Sunday, October 23, 2011

Which gymnasts wouldn't have been successful had they not been able to specialize?

Here's something I've been wondering about since the announcement that the Olympic gymnastics teams would be comprised of only five members (instead of six) and subsequent move back to favoring all-around gymnasts over 1-2 event specialists--which gymnasts might we never have heard of had they been forced to be competitive on all four apparatuses?

Since the introduction of the 3 up, 3 three count team finals format, specialists, those gymnasts who are truly exceptional on 1-2 events but not really well-rounded in general, have become an important part of any team's strategy. Indeed, the Chinese supremacy on uneven bars in 2008 had a lot to do with an athlete named He Kexin, who competed on just that one apparatus. On balance beam, you had Li Shanshan. On floor and vault, you had Cheng Fei (who ended up adding balance beam and doing well there, too). But would they have ever achieved prominence had they been forced to be competitive on all four events?

And there are other gymnasts who have benefited from this more forgiving competitive format--both Alicia Sacramone and Catalina Ponor have experienced tremendous success despite not competing on bars. (It has recently been announced that Ponor will resume bars training and given how weak Romania is on that particular event, she'll probably be able to have an impact for her team and perhaps make herself competitive in the all-around.)

The last time Sacramone competed on bars was in 2006 and though she had fairly decent execution (though with several missed handstands), she carried a very low degree of difficulty and admitted to being afraid of the event. She stopped training the apparatus, partly at the suggestion of Martha Karolyi, who probably assured her that she would never be called upon to compete on bars in a team competition.

Would Alicia made Olympic and world championship teams had she been forced to compete in the era before 2000? (I do realize that starting in 92-2000 years, one or two gymnasts on the team would be off the hook for one or two events, but even so, you wouldn't really call any of those gymnasts "specialists" the way we understand these days. All-around athletes still dominated those eras and teams were still largely selected based off of 4 event prowess.)

The answer to that question is a very strong "maybe." Now obviously, if different rules were in effect, Sacramone and others would have trained differently. Certainly, she would never have stopped training the event. And many have speculated that she could've been top 3 all-around (at least in the U.S.) if she could put together a mediocre routine on bars. While that certainly may be true, I think that's also a testament to how much the all-around field has weakened since the introduction of the 3 up, 3 count rules.

What do the rest of you think about the reversion to all-around athletes? And which gymnast(s) who were successful in the specialist era would have been out of luck had they been forced to compete on all four events? Or would those athletes have been competitive albeit with a glaring weakness on one event? 

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