Jordyn Wieber Was Robbed

Jordyn Wieber was Robbed!

Such were the cries of outrage after yesterday’s women’s gymnastics qualifying rounds at the Olympics in London.  Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion and indisputably America’s most dominant gymnast for the past couple years, helped the United States team qualify for the team finals, and qualified herself for the Floor Exercise finals, but failed to advance to the all-around competition.  Did she perform poorly?  Not particularly.  She stood in fourth after the qualifying rounds were over.  The problem, rather, was that the gymnasts in second and third place were Americans Aly Raisman and Gabrielle Douglas.  The rules stipulate that only two gymnasts from any nation can advance to the all-around finals.  Since Jordyn finished third — just barely — she cannot compete for the sport’s biggest prize, the title of Olympic all-around champion.

Was Jordyn Wieber robbed?

Appreciate the context.  In gymnastics, the Olympics Games are what you dream about day and night.  Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin — if you’re a female gymnast, these names resonate in your mind because these were the Olympic all-around champions.  Devoting many thousands of hours (most elite gymnasts will train around 40 hours a week) at such a young age, enduring countless injuries and aches and pains, shredding your hands and bruising your body and spraining your ankles and tearing your muscles or breaking your bones more time than you care to reveal to anyone, and conquering your fears daily to perform skills that risk life and limb, aiming for a single competition that takes place every four years is merciless.  Possibly insane.  Yet such is the sport.

If you’re not one of the world’s most talented gymnasts, sure, you may set your sights a little lower.  You may be happy to win a state title, or to earn a scholarship to college, or to compete for the national team.  If you’re exceptionally talented like Jordyn Wieber, however, you’ve heard the words “Olympic talent” or “potential gold medalist” all your life.  You’ve imagined the Olympics thousands of times.  You’ve visualized the routines you want to perform while lying in bed at night.  You’ve stood in front of the mirror and gone through the motions of sticking your dismount on your last event in the Olympic all-around final and hearing the crowd roar its approval as everyone in the arena knows that you just claimed your place in gymnastics lore forever.

I know because I did all of this myself.  (I tell the story here).  I rarely spared a moment’s thought for the World Championships.  National titles were nice, but nothing to be satisfied with.  It was Olympic glory — or failure.

There are particular gymnasts who have won affection and respect without a gold medal.  Kim Zmeskal was a beloved Karolyi-trained gymnast (and a three-time national champion) who fell behind Shannon Miller at the Olympics, and neither won the gold.  Dominique Moceanu was hugely popular for her charm and spunk, and though she was the youngest member of the gold-medal-winning “Magnificent Seven” in Atlanta she made several mistakes (after struggling with injuries) in the all-around finals and finished ninth.  Shawn Johnson was an all-American dynamo with a winning smile who fell just short to teammate Liukin but went on to win Dancing with the Stars.

But none suffered this indignity.  Jordyn Wieber was a junior national champion, two-time senior national champion, three-time American Cup champion, and reigning world champion.  She had only lost in the all-around once (when she finished second in an insignificant meet) in the last four years, spanning junior and senior competitions, until the Olympic Trials (where she finished second again).  Now she, beyond question one of the greatest gymnasts in the world, will not be able to compete for the title of Olympic all-around gold medalist.

Her response was heartbreaking.  She tried to cheer for her teammate but quickly dissolved into tears.  While the floor reporter interviewed the two Americans who finished ahead of her, Wieber was — brutally — weeping right behind them (and still visible on camera) while her teammates described how thrilled they were with the results.  I wished that one of the girls who qualified for the all-around finals would have spoken a public word of sympathy and support for their teammate and friend who was sobbing behind their backs.  But they had just as much a right to that spot in the finals as Wieber did, and they were just a little better on that particular day.

Do the judges engage in favoritism?  Is there ever favor-trading?  You bet.  Is it possible that one or more of the judges — particularly on the floor exercise, her last event, where the judges consulted (indicating there was probably some confusion or disagreement over how to score her) for a while before revealing her score — saw an opportunity to eliminate one of the favorites, in order to improve the chances of their own country’s gymnasts?  It’s certainly possible.  Jordyn’s scores seemed low.  It would be interesting to know who was judging the floor exercise, and which country they came from.

The best gymnasts should be in the all-around finals.  It’s absurd that the fourth-best in the qualifying rounds will not be allowed to compete.  Jordyn should have been slotted later in the lineup on the floor exercise (scores tend to rise with each competitor), and she — like Shawn Johnson in 2008, a stereotypically “American-style” gymnast who is less lean and elegant than powerful and dynamic — was judged mercilessly for minor mistakes.  Landings are massively over-emphasized in gymnastics judging.  When you perform skills that only a handful of people in the world can perform, skills that take extraordinary power and precision, skills for which you have trained so many thousands of hours, it seems unfair that a tiny movement of the foot on the landing should prove your downfall.  I’d rather see daring and rare skills performed, with height and power and beauty, than lesser skills performed that are easier to “stick.”

