No excursus of the first night of apparatus finals in Olympic gymnastics—vault and uneven bars for women, floor and the dread pommel horse for men—can begin without a sincere and full-throated recognition of the ice water veins and killer instinct of one MyKayla Skinner: former 2016 Olympic alternate; former Utah Ute; current Olympic vault silver medalist.
Skinner’s journey from Rio’s tweeting enfant quasi-terrible, to fiery NCAA superstar, to the elite comeback almost nobody believed would go all the way (I did!) now ends, against many odds, with a hunk of silver draped around her neck. Barely edged out by a stratospheric pair of skills from Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade—the first-ever gold for that country’s gymnastics program, which failed to qualify a full team to these Games—Skinner hit the Cheng and Amanar vaults of her life, at long last earning the hardware she has pursued for her entire sentient life. She did it with a single-minded tenacity any of us would be lucky to possess for even a day.
That was the good news. Otherwise, damn near the entirety of Tokyo’s inaugural night of event finals was an unmitigated disaster. Overhanging the whole event was the present absence of the sport’s biggest star—Simone Biles has now also withdrawn from Monday’s floor final, with Tuesday’s beam competition the only remaining uncertainty. Biles’ withdrawal was especially heart-wrenching on vault, the event where she has pioneered two staggeringly difficult skills and usually flies with breathtaking amplitude and near-perfect execution. Then, there was pretty much everything else that happened: With a few notable exceptions, it might as well have been called the apparatus fall-nals. (Sorry.) Reader, that joke might be a consequence of the fact that I stayed up until 4 in the Godforsaken morning to watch the best gymnasts that the world has ever seen absolutely flipping choke. And the worst part? It didn’t have to be that way at all.
Here’s what happened: First, my stomach sank as the Russian Olympic Committee’s normally stunning Nikita Nagornyy debuted his triple back piked salto—only to almost sit down the landing and stumble out of bounds multiple times. Then, things got worse as the U.S.’s only medal hope, stick king Yul Moldauer, flubbed his non-tumbling flare sequence, which he usually has on autopilot. With the exception of the first-place tie between Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat and Spain’s Rayderley Zapata (tie broken in Dolgopyat’s favor with a higher difficulty score), everyone else—i.e., the literal best floor workers in the actual world—more or less choked.* The floor final was, as Canadian 2004 Olympic medalist Kyle Shewfelt put it, a mess.
And then, alas, it got even worse. As unexpectedly delightful as the women’s vault medal podium was—Andrade, Skinner, and South Korea’s Yeo Seo-jeong (who, at long last, nailed her mythical double-twisting handspring front layout!)—there was somebody missing up there. Gymnastics watchers may wonder what happened to gold medal favorite Jade Carey, who qualified into these Olympics as an individual event specialist on this very event. Carey, in fact, outscored Skinner in qualifying with a cleaner, higher Cheng and Amanar, temporarily booting Skinner out of the final thanks to the two-gymnasts-per-country rule, before Biles’ withdrawal summoned Skinner back.
So what happened? What happened was that Biles’ shocking case of the midair yips during last week’s team final actually turned out to be the second-scariest vault moment of these Games (so far; the men’s final is still upcoming): After uncharacteristically losing her footing during what was supposed to be her hurdle—gym parlance for that skip-hoppy step we take before a roundoff or handspring, which creates both the power and control that we need to execute skills correctly—Carey’s planned Cheng turned into a scary balk, a simple tucked Yurchenko timer that she landed safely, but shellshocked, on her feet. This was yet another shocking heartbreak: Carey still has one more chance on floor, her other signature event, but a vault medal was supposed to be a lock for her. (Later, America’s other gold hopeful, bar genius Suni Lee, would succumb to the exhaustion of four meets in a row and default to her “easier” routine, earning bronze.)
And the worst part about it? Carey’s biff was caused, in large if not exclusive part, by a cruel and nonsensical rule by the sport’s governing body, the International Gymnastics Federation, or FIG, to intentionally disallow what’s called a “touch warmup” before event finals. That’s right: The rule meant that the entire affair was a hot, dangerous mess on purpose.
A touch warmup is exactly what it sounds like. Just before competition, gymnasts typically are allowed to briefly get a feel for the apparatus they’ll be competing on, after completing a longer warmup in a different gym away from (what are usually) spectators. On bars, the athletes swing about half a routine; on beam, they jump on and hit a few acro skills, then usually a quick “timer” (not full) dismount; on floor, they do one or two runs of tumbling—and on vault, they run down the runway and hit another timer, affording them the opportunity to, among other things, check their steps.
Without a touch warmup—which gymnasts get before literally every other competition besides Olympics and World Championships event finals—the athletes are hitting their signature apparatus cold. And so, unsurprisingly, they rarely compete at their best.
The reasoning behind the ban is truly ridiculous. We, the viewers, are rooting for every one of these gymnasts to hit the routines of their lives (may the best of the best win!), but instead are treated to a broadcast full of mat-eating because the FIG insists that a touch warmup (which takes all of five minutes) ruins broadcast continuity and, as the 2010 meeting minutes of the FIG council say, “undermine[s] entertainment quality” by slightly boring viewers and extending broadcast time—unlike, say, an elaborate 20-minute medal ceremony that looks exactly like literally every single other one in the Olympics. That’s just dope television to be sure. (An email to the FIG to inquire about the provenance of this rule has not yet been returned; a Change.org petition to change it closed in on 1,500 signatures as of this writing. Update, Aug. 2, 2021, at 12:59 p.m. ET: The FIG has responded that it canceled the warmup in April 2001 “with the recommendation of the Athletes’ Commission.”)
It’s worth emphasizing that, yes, you read right: The governing body of the sport of gymnastics refuses to let gymnasts safely warm up so that they can compete at their best, because somehow it is better “entertainment” to watch the greatest gymnasts on Earth struggle.
This accursed Olympiad has brought a lot—a lot—of jabber about diversity and inclusion and athlete safety and athlete centeredness. And for a second, I thought there might be a quick FIG about-face just to entice the GOAT back onto the competition floor (she has, like practically every other gymnast alive, called for a touch warmup in event finals). But apparently not even the potential to lure back the sport’s biggest ratings draw could persuade its authorities to prioritize athlete safety, to say nothing of performance. So, lucky us—and luckier gymnasts: The broadcast length of the upcoming two event finals will be absolutely perfect, affording us all an unhindered look at the quality entertainment of watching athletes needlessly get their dreams crushed, if their bodies manage to stay intact.
Correction, Aug. 2, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Rayderley Zapata’s first name.