Team USA is good enough to sweep the podium in the women’s all-around, but the two-per-country rule means they won’t be able to.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Team USA most likely has the best three female gymnasts in the world. Simone Biles might be the best gymnast of all time, and she was absolutely brilliant in Sunday’s qualifications. She posted the best score of any gymnast on three separate apparatuses, the floor exercise, balance beam, and vault, a ridiculous feat that shouldn’t be possible. Aly Raisman is the captain of the team, somehow still in her prime at 22. Gabby Douglas is the reigning all-around champion, and although she’s not as brilliant as she was four years ago, she’s still elite. In Sunday’s events, they placed 1-2-3 in qualifications for Tuesday’s all-around final.
But Team USA won’t be allowed to sweep the podium due to a long-standing rule put in place by the FIG, the world federation of gymnastics. Only two gymnasts from any given country are allowed to participate in the all-around finals. So even though Douglas may be the third-best gymnast in the world — she scored a full two points higher than the fourth-best gymnast in qualifications, Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade — she won’t be in the finals, because she’s not one of the top two Americans.
The two-per-country rule will give a country besides the United States an opportunity to win a medal, which is important for the sport’s international popularity. But it comes at the cost of having an Olympic event which doesn’t actually reward the best three competitors.
The rule almost always affects Team USA. In 2011, Jordyn Wieber won the World Championships in the All-Around but finished behind Douglas and Raisman at the Olympic qualification round and was unable to participate in the final. But normally it prevents a gymnast who finished fourth or fifth or sixth from participating in the finals. The 1-2-3 finish is an extreme example of how the rule harms Team USA.
International Gymnast Magazine explained the origins of the two-per-country rule, which stems back from the 1970s when Japan swept the podiums in event after event after event. There are similar rules in almost every sport at the Olympics. For example, Brazil has the top three women’s beach volleyball teams in the world and swept the podium at last year’s World Championships. But they were allowed to enter only two teams in Rio. Similarly, China has the top four men’s table tennis players in the world and the top three women’s table tennis players in the world, but were only allowed to enter two players in each event.
For her part, Douglas was upbeat, saying the rule was “fine” and that her four years as Olympic All-Around champion were an “amazing ride.” Coach Martha Karolyi criticized the rule, saying that it allowed “lower level” participants in the finals but added that it forced her athletes to compete harder.
The good news is Team USA is likely to get two medals from the individual all-around with Biles and Raisman both competing. And Douglas will be an important part of a gymnastics team that should absolutely obliterate the field in the women’s team event.
The rule is a bummer, as it prevents a great athlete from competing and possibly takes a medal away from America. But in the long run, the fact that Team USA has three gymnasts good enough to win medals in the all-around is a sign that they’re going to have a lot of fun these Olympics.