Gabby Douglas was gracious on Sunday after failing to qualify for tonight's Olympic gymnastics all-around finals. Some of her fans (me) failed to rise to her high standards. She was robbed. Or at least, lightly robbed. More petty larceny than grand theft. But the fact that Aly Raisman, not Gabby, will join Simone Biles in representing the U.S. in the all-around final on Thursday is an interesting case study in how the new, more objective, scoring system is still far from perfect.
Gymnastics is really hard to explain to outsiders. That's why you have poor Tim Daggett, one of NBC's commentators, straining so hard to convey excitement. During team finals, Daggett said his cheeks hurt from smiling so much during Laurie Hernandez's floor routine. Daggett is a former Olympian, and probably was super excited, not because Hernandez was so cute, but because of the technical quality of her gymnastics. But Daggett has said that NBC discourages the commentary team from getting too wonky. And that's why we didn't get a lot of explanation of the best stories in Olympic gymnastics, like why the defending Olympic all-around champ got left out of finals.
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Aly and Gabby were teammates on the gold-medal-winning 2012 Olympic team, when Gabby won gold in the all-around, and Aly won gold on floor. Since their comebacks in 2015, Aly and Gabby have mostly scored very close to each other in the all-around. Yet in many ways, they're opposites. Aly has explosive power, while Gabby has finesse and clean form.
They represent the two parts of a gymnast's score: the D score, for difficulty (how many flips and twists you can do in the air), and the E score, for execution (whether you can make those flips look pretty or fall on your face).
Prelims started on floor, Aly's best event and Gabby's weakest. (This is easy to see with GIFs, which the IOC has banned, so I'm using GIFs from routines earlier this year.) Gabby does a double Arabian—a half turn before two front flips—while Aly does a 1.5-twisting back layout to a double Arabian into a punch front layout.
Aly's full routine from Olympic qualifications is here. You can see in this still from that routine that she gets incredible height on her double layout (two flips with her body perfectly straight).
Aly's form has gotten much better over the years, but you also can see just a bit of leg separation.
Aly had a difficulty score of 6.6 points, and an E score of 8.8675 points, adding up to 15.275. Gabby's D score was just a 6.1, and she got a 8.336 E score plus a deduction for going out of bounds, for a total of 14.366. Gabby started out in a 0.9-point hole.
On vault, Aly did an Amanar, which has 2.5 twists, and looks like this:
Aly got a D score of 6.3 points for that in Rio. Gabby does a half twist less, and got just 5.8. When they competed these vaults at the 2015 world championships, Gabby still outscored Aly, because she looked so much better in the air. But in Rio, Aly outscored her by 0.6 points. (Gabby had an Amanar in London, but she couldn't get it ready in time for Rio.)
Bars and beam are where Gabby expected to make up her 1.5-point deficit. These are the events that reward floaty elegance more than power. But unlike in previous competitions, the judges did not reward Gabby's superior execution. (Gabby's full bars routine from Olympic qualifications is here.)
It's pretty hard to find GIFs of Aly's bars on the gymternet, because it's just not what she's good at. Instead of swinging with perfect timing into release moves, she has to use her muscles to force her body to complete her routine.
This is why gymnastics is an elaborate metaphor for womanhood—you're supposed to do all this hard stuff and make it look easy.
Gabby floats above and between the bars. Her legs are straight, her toes are pointed.
She shows off her flexibility—in this skill, rarely done on the low bar, her hands are twisted outward in a way most normal people can't even do. (Hold your hands straight out, palms down, and then rotate your palms outward, away from each other, 180 degrees, so your palms are up and your elbows are kind of hurting. Gabby is swinging around the bar like that.)
Usually, Aly gets crushed on bars. Not this time. She did a great routine, and got, for her, a massive score: a 14.733 total, with a 6.0 D score and a 8.733 E score. (At national championships earlier this year, she got a 14.150.) "Aly TOTALLY overscored on bars E score," Jessica O'Beirne, host of the GymCastic podcast (the Meet the Press of gymnastics), said.
Gabby scored much better, a 15.766, but her E score was only 0.5 points higher than Aly's. It wasn't high enough to be comfortable, or to reward the vast disparity between their performances.
Beam is where the difference between their styles is even more obvious. Gabby's tumbling series—back handspring to layout step out—is graceful. (Full routine here).
You can see how her legs are straight, her toes are pointed, her back is flexible. A still from Gabby's beam routine in Rio:
Aly's—back handspring to two feet to layout to two feet—is explosive, but her legs are separated and bent. (Full routine here).
Here's a still from the Olympics:
Gabby and Aly got the exact same score on beam—14.833, with both getting 6.3 points for difficulty and 8.533 for execution. They both had roughly one big error, O'Beirne says, which means Gabby was underscored, given that "her overall execution is far superior to Aly's."
Aly had an all-around score of 60.607. Gabby's was 60.131. Difficulty beat execution. Gabby was in third place, but because only two gymnasts from each country can qualify to finals, she's out. "I think the ranking was wrong and Gabby should have beat Aly for the two-per-country spot," O'Beirne said. "But my important caveat to that is just like in MMA, never leave it up to the judges—KNOCK OUT YOUR OPPONENT. If you want to leave no doubt then come back BETTER than your competition."
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