted).

Ultimately, that 4th spot on the team went to Sakaguchi Ayaka, whose vault, beam, and floor scores all improved the team score for a total gain of 1.6835 points, about three tenths more than what would have been contributed by the closest age-eligible contender.   

Kasahara Arisa13.516513.71613.616512.8495
Miyata Shoko14.28313.049513.366513.283
Yamada Chiharu14.016513.76612.73313.0995
Sakaguchi Ayaka14.18312.649513.316513.283
42.482540.531540.299539.6655162.979

For the 5th and final spot on the team, the same two-score average system was used to see who added the most to the team score, but in this case there were no limits on all-around finish or meet participation.

Because Ashikawa Urara finished 14th in the all-around after the NHK Trophy—thanks largely to a bars miss but also a 12 on vault—she was not eligible for the 4th spot and had to rely on the 5th spot as her lone chance to get on the worlds team. But she was not the only one.

Ashikawa performed well on beam back at April’s All-Japan Championship with a 14.200 and 14.133 on beam—so she already had two strong scores to lean on—but she struggled more recently. She scored in the low 13s at NHK and continued that at the event championship, going 13.033 in qualification and 13.233 in the final. That meant she was not able to improve her contribution to the team score.

Kasahara Arisa13.516513.71613.616512.8495
Miyata Shoko14.28313.049513.366513.283
Yamada Chiharu14.016513.76612.73313.0995
Sakaguchi Ayaka14.18312.649513.316513.283
Ashikawa Urara12.699512.18314.166512.800
42.482540.531541.149539.6655163.829

Meanwhile, Fukusawa Kokoro, who had finished 7th all-around after the AA competitions, busted out on bars at the event championships, going 14.033 in qualification and 14.233 in the final, both improving on her previous season high of 14.000.

Because the four already selected team members were a little weaker on bars than on beam in their counting performances, Fukusawa’s new scores helped her contribute a few tenths more to the team total than Ashikawa, which earned her the spot.

Kasahara Arisa13.516513.71613.616512.8495
Miyata Shoko14.28313.049513.366513.283
Yamada Chiharu14.016513.76612.73313.0995
Sakaguchi Ayaka14.18312.649513.316513.283
Fukusawa Kokoro13.616514.116512.26612.65
42.482541.598540.299539.6655164.046

So, long story long, that’s the process behind the controversy as to why Ashikawa was left off the worlds team. They had a system and they went with it. 

But…is it a good one? And does it make sense?

There are several laudable aspects of Japan’s current selection process: They have adjusted from the much-maligned 2019 selection process that left Murakami off the worlds team and are now at least *slightly* less bound by the all-around standings in selection with regard to that 5th spot. If this year’s system had been in place in 2019, there would have an avenue to put Murakami on the worlds team.

The system is also based entirely around scores from public meets, which (at least allegedly, with asterisks) is the more objective approach to team selection and is designed to reward those who show up right now at the critical meet, rather than those with prior accomplishments or favored status. After all, it was Fukusawa who delivered the scores in the big moment over the weekend with her two 14s on bars.

That’s why I don’t put this in the same category of outrage as the 2019 Murakami snub. In that case, Murakami was obviously the best gymnast whose scores would have easily put her on the team, but she was excluded because she wasn’t healthy enough to compete at one early-year selection meet, despite being healthy enough to compete at other meets both before and after. It was just a dumb technicality. In this case, there’s a fair scores-based argument for why you wouldn’t have put Ashikawa on the team.

But, fear not, there’s also much that can be picked apart here. Namely…hi, it’s June. If the entire process is based around maximizing the team score at worlds in October, wouldn’t you want to wait a little bit until it’s closer to October to see who might actually maximize that team score? What if Ashikawa shows up in August and September busting out the beam 14s?

Selection is also still quite all-around heavy in terms of the first four spots on the team and, for an approach that’s supposed to be deeply score-based, does not use all the most recent data available, with April’s national championship having weight in selection but last week’s Asian Championship not included at all.

Then there’s the age-old question of what the overarching priority should be in selecting a five-member squad: team score or overall medals? Last year, Japan was less than a point away from an Olympic team medal, and with Russia out this year, there’s every justification for Japan to push hard for a team medal by maximizing the 3-count score. Then again, that was a completely different group of gymnasts.

For a new squad that just got smashed by China by 10 points at the continental championship and finished behind South Korea, is maximizing the team score the best approach right now? Or would Japan have been better served by an event-medal focused selection process that favored both Fukusawa and Ashikawa instead of some of the all-arounders? But, are Ashikawa’s most recent beam results even indicative of someone who is going to win a beam medal this year? 

My conclusion is that Japan is a good enough team in general for the selection procedures to be written with maximizing the team score in mind. Team medals should not be treated as out of the question for Japan, even if they’re in rebuilding mode this year. But if the Japanese team leaves worlds this year with no medals—honestly, a probable outcome—we’re going to be looking back and saying, you didn’t even bring the defending beam champion, what did you think was going to happen?

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