Gymnastics is always one of the marquee Olympic sports. With Simone Biles and company, the 2021 Olympics should be no different.
There are 98 women competing in women’s artistic gymnastics at the Olympics. There are 12 national teams composed of four women each, and 50 athletes who qualified as individuals through their country’s or their own world championship finishes, individual World Cup finishes, individual continental championship finishes, or tripartite invitations. The United States is sending six women to compete in gymnastics: A four-woman team and two individual competitors.
Women compete on four apparatuses at the Olympics. They are, in Olympic order (the order in which you will see them rotate on the television broadcast), vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. All competitors will begin the Olympics in the qualifications round; most will compete on all four apparatuses here, but some event specialists will only compete on one or two in qualifications, hoping to nab a spot in an event final.
2021 Olympics: Gymnastics rules summary
Scoring. Ah, scoring. No longer does gymnastics use the vaunted “perfect 10” system; believe it or not, that actually got tossed out for elite competition in 2006. Now, each routine is judged by two panels of judges. One two-judge panel evaluates difficulty, or, as it is known, the gymnast’s D-score; they start from zero, and add points for required elements, connections between elements, and the relative difficulty of individual skills. Technically, there is no limit to the D-score.
Another panel of judges evaluates execution, or the gymnast’s E-score. They start from a 10 and deduct for flaws in form, technique, and artistry.
The two scores, the D-score and the E-score, are then added together to produce the gymnast’s total score. Most gymnasts you will see at the Olympics will receive a combined score between 13 and 16; most who medal will score above a 15. You’ll see the highest scores on vault, and the lowest ones on beam and bars, where small execution flaws are more obvious to judges and can really chip into the numbers.
The frustrating part for sports fans is that all of these scores are subjective. Gymnastics is really in the eye of the beholder.
Following qualifications, the top eight teams will compete in the team final. The top three scores for each country on each apparatus count toward the team score in qualifications.
In the team final, three of the four team members will compete on each apparatus, and all their scores will count. This is referred to as three-up, three-count.
The top 24 women who compete all four apparatuses will qualify for the individual all-around final. The top eight women on each apparatus will compete in that event final. Caveat: Only two women per country can compete in the all-around and in each event final. So you may see someone who finishes as high as third in the all-around or on a particular apparatus not compete beyond qualifications.
2021 Olympics: Gymnasts to know
Team USA: The women’s artistic gymnastics team has four members: Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum. All are adult women, all over 18, upending the stereotype of female gymnasts as underfed teenage waifs. Biles is back for her second Olympics.
Even if Tokyo marks the first time you will watch gymnastics, you have probably heard of Biles, 24, who hails from Spring, Texas, and trains in Houston at the gym owned by her parents, World Champions Centre. Her coaches are 1996 French Olympian Cecile Canqueteau-Landi and Cecile’s husband, Laurent. Among her many accolades: Has not lost an all-around competition (where the gymnast competes on all four apparatuses, vault, bars, beam, and floor) domestically or internationally since 2013. She is the reigning Olympic all-around champion, as well as the reigning world and U.S. champion, and she also picked up a team gold medal, individual golds on vault and floor exercise, and a bronze on the balance beam at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Biles has two skills named after her on floor: A triple-twisting tucked double back somersault and a double layout somersault with a half twist out, both of which she will compete as part of her floor routine in Tokyo. She has a skill named after her on beam, the double-twisting double back somersault dismount, which you likely will not see here. She has one vault already named for her, and watch in qualifications to see her land the second vault that will carry her name, in which she performs a roundoff back handspring onto the vault table, then does a piked double back somersault off. It is the most difficult vault ever landed by a woman in competition.
She recently left Nike for Athleta, where she plans to debut a clothing line. She’s in Uber Eats ads with Jonathan Van Ness, a Visa ad, and others. She owns her own home, has an Instagram-famous French bulldog, Lilo, and dates Jonathan Owens, a safety for the Houston Texans. She is outspoken about surviving the sexual abuse of the former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, and the impact of being a survivor and continuing to compete on her personally.
