Score for Score

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The qualification round in Tokyo had some surprises for Team USA. By and large, they did not receive the scores they were expecting to receive. They were supposed to sail into the finals in first place, but instead they finished a full point behind the Russian Olympic Committee. I want to talk about why that happened.

But before I do that, let me be very clear: the US team earned the second highest team score in the world and qualified two athletes into every single event final. They should be incredibly proud of their performance and of all the hard work it took to get to this point. I am going to point out a lot of mistakes in this post; they are elite athletes and it’s fair to critique their performance. I still have the utmost respect for these gymnasts and all they do.

So. I’ve seen three main explanations for yesterday’s results:

  1. Team USA didn’t do their best gymnastics. They normally perform at a higher level than they performed at in qualifications.

  2. Team USA finally got the artistry and execution deductions that they deserve. The judges at US Olympic Trials turned a blind eye to some glaring issues, but international judges at the Olympics will do the Americans no such favors.

  3. Team USA was judged unfairly. The judges were biased and scored other athletes more leniently than they scored the US.

Let’s take these explanations one by one.

Team USA didn’t do their best gymnastics.

Several key routines went worse than they should have. Even the New York Times sports desk is tsk-tsk'ing over Simone Biles's performance. More importantly, Biles herself was clearly disappointed: she had wildly uncontrolled landings on three events.

We also saw some unexpected flops from Jordan Chiles. She had a fantastic domestic season, hitting 24 out of 24 routines. No other athlete on the US Olympic team can say the same. Yet she brushed her feet on the mat on bars and had two falls on beam. The US was hoping to count strong scores from her on those events, and they had to rely on McCallum’s typically lower-scoring routines instead.

Yet the more I looked into this, the more I began to feel that these big, obvious mistakes distracted from many smaller mistakes that really added up. Let’s use Suni Lee’s floor routine as an example. Her scores at Trials had me thinking that she had a shot at floor finals, and her routine in Tokyo yesterday didn’t look so different from her routines in St. Louis. She’s also an athlete with relatively few built-in deductions in her dance elements — good extension, good splits, good ring positions, etc. But then I took a closer look.

Landings are one place where deductions add up fast. At the end of a good pass, the gymnast should have her chest upright, almost like she’s sitting on a chair. Her movements should be under control and she should be able to stand right up. A low chest position, with the torso close to the knees, is up to 0.3 points off. A step greater than a meter is another 0.3. Four tumbling passes later, you’re looking at an execution score in the low 8s for an otherwise clean routine.

Lee had a much rougher landing on her last pass in Tokyo than she did at Olympic Trials. What’s more, she added in a fourth pass, a double layout, and landed that poorly as well. The points she gained in difficulty were easily offset by the execution deductions.

I’m not picking on Lee — there were issues like this across the board. The USA just wasn’t doing the precise, clean gymnastic that they’re capable of last night. The attention to detail just wasn't there.

Team USA finally got the artistry and execution deductions that they deserve.

This narrative states that the US was misled by overly generous domestic scores. International judges are less tolerant of the US chucking their jumps, falling out of their turns, and phoning in their choreography.

Let’s start with artistry deductions. I doubt these played a large role. Pure artistry deductions on floor exercise are at most 0.5 points, a deduction taken when “the exercise is not connected to the music itself.” In past quads, the full allowable artistry deduction has rarely been taken. And even if this deduction was taken in full measure for every single US athlete on floor, it wouldn’t explain the scoring gap on other events.

However, I think it’s very likely that other execution deductions played a role. We know from Kara Eaker’s experience that ring positions are not evaluated in the US the way they are internationally. Even after this discrepancy had disastrous consequences at 2019 World Championships, Eaker’s routine remained largely unchanged and her ring positions did not dramatically improve. I take this as strong evidence that the US national program has not made sufficient effort to align its understanding of execution evaluation with international standards.

Of the sixteen routines from athletes on the US team, twelve1 scored higher at Olympic trials than any routine that athlete has ever performed on that event internationally. For example, Suni Lee scored a massive 14.733 on beam at Trials on Night 1. It was a fantastic routine. But she has never, ever gotten higher than 14.150 in international competition, and that was at Jesolo. Now, gymnasts intentionally wait all quad to peak for Olympic Trials, so we might expect to see some unprecedented performances — but the extent of this phenomenon should certainly give the National Team Coordinator pause.

The qualifications experience should give next quad’s National Team Coordinator clear marching orders: listen to your brevet judges. Pay attention to the FIG’s scoring videos. Get your standards up.