As it is, one of the best gymnasts in the world fell victim to a silly rule meant to keep powerful teams like the American team from dominating the all-around finals, to international judging standards that tend to punish Americans and reward more classically-trained gymnasts like the Russians, and to a judging system that seems arbitrary and inscrutable.

Note #1: See Part Two, where I argue the opposite case.  

Note #2: Tonight, with the men’s team finals, I will begin live-blogging the gymnastics competition. Please tune in!

Note #3: I’ll be posting interviews with Dominique Moceanu and Shawn Johnson later this week.  Look to the sidebar to subscribe.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Bonnie

    I can see why someone would say that a small country deserves a chance to get an athlete into the all-around finals; that it’s not fair that a larger country should dominate. But why not? Are the Olympics about equality of representation, or about identifying, and rewarding, the best athletes in the world? There is always controversy and diversity of opinions about what’s right; it just seems to me that the Olympics are about the best athletes in the world competing against one another to see how they rank at that place and time. If this is true, then no athlete should be denied this opportunity due to any quotas.

    The media coverage of the girls was unfortunate; I think they could have done a better job of handling an awkward situation. I don’t know if any of the girls anticipated what to do if an upset like that occurred, but I don’t think Gabby or Aly needed to acknowledge Jordan at that moment. They were all equal contenders, regardless of expectations about who would advance.

    I look forward to your comments to come!

    • Alex

      “Are the Olympics about equality of representation, or about identifying, and rewarding, the best athletes in the world?”

      It’s a little bit of both. If it were simply a matter of identifying and rewarding the best athletes in the world, then the there wouldn’t be delegations carefully organized by country and, for the team events, the teams wouldn’t be uni-national. After all, if it’s really about identifying the best athletes in the world, why is there a “Team USA” at all for the team portion of the gymnastics competition? Teams should be free to organize internationally to get the best talent if talent is what we’re really rewarding. But we’re not – at least not completely – and the quota for Americans on Team USA is 100%.

    • John

      @ Bonnie I agree that the olympics should be a balance between finding the best and participation. I just think the outrage occurring NOW about this rule is very hypocritical, seeing as the US (along with other not-so-much gymnastics powers) campaigned for this after the Romanians swept women’s floor in Sydney. They realized that this rule would harm the major powers of gymnastics.

      What comes up must come down.

      • capaquarian

        This archaic rule made sense when they reinstated them in the 1800′s. This has been a ridiculous rule for many years. Just as ridiculous as the laws saying you can’t drive your buggy down the street on a Tuesday!
        The 6 gymnast from every nation that can send 6 (that qualify) compete to be in the preliminaries to get into a field of 24 of the best and brightest (Individual All Around), BUT because of this archaic rule, it’s not really the best and brightest.
        The girls who make it into the Individual All Around and compete to be the best gymnast in the world, should be the top 24 ranked from the preliminaries. PERIOD!

  • Timothy Dalrymple
  • Bonnie

    Thanks for the discussion. History and hypocrisy notwithstanding, I think it’s fairer to limit the size of teams to the same number of qualifiers for each country (making sure each country is well-represented) than to limit the number who go to a final by country, once they get to the Olympics. I think the Wieber situation simply illustrates what’s wrong with that rule. She was off her game, and didn’t perform well enough to make the top two of her country, but still came in a formidable fourth, with a score over 60.

    I’m extremely happy for both Aly and Gabby, by the way. If it was one of them who didn’t make the finals, having performed similarly to Jordan, it would’ve been just as unfair.

    I don’t think any one country is ever going to dominate so totally that other countries will be shut out for very long. And if one country does seem to dominate, then other countries are welcome to rise to the challenge.

    As far as knowing the rule going into Olympic competition goes, the alternative to acceptance is to boycott, and then you don’t get a shot at all. Unless enough countries boycott so that the rule is changed.

  • Cool

    Jordyn is in a class of her very own, however and the best must succumb to losing. As far as her being robbed, I don’t think so. Remember Michael Phelps is Olympic royalty and advertising giants have made a killing off of his imaginary rivalry with Ryan Loche. Jordyn was basically billed as ‘The Next Mary Lou Retton’ minus the cool bob cut that Mary Lou wore so well and fitting for that time. Poor Aly and Gabby are now looked upon as the villains because of their talents over America’s new sweetheart. Gabby would put on a show and delivered and it wasn’t until her floor exercise that she was leading the pack by a huge margin. I was watching and listening and no one could believe, what she was doing including the awful commentator on NBC (the former male gymnist). Everytime she stepped up, this guy had something negative to say and I know she couldn’t see him but she made him eat his words.
    No one wants to say what it really is the problem and that is racism at it’s best.
    Go figure, at the Olympics, an event that should be bringing the world together, has all the racists from the United States going nuts because instead of the All-American girl (Jordyn), you have Gabby, who is a Black American Princess and has this charm, wit and desire like no other. Then there is poor Aly, who is fierce and came out of nowhere and just killed it. You had to see the determination on her face and stuck to guns and came out on top. Now Aly doesn’t have that typical All-American looks but her parents do, however Aly looks very exotic, which isn’t a bad thing because both Aly and Gabby are adorable on every level. However, Mattel possibly had Jordyn’s Olympic Barbie doll already made and her Wheaties box cover was about to be put out on the shelves soon. I feel for Jordyn because she has the goods and besides her being the favorite and all but honey, she just fell a bit short and of course everyone is being reminded of that and not celebriting the other two, who just had it over Jordyn.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Wow, the race card came out quickly!