TL;DR You’re gonna know about Simone Biles whether you want to or not.
Sunisa Lee, 18, is from St. Paul, Minnesota and trains at Midwest Gymnastics Center with her coaches, Jess Graba and Alison Lim. She is the first Hmong American Olympian. Lee competes the hardest uneven bars routine in the world and stands to medal in Tokyo on that event. She is the reigning world silver medalist on floor exercise, and could also make the event final on the balance beam with a very competitive routine there. Lee defeated Biles in the second night of the Olympic Trials competition; though Biles won overall, look for Lee to make a big impact in Tokyo.
Jordan Chiles, 20, lives in Houston and trains alongside Biles under the Landis at World Champions Centre. If you watched the Olympic Trials, you saw the bond between Biles and Chiles on screen; the two are close friends. Chiles has become over the last year one of the most consistent, tough competitors on this Olympic team; during the two-night Olympic Trials competition, she hit all eight of her routines without a single fall. Look for her to make a splash in qualifications and in the team final. She is competitive enough on every event to make an event final, but the danger for her is in getting two-per-countried out by her teammates.
Grace McCallum, 18, is from Isanti, Minnesota, and trains at Twin City Twisters with Sarah Jantzi. McCallum has been part of the last two world championship teams for the U.S. and it was reportedly that international experience that gave her the edge onto the Olympic team. McCallum broke a bone in her hand in January and underwent surgery; that she was able to come back and make an Olympic team after her recovery is a sign of her mental toughness as a competitor. She is solid on all four apparatuses and will be one to watch in qualifications and in the team final, where she is expected to be a valuable cog in the wheel. Whether her scores are strong enough to catapult her out of qualifications into the all-around or an event final remains to be seen.
Two other athletes will compete as individuals under the American flag: Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner. Their scores in qualifications will not count toward the American team total, and they will not compete in the team final, but they are eligible for the individual all-around and event finals.
Carey, 21, is from Phoenix and trains under her father, Brian Carey, at Arizona Sunrays. She competed in a series of World Cup apparatus events to clinch her spot, one of four Olympic berths (one for each women’s apparatus; Carey’s was on vault) awarded through those events. Carey’s pursuit of her spot was not without controversy. She will compete all four events–not just vault, although it is vault where she stands the best chance of making an event final– in qualifications. We may also see Carey attempt to get a skill named after her during qualifications on floor exercise, a triple-twisting laid-out double back somersault. Same mechanics as Biles’ eponymous skill, but with her body stretched out instead of tucked.
Skinner, 24, is from Gilbert, Arizona, where she trains with Lisa Spini at Desert Lights Gymnastics and received an individual spot that the U.S. secured as one of the top three teams at the 2019 world championships (Russia and China also received spots in this way for individual athletes). Skinner’s results at the U.S. Olympic trial mathematically had her contributing to a higher U.S. team score than fourth-place finisher and team member Grace McCallum, but McCallum’s international competition experience gave her the edge, according to USAG.
Skinner, an alternate for the 2016 Olympics, attended the University of Utah for three years where she competed on their NCAA gymnastics team before announcing a return to elite gymnastics in 2019 to fulfill a dream of competing at the Olympics. She got married in 2019, after serving as an alternate for the U.S. team at world championships, and her husband Jonas Harmer shows up frequently on her YouTube channel, where she’ll be taking viewers behind the scenes in Tokyo. Look for Skinner to be a fierce competitor for a spot in the vault final, challenging Carey; her selection for this individual spot was criticized precisely because her strengths on vault and floor are so similar to those of Carey and Biles that either she or Carey stands to lose out on event finals in her top events. Skinner is known as a trickster, and her routines are quite difficult, although her form keeps her scores lower than those of, say, Biles.
You may have heard that an American gymnast tested positive for COVID-19 at the Olympics. That was Kara Eaker, 18, who is an alternate athlete for Team USA. Eaker is now quarantining, as is Leanne Wong, another alternate who was rooming with Eaker. While the alternates (a group of four also including Emma Malabuyo and Kayla DiCello) traveled and trained initially with the six women on the American squad, the team, Carey, and Skinner are now staying in a hotel outside the Olympic Village, and all six have tested negative for COVID-19.