Team USA was judged unfairly.

By this point in this article, I hope it’s clear that this is the weakest of the three arguments. The US made many real mistakes. And scrolling through the results, I didn’t see a “smoking gun” - a case where a US athlete’s routine was outscored by clearly inferior routine. There are cases that are close — Ferrari and Biles come to mind — but none so egregious that I have no choice but to cry bias.

Then again, I watched four routines at once on the apparatus feed well after midnight, so I might have missed something. Judging across qualification subdivisions is notoriously inconsistent at every international competition, and it would be folly to take fair judging as an article of faith. If you’ve got a smoking gun, leave it in the comments below.

What’s Next

Qualifications are just qualifications. The US has placed two athletes in the all around final as well as every single event final. And in all likelihood, they will return home with plenty of hardware, including a team gold, and qualifications will be a distant memory.

But if they want that to happen, they’re going to have to step it up. Russia has an incredibly talented team and they deserved to come out on top yesterday. I cannot wait for what is sure to be the most exciting team final in a decade.

1Biles on BB & FX, Lee on VT, UB & BB, Chiles on VT, UB, BB &FX, and McCallum on VT, BB & FX

Tags: Olympic Talk

It's time to talk about US Olympic team selection.

Often by this point in the Olympic year, we have a pretty good idea of who might make the team. Some athletes are performing at a consistently higher level than others. Simone Biles, of course, is performing at the highest level ever seen. But the other team spots are somewhat murkier - and that's because we don't actually know what the selection committee is looking for.

Marta Karolyi's team selection process was the stuff of NBC legend. She picked athletes who would contribute to the team over athletes who would win individual medals. She loved a reliable beamer. She had a chip on her shoulder about US bars. She liked her gymnasts well-behaved. But most of all, she cared about consistency.

Tom Forster, however, has never picked an Olympic team before. On at least three occasions -- the 2018 World Championships, the 2019 World Championships, and the 2019 Junior World Championships -- he has shown a strong inclination to simply select the top all-arounders at the last selection camp/competition before the meet. Reading between the lines of his interviews, he seems to find a compelling fairness in this approach; it takes favoritism out of the decision entirely. What's more, with a four person team and four-up qualification in Tokyo, it's not hard to argue that every person on the team should be able to go up on every event.

So there's good reason to believe that Forster will pick the four-person Tokyo team based on the all-around standings at the end of the Olympic Trials. And with the top two all-around finisher guaranteed to get team spots according to the USAG selection procedures, fully half the team is guaranteed to be chosen in this manner.

This approach - the Forster strategy - has basically proven safe, if unstrategic. But it's only safe as long as two things are true. First, the US has to be guaranteed a comfortable margin of victory in the team final. They can't be in a situation where, in order to win, they need the extra tenths provided by, say, taking a VT/FX specialist and a UB/BB specialist instead of two all-arounders with no standout event. And second, gymnasts need to be performing consistently enough that their all-around performance at a single competition is a good proxy for how they'll perform at the big event. You don't want to pick a gymnast for her all-around performance at Trials if her performance in training and at other meets demonstrates that Trials was a fluke.

Now, I think that any US team with Simone Biles is probably guaranteed a comfortable margin of victory. But with several major meets come and gone -- Winter Cup, the American Classic, the US Classic, and the first day of the US National Championships -- only Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles have put together multiple truly solid performances. Everyone else has been surprisingly... splatty. We have certainly seen some amazing gymnastics. But most gymnasts with routines of the caliber that the US would like to display in Tokyo have yet to really hit those routines more than once.

Of course, many gymnasts are combing back from injury, and all of them are somewhat rusty after an extended COVID-induced break from competition. And everyone is planning to peak for Trials. But the inconsistency we've seen thus far throws the Forster strategy into doubt. We just won't have any way of knowing if gymnasts' all-around performance at Trials is a good predictor of how they'll look in Tokyo. Two days of competition is simply not enough time for a pattern to emerge.

Finally, I have to wonder if Forster's apparent intention of picking the team based on the all-around standings at Olympic Trials has perhaps caused more inconsistency in the lead up to Tokyo, simply because the pressure is off at the earlier competitions. Less pressure is generally a good thing. No one wants to return to the days of "the watchful eye of Marta Karolyi." And countless former US Olympians have described how the need to be in top form for weeks and weeks and weeks before the Olympics left their bodies and minds broken by the time the games began. But none of this is intrinsic to informing the athletes that their consistency across multiple competitions will factor into team selection. You don't need to pick the Olympic team based on all-around standings at a single competition in order to ensure that elite gymnasts are happy and healthy as they pursue their goals in the sport.