      I really don’t sense that anyone is viewing Aly and Gabby as villains. Everyone loves Gabby. I didn’t perceive any disrespect from Tim Daggett or the other commentators. The fact is that Gabby has been somewhat inconsistent, and she seemed to have a problem with nerves as she never quite seemed to fulfill her potential in the big meets. But everyone’s thrilled it’s all come together for her. Your appeal to racism is frankly absurd; USA Gymnastics would *love* for an African American girl to win the all around title. It could be a Tiger moment, bringing many more American girls into gyms across the country.

      As for Aly, what’s not to like? She has a partial Lebanese descent, she’s beautiful, does excellent gymnastics and she’s the American leader going into the team finals. She’s a classic underdog story. If she wins today, the response will be huge. She may not look as classic Americana as Shawn Johnson, but then again neither does Jordyn. If you look at my second post on this topic, you’ll see that I made the argument that everyone should celebrate what Raisman accomplished and not spend all their time lamenting that Jordyn fell short.

      Jordyn was promoted so heavily because she’s the reigning world and national champion, and has been far and away the most dominant American gymnast in recent years. Full stop. Gabby surpassed her at the Olympic Trials, but otherwise Jordyn has won every major competition she’s entered since 2008. Anyway, this is ridiculous. Please read the second post in this series, where I take the opposite position.

      • J. Little

        Cool, your post is wonderful getting to the point. People should embrace all of these young women. The other 2 excelled at these games. American people turning against & blamin Gaby/Aly or any other American girl is just plain is a disgrace. The rules were changed to make sure the weaker athletes of the former eastern bloc nations would have a chance to qualify. This happened when US teams became significantly more dominant. The old set of rules used to reward the highest scores regardless of nation which meant the best gymnasts would battle it out in the all-around. The US women are hammered by the judges with little deductions despite their routines are cleanest while sloppy Russian & Romanian performances are consistently over scored. No one pretends to notice this.

  • MagicJill

    Olga Korbut never won an Olympic All-Around Individual Gold medal — she didn’t even medal.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Not true. She won quite a few medals, including golds, in 1972 and 1976. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olga_Korbut

      • MagicJill

        Your article says, “Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci…… Nastia Liukin — if you’re a female gymnast, these names resonate in your mind because these were the Olympic all-around champions. I’m assuming you mean Individual all-around Olympic champions or this article would make no sense. Olga Korbut never won any medals in any Olympic Individual All-Around competition. She won gold and silver medals for team and individual events, which Jordyn still can possibly do, but Jordyn like Olga will never win an Individual All-Around Olympic gymnastics gold medal.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Oh, I’m sorry, I misread you. That’s true. Initially, I was just writing about luminaries, and later changed the sentence to be specifically about the all around titles. My bad!

    • J. Little

      True even though Olga was an innovator. But she messed up on bars. Wieber wasn’t robbed though. US now has the problem that the Old Soviet Union had in women’s gymnastics. All of the athletes are so strong, all of them can be champions it just comes down to that day. Not a bad problem to have though. Jordan can Still take gold at event finals and I hope Gaby & Aly get the top spots in the all around and medal in their respective events. These girls have EARNED their status. All the best to them their families & coaches. I’m happy for them go USA!

  • Magicjill

    No problem. I enjoyed both of your articles very much. I think the proper two are going to the finals, but I also think they should change the number of qualifiers to three.

    Thanks!

  • Magicjill

    Jordyn has a chance for another gold medal, But if Aly hits her floor routine, Jordyn probably won’t get it. She’s only 17, so maybe she can try for 2016. Less sad than Michelle Kwan’s quest for individual gold, but still very disappointing for her, though another athlete gets great joy. I’m actually rooting for Gabby to take the gold for the individual all-around. I guess we’ll find out soon. Don’t tell me as it isn’t televised until tonight EST! Go Gabby!

    • ENOS W.C. DARLING,IIdarl2

      You were so right and your choice of Gabby was right.

  • Magicjill

    She was excellent, Enos, and so deserved it! I wish her great success in the future, and look forward to seeing what she does next. Gabby is officially a superstar, a great athlete, and competitor!


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