Are Gymnasts Pushed Too Far?

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U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone is comforted during the women's team finals at the Olympic Games

"I don't know what happened. I thought my feet were under me ... and next thing I know, I was on my back."

Not a good place to be when you're a gymnast competing in the team finals at the Olympic Games. But that's where Alicia Sacramone, a Brown University undergrad, found herself after her second tumbling pass on the floor exercise. It was Sacramone's second fall of the meet, and it may ultimately have cost the U.S. women the team gold on Wednesday in front of a capacity 19,000 crowd, which mainly rooted against the Americans, at the National Indoor Stadium. Sacramone and her teammates — Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel, Samantha Peszek and Bridget Sloan — ended up with a perfectly respectable silver, 2.375 points behind home-town favorite China. But it wasn't so much that the squad had earned the silver as they had squandered the gold after a string of unusual errors. "A gold medal would have been a little better," said Liukin.

As surprisingly disappointing as the U.S.'s performance was, it might be a testament to the difficulties — and hazards — of competing under a new scoring system and code of points that rewards gymnasts for packing their programs with difficult skills. The U.S. team alone lost two members to injury on the men's side, and two gymnasts of the women's team are competing injured — and that's not even counting the ones who hurt themselves either before or just after the Olympic trials in July and lost their chance to become a part of this squad at all. Making the team is more a matter of playing last-gymnast-standing than being the most talented acrobat around. "That was our fear when we originally saw it," says Bart Conner, an Olympic gold medalist from the 1984 Los Angeles Games, on the new code of points, "that it was going to lead to a lot of injuries." Chinese men's coach Huang Yubin lamented after Tuesday's men's team win that putting together a strong squad was difficult, because the gymnasts would push themselves to destruction in an attempt to master challenging skills, then get injured and have to take time off to recover; many couldn't return to the same level of competition.

The once perfect 10.0 no longer exists; instead, the scores are now a combination of two numbers — the first for how difficult a gymnast's skills are, and a second for how well those skills are executed. The total can now range from 10.0 all the way to 17-something. "You have to do a bigger variety of difficult skills now," says Conner, who was in the stadium with his wife, the 1976 Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci, to catch the competition. "In our era, you could do one or two difficult moves, then fill out the rest of your routine with things you are comfortable doing. Now you have to be a freak of nature to be able to do a world-class routine." While gymnastics has always been an injury-prone sport, the new hurdles created by the scoring system may be pushing some athletes too far. Peszek strained an ankle earlier this week during a warm-up just minutes before the team marched out for the qualifying round of competition. Memmel, a former world champion who excels on the beam and bars, turned her ankle in training prior to leaving for Beijing and could compete only on the uneven bars. Of course, those injuries could occur under any kind of points system, but the number of mishaps certainly suggests that gymnasts are getting stretched to the extreme.

Had she been healthy, Memmel's presence may have kept the U.S. in the gold-medal hunt against the Chinese, as replacement Sacramone, not known as a beam specialist, fell off just as she mounted it, launching the U.S.'s troubles. "Possibly, yes," said Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator on whether an injury-free Memmel might have been the third scorer on the beam, with Johnson and Liukin. "Everybody knows how rock-solid Chellsie is. And definitely on floor also, she had a chance to perform, because we all remember what kind of routine she did at [the] trials."

It's not just injuries that hurt the U.S. team. On the floor exercise, all three Americans stepped out of bounds, earning automatic deductions and bringing the U.S.'s total score below that of the Chinese. It's been a recurring problem for the hard-tumbling U.S. women, who are physically bigger than the Chinese girls, run with more power and therefore favor the tougher tumbling passes to eke out as many points as possible. "We throw some of the hardest skills on the floor," said Johnson after the qualifying round on Sunday. "We are built of the strongest legs in the world, and we love to fly, we love to tumble really hard. Honestly, we do have a problem stepping out of bounds."

Not so for the Chinese women, whose tinier physiques kept them within the lines of the competition floor. The international media had recently speculated that the girls were tiny for a reason — they had uncovered profiles of at least two of the gymnasts that suggested they may actually be under the International Olympic Committee's 16-year-old age minimum. The IOC was satisfied with passports produced by the International Federation of Gymnastics for the girls, showing they are 16. But Karolyi remains doubtful — and critical. "I have no proof, so I cannot say they are underage," she said. "If that is true — which it possibly could be because one of the little girls has a missing tooth — then it is totally unfair because it doesn't give an even playing field for people all over the world."

For now, navigating the technical challenges presented by the code of points remains the best way to the top of the medal stand. And while it may be too late for most of America's female gymnasts to savor gold, Johnson and Liukin remain at the top of the lineup for the women's individual all-around event on Friday, and will be hoping to stand side-by-side on the podium, celebrating first and second place.