Did overtraining lose the United States the team gold? Part II
Posted September 9, 2008on:
In Part II, I ask:
Is overtraining responsible for the loss to the Chinese?
The simple answer is no. I am already ambivalent enough about the suggestion that there is evidence that the team was overtrained, but I am pretty convinced that it didn’t affect the outcome. There are a couple of reasons.
First, one has to wonder whether the U.S. team, if overtrained, was any more overtrained than any other team — particularly the Chinese and the Romanians, who have notoriously insane training programs. So even if we were overtrained, we may still have been on a level playing field in that regard. It’s doubtful that Marta Karolyi was harder on our gymnasts than the Romanian or Chinese coaches were on theirs (not that this excuses such behavior).
But there are two other factors: first, team spirit. Our team simply did not have the focus and energy that brought us victory at Worlds. Some people, like Paul Ziert, have offered this as evidence of overtraining. I don’t know what it was, but it was definitely obvious.
The second, and most important, is the simple fact that combined A-score of the Chinese was 2.1 points higher than ours. Their combined A-score was higher in Worlds, but we relied on few mistakes to get around that. You can also often count on the Chinese (at least in the past) to screw things up right when it gets important. That didn’t happen this time. As Suzanne Yoculan said in the New York Times:
n the end, it was not the falls or mistakes of the U.S. team members that cost them the gold. It was the superior level of difficulty that the Chinese team had over the U.S. team. With this new scoring system in place, the team with more difficulty going in has more room for error. The Chinese team had over 2 points more in difficulty than the U.S. team. This advantage is hard to overcome.
The obvious comparison for this match-up is to 2007 Worlds, when we beat the Chinese. (If you don’t want the play-by-play, skip down to “The bottom line”
Let’s start with the Olympics. First, we started off the team finals with Chellsie Memmel’s injury, and Sam Peszek’s from warm-ups just prior to the finals. Performing in Olympic order, we were up on vault first, and managed to eek out a .525 advantage. But seeing as the vault has always been one of our specialties, particularly against