So here's what I hope.

I hope that Jordan Chiles's three consistent all-around performances, each earning scores at or over 56.9, will earn her a spot on the team even if she falls once or twice at Trials.

I hope that if Sunisa Lee's sore Achilles hobbles her on vault and floor and knocks her down the all-around standings, she still makes the team for her standout bars and highly usable beam.

I hope that Jade Carey is left off the four-person team even if she places top four in the all-around at Trials.

And I hope that the fourth team spot doesn't go to whichever of Grace McCallum, Kayla DiCello, Leanne Wong, Morgan Hurd, MyKayla Skinner, Skye Blakely, Emma Malabuyo, etc. etc. etc. manages to eke out a tenth over the rest of the pack by the end of Trials if one of the others has looked consistently better in training. I hope there is more rhyme and reason than that.

But we'll have to wait and see.

Tags: Olympic Talk

The most recent version of British Gymnastics’ Tokyo 2021 selection policy lists a highly unusual selection criteria: potential to medal at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. In other words, team selection won’t just be about pick the team with the best shot at winning medals in Tokyo. The federation also has an eye for the future: it wants to pick gymnasts who will go back to the Olympics and win more medals.

This is an absurd policy for a number of reasons. First, we all know there are no guarantees in gymnastics. Injuries happen, bodies break down, and people simply decide to move on from the sport. The idea that anyone can make a useful guess about what the medal potential of British WAG will be in 2024 is laughable. Second, this policy hilariously unsustainable: if every Olympics you pick the athletes who you think will do best at the next Olympics, you waste all the investments you’ve made in the past to give athletes much-needed international experience. And finally, it seems designed to be used as a post-hoc justification for leaving Becky Downie off the team.

But I want to put all that to the side for a minute and talk about the assumption that seems to lie beneath this rule: younger athletes have a better shot at making it back to a second Olympics.

It’s always seemed to me that gymnasts who are able to compete at the elite level past a certain age have developed a certain longevity that most elite gymnast never figure out. Gymnasts who are sixteen seem to be at much greater risk of getting injured or flaming out than gymnast who are still competing at 22. To compete at such a high level well into your twenties, an athlete must have figured out some training regimen that works sustainably. (In all likelihood, she must be biologically blessed as well.)

These observations are largely anecdotal. In 2016, I certainly thought that 41-year-old Oksana Chusovitina had a better shot at making it to Tokyo than, say, the perpetually injured 19-year-old Madison Kocian. The Wevers sisters both peaked well into their twenties, and German veterans like Kim Bui and Elizabeth Seitz have outlasted promising newcomers like Tabea Alt. And despite Simon Biles’s threats to retire at age 24 after Tokyo, it’s clear that she could come back for Paris if she wanted to.

So I turned to the data to better understand the trends. Can we truly expect more longevity from young athletes than from older ones?

First, let’s clear one thing up: a lot of gymnasts make it to multiple Olympics. Of the 1,454 gymnasts who have competed at an Olympics since 1928, 270 have come back for a second. That’s 18.5%. And this trend isn’t completely driven by the early days of gymnastics, when Olympic gymnastics was a sport for adult women that didn’t take as much of a toll on the body. Of the 846 gymnasts who have competed at an Olympics since 1976, 141 have come back for a second (16.67%).

Now, let’s look into returning Olympians by age. I calculated the average probability that an Olympic athlete of each age will return for another Olympics in the future. The results are in the plot below. The plot uses data for 1976 onwards, and I cut it age 32, after which point we’re literally just talking about Chuso.

Younger athletes certainly have a good shot at longevity: about 19% of 16-year-olds return for another Olympic Games. And at first, it does seem as though older athletes have less of a shot at making it back — only 10% of 19-year-olds return. However, the gymnasts who are still competing well into their twenties buck this trend. 22% of the 23-year-old Olympic gymnasts have returned for another games, and 25% of the 26-year-olds have as well. From this chart, we can see that it is not universally true that older athletes are less likely to hold on until the next Olympics.

I also wanted to understand if gymnasts who reach a high level at a very young age are less likely to have long careers. To examine this, I calculated the share of gymnasts who make it multiple Olympics based on the age at which the gymnast first competed at the Olympics.