Team USA is expected to three-peat as team champions at the Olympics. Biles is quite likely to repeat as all-around, vault, and floor exercise champion, and could easily make the beam and bars finals as well; she is more likely to medal on beam than bars, but never count her out. Sunisa Lee is likely to medal on bars, and it’s likely to be gold. Either Skinner or Carey will almost certainly accompany Biles to the vault final, if not to the medal podium. But what about the competition the American athletes face from around the world?
2021 Olympics: Gymnastics rivalries
The Russian and Chinese teams are the most likely to challenge American dominance, but they are unlikely to topple Team USA this year. The home team, the Japanese, led by their star, Murakami Mai, may well sneak onto the podium. And look out for the young teams from Great Britain and Italy, both of whom have seized world medals in the years since the last Olympics, to challenge as well in the team competition, but it will be a tough battle for both.
Expect two of the Russians, mostly likely Viktoria Listunova, a young phenom who only became eligible for these Olympics after the postponement, and that team’s veteran, Angelina Melnikova, who has racked up many international medals at major competitions, to vie for the all-around, and expect two Chinese athletes here as well–likely including Zhang Jin, who won the Chinese Olympic trials and has had the highest all-around score of any Chinese athlete this year. Others to watch in the battle for the all-around competition: Murakami; Canadian Ellie Black: the British twins Jennifer and Jessica Gadirova; the Italian twins Asia and Alice D’Amato; Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France; Rebeca Andrade of Brazil.
On vault, Biles stands alone in terms of both difficulty and execution; barring disaster, she’ll take gold easily here. Skinner and Carey will duke it out for the second American spot in the vault final, and assume that whichever one of them makes it will also medal. Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland is the defending Olympic bronze medalist on this event, and should put up a fight again. Yeo Seojeong of Korea could pull out her super-difficult eponymous vault. Alexa Moreno of Mexico is always right in there. And finally, look for eight-time (yes, I said eight) Olympian and gymnastics legend Oksana Chusovitina, vying for an Olympic vault medal at age 46.
Sunisa Lee has the most difficult uneven bars routine in the world right now and is a top contender for bars gold in Tokyo. Her toughest competition comes from the Belgian gymnast Nina Derwael, whose routine can top Lee’s backup routine but not her top one. (Yes, Lee has multiple routines at her disposal.) Watch, too, for Fan Yilin of China, who won the World Cup bars prize to nab her spot here; Fan’s compatriot Lu Yufei; German bars legend Elisabeth Seitz; and Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, who recently showed a very tough new skill in competition.
Balance beam is the hardest event to predict, because of the sheer unpredictability of the apparatus itself. Nonetheless, look for Biles here, and another American. Lee is likely to qualify, based on her relative difficulty and past performances, but McCallum and Chiles are both very consistent beam workers and if someone else falters, they could end up in the final. But beam belongs mostly to the Chinese team, and you will see two Chinese athletes here and both will be almost certain to medal. Ou Yushan and Guan Chenchen are the favorites, but it’s beam. Anything could happen. Like Flavia Saraiva of Brazil, Larisa Iordache of Romania, or defending Olympic beam champion and turn queen Sanne Wevers.
Look for Biles to repeat easily as floor exercise champion; her difficulty and execution here are unparalleled, and she has shown time and time again that having too much power here is no big thing. She’ll have a fellow American with her in the final, but while Chiles shows the most potential, don’t count out Carey, Skinner, McCallum, or Lee. Murakami, at her home Olympics in her best event, is a strong favorite for silver. Vanessa Ferrari of Italy got the World Cup floor spot, is competing in her fourth Olympics, and wants that medal badly. Ou Yushan of China has strong tumbling that sent gym fans abuzz. The dark horses here are Brooklyn Moors of Canada and Eythora Thorsdottir of the Netherlands, both of whom are revered by gym fans for their exquisite artistry but need to back it up with a bit more difficulty to ensure a finals spot.