Train Thoughts are long sports related rambles I write on my commute into my full-time job. They aren’t the most concise pieces of writing I’ll ever write, but hey, at least I’m writing.
Jordyn Wieber’s failure to make the Olympic women’s gymnastics all-around has dominated the last 24 hours or so of Olympic gymnastics coverage. The reigning World All-Around champion had the fourth best All-Around score of Sunday’s meet, but had two US teammates finish above her (Boston’s Aly Raisman in second and recent phenom Gabrielle Douglas in third,) bouncing her out due to an two gymnast per country rule.
Said rule also came to the detriment of the Russian team, who also had to drop a high ranking All-Around gymnast (Anastasia Grishina.) A version of this rule has been around for a while – before it was two gymnasts, it was three, and it was in place to keep one country from dominating competition too much (Russia and China, the rulemakers were looking in your direction.)
The rule may not pass the smell test, but it is not unique to gymnastics. Countries are limited to a certain amount of participants in a variety of events – U.S. swimming has a boatload of strong swimmers who leave their international counterparts in the water, but they’re left home because they’re only third in their own country. Such rules work against countries with an embarssament of athletic riches, but for nations who don’t have the economic climates to produce such a bounty.
Even within gymnastics, many rules have a similar air of artificially creating “diversity” and improving chance about them. Reigning world champions and high level international are left off Olympic teams with regularity in favor of gymnasts who are injured or who had past success. It is the anti-two per country rule – both casual and obsessive gymnastics fans are used to a hint of arbitrariness in selection and qualification. We know U.S. gymnast Elizabeth Price is the fourth or fifth best all-around gymnast in the country, but somehow we’re okay with her only being an alternate to this Olympic team. It’s “okay” because this sport allows for flexibility, both in literal practice and the practice of selecting the best athletes to achieve international success.
So when a gymnastics qualifying rule is so black and white, it’s against the norm. It seems almost deceitful. Because two girls outscored the third, the third can’t advance, even if she is the reigning world champion. Gymnastics isn’t used to the clear cut numbers game. Gymnasts, coaches and fans are used to actual results not really being final results, and loopholes being found in every letter of a rule. Elite international gymnastics loves this ability to deceive – a fair process for some, at the expense of reason-less decisions for others.
But when it comes to Wieber’s un-qualification for the All-Around, it may be the media who is being most deceitful. Because Wieber is the U.S. most active gymnast in terms of endorsements, her face and story has appeared in public much more than her teammates. She appears in print advertisements, tells her “Olympic story” in veiled Proctor and Gamble ads that appear as interviews, and her mother recently published a book about raising a successful gymnast. Thus, NBC’s and other outlets’ coverage feels the need to over explain her now absence in one of the biggest nights of Olympic competition instead of covering the two Americans who did qualify thanks to some of the best performed routines of their lives. The media is also over covering Wieber’s loss over the overall qualifier, Russia’s Viktoria Komova. Komova, in a bit of irony, controversially lost to Wieber in the World All-Around last fall, but most of America didn’t complain over that “injustice.” Komova is a sound gymnast with just as much talent as Wieber, but the most NBC’s commentating staff can muster up about her is that her “growing out her bangs” now makes her a “mature gymnast.”
The Weiber coverage sets a dangerous precedent. Advertising and pre-event coverage is dictating coverage of a sporting event to a point that the viewing public is being deceived. Is this the first time? Heavens no. But advertising is dictating the media extensively cover an athlete who faltered over her two national teammates who succeeded. There are probably casual Olympic viewers who only catch spits and starts of coverage who believe Wieber was the U.S.’s only hope, when that is far from the truth.
The harsh reality was that some in the gymnastics community worried that Wieber would falter on this stage. She hadn’t been as clean this year as she was in 2011, and Gabrielle D0uglas was outscoring her regularly. Aly Raisman had beaten both in floor exercise and beam in the two selection meets leading up to the Olympics (she finished first on both apparatus at both Nationals and Olympic Trials.) Russian gymnasts and coaches had given several media interviews where they had stated that it was Douglas they were worried about in London, not Weiber. So to paint this result as a shock is not entirely truthful.
While Olympic coverage is traditionally tailored to weave a tale of the highs of success and the agony of defeat, NBC and other outlets are focusing only on the defeat, instead of on the fact that the U.S. went 2-3 in qualifying for the All-Around and is first overall as a team. They also are letting the advertising bought around the Olympics dictate how they cover the sport, and will continue to do so through the remainder of the gymnastics events in order to explain why Wieber isn’t involved. Is that unbiased media coverage? No. That’s just another example of advertising being able to negate any sense of a free press.