Here, we see a similar trend. Gymnasts who first go to the Olympics before age 17 have a good shot at making it back — over 15% of them return for at least one more Olympics. These are the athletes who can attend multiple Olympics at age 20 or younger. After that, the likelihood of returning falls off; only 9% of those who first make it to the Olympics at 19 or 20 come back for more. But, yet again, we see this trend reverse — gymnasts who’s first Olympics occurs at age 21, 22, or 23 are more likely to make it back. These are the athletes who peaked late in their career: Jessica Lopez, Marta Pihan-Kulesza, Diane Dos Santos, Lyudmila Grebenkova, and more. After age 23 this trend drops of — mostly because there are just so few gymnasts who make it to their first Olympics when the are older than 23. But even so, we can see again that older athletes can have more longevity than younger athletes.

In this context, British Gymnastics’s selection criteria simply doesn’t make sense. In general, we can expect young athletes to have more years left in elite gymnastics than older athletes. But true longevity often doesn’t emerge until athletes reach their early twenties. When we think about which of the gymnasts in Tokyo will make it back for Paris, there are many adult women who are at least as likely to make it back as there are fresh-faced teenagers.

In gymnastics, as in so many other things, age is just a number. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a data scientist, one number never tells the whole story.

Tags: Olympic Talk

After sweeping gold on all four events, Ana Barbosu has dominated the conversation about the event finals at the 2020 Junior European Championships. She deserved to. She looked fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of her career. But I’d like to take a minute to highlight five other lovely pieces of gymnastics we saw at Junior Euros.

  1. Georgieva Valentina’s solid, powerful vaults

    Valentia (BUL) took the silver medal in the vault final with a Yurchenko full and a Yurchenko 1.5. The difficulty may be nothing to write home about, but her vaulting had more power and maturity than any other in the final. She showed exactly what I look for in junior gymnastics - solid technique that makes the skills look easy. I hope she’s working on a second entry so that we can continue to see her in vault finals as a senior.

  2. Daniela Batrona’s inbars

    Okay, she fell on her inbar. But before she fell, her inbar was a pointed-toe, deep-pike thing of beauty. This is clearly a gymnast who doesn’t sacrifice form for the sake of something silly like staying on the bar. In training videos her inbars are equally lovely, and I look forward to seeing more of them in the future.

  3. All five gymnasts who mounted with a front flip onto the beam

    What a final. After two quads of basic mounts and ample time for the scars fo the Beijing team final to heal over, I am thrilled to say that Real Mounts are back. Five — that’s right, five gymnasts in this final flipped onto the beam. We were treated to front tucks from Ana Barbosu (ROU), Yulia Kasianenko (UKR), Seygi Kayisoglu (TUR), and Daria Lyska (UKR) as well as a front pike from Greta Mayer (HUN). And, just saying, the skill we see from juniors tend to be only the foundation for the skills we’ll see when they are seniors. If these gymnasts can all do front tucks now, who knows what sort of mounts are in store next quad?

  4. Greta Mayer’s full turn

    Yes, in a review of the junior competition at a less-than-fully-attended Euros, a full turn has a place on my list of top five moments. But what a turn it was! With confidence and flare, silver medalist Mayer (HUN) stood on one leg and initiated the turn in that position. I’m sure there’s a dance word that properly describes this technique but unfortunately I don’t know what it is— dancers, I’m sure you’ll @ me soon enough. Mayer also did a killer floor routine, with a controlled, fully-rotated straddle full and an ambitious double front. I can't wait to see more of her.

  5. Nela Stepandova almost sticking her double tuck in time to the music

    Stepandova (CZE) wins my award for “least deserving of a background music deduction” in the final — it’s almost as if she really enjoys moving to this song or something like that! She manages to salute to the beat after every pass, but my favorite moment is when she manages to land a nice, knees-together double tuck in time to the music.

Got a favorite European junior who I missed? Comment below!

Tags: Meet Thoughts

A few weeks back, I discovered this list of all US junior and senior national team members dating back to 1983. I was primarily interested in testing out the narrative surrounding the growing number of clubs with gymnasts at the highest level, and you can read about that here. But basic summary statistics about the US national team are also intrinsically interesting, so since I have the data, I figured I’d share some more.

1. The senior national team has shrunk over time.

In the 1980s and 90s, the senior national team was almost always larger than twenty gymnasts. However, that hasn’t happened since 2004. Recent team sizes have been much smaller.

This might be related to the shrinking size of teams at international competition: if no more than five gymnasts will be needed to compete at any given competition, you don’t need as deep of a bench. Of course, it’s also worth noting that this data tells us nothing about who got funding. It’s possible that the changes in team size reflect changing norms around having unfunded athletes.

The junior national team was much smaller than the senior team in the 1980s and 90s, so we don’t see such a pronounced decline in its size. But from approximately 2000 onward, the junior team has been much closer in size to the senior national team. This may reflect an increasing emphasis on creating a pipeline of younger gymnasts who come up through the national team system.

To my surprise, we also don’t see much evidence of team sizes peaking during Olympic years. I was under the impression that the team grows as the Olympics approaches, both to let more athletes get closer to their dream and to maintain a large selection pool in case of injury. However, the data does not support this.

2. Most athletes don’t stay on the national team very long.

We know many gymnasts have short careers, but it’s really striking to see just how few athletes are able to hold on to a spot at the top in the US. The plot below shows the tenures of national team athletes.

The data begins in 1983, so I looked only at gymnasts who were on the team in 1990 or later for this analysis to ensure that I’m capturing athletes’ entire careers. For athletes who were on the team in 1990 or later, I do include all national team appearances going back to the 80s.

The mean national team athlete spends 2.74 years on the junior and senior national team combined. This is somewhat skewed by a few athletes with outstanding longevity: the median athlete is on the national team for just two years.

36.9% of athletes on the national team in this period — that is, 137 gymnasts — were only on the national team for a single year. 57.7% of athletes were only on the national team for one or two years. Put plainly, the vast majority of athletes who make it to the highest levels in US gymnastics do not stay there long.

There are, however, some very notable exceptions to this rule. Chellsie Memmel and Domique Dawes share the honor of spending a full decade on the national team. If Memmel succeeds in making the national team in 2021, she would become the single longest tenured member of the US national team in the modern era.

The full list of athletes with five years or more on the national team is below.

Chellsie Memmel10
Dominique Dawes10
Alicia Sacramone9
Nastia Liukin9
Amy Chow8
Ashley Postell8
Bridget Sloan8
Dominique Moceanu8
Jennie Thompson8
Mohini Bhardwaj8
Rebecca Bross8
Shannon Miller8
Tasha Schwikert8
Brenna Dowell7
Hollie Vise7
Jamie Dantzscher7
Jana Bieger7
Jordan Chiles7
Katie Heenan7
Kerri Strug7
Kristen Maloney7
Kyla Ross7
Melanie Sinclair7
Vanessa Atler7
Alexandra Raisman6
Amanda Borden6
Courtney Kupets6
Gabrielle Douglas6
Jeanette Antolin6
Jordyn Wieber6
Kassi Price6
Kim Zmeskal6
Kristen Stucky6
Kristy Powell6
Larrissa Fontaine6
Madison Kocian6
MyKayla Skinner6
Samantha Peszek6
Shayla Worley6
Simone Biles6
Tabitha Yim6
Terin Humphrey6
Amelia Hundley5
Andree Pickens5
Bailie Key5
Carrie Nagle5
Chelle Stack5
Christy Henrich5
Elise Ray5
Juliet Bangerter5
Katie Teft5
Kim Kelly5
Kristal Uzelac5
Kristin McDermott5
Lindsay Wing5
Mary-Beth Arnold5
Melinda Baimbridge5
Morgan White5
Ragan Smith5
Sabrina Vega5
Samantha Shapiro5
Shawn Johnson5
Stephanie Woods5
Summer Reid5

3. A small number clubs have absolutely dominated the national team over time.

Get ready to do some scrolling: here’s every single club that’s had a gymnast on the national team since 1983 in one plot.

There are 178 teams on this list, which is a testament to the power of the semi-centralized system. It is incredibly impressive that 178 separate training programs have produced gymnasts capable of competing internationally. This is the true strength of American gymnastics: it is not reliant on a small number of individuals or vulnerable to the collapse of select programs. Elite gymnastics is widespread.

Of course, this plot above is highly skewed. Parkettes, Karolyis, CGA, and SCATS have all sent more than 30 athletes to the national team. (All of these clubs have been accused of abusive coaching practices.) On the other hand, most clubs — specifically, 59.4% of them — have only ever had one athlete on the national team. If you’d like to read more about measuring the extent to which the national team is dominated by just a few clubs, check out my last post!

Got any lingering questions that I can answer with this data? DM me on twitter or comment below!

Tags: Fun with Other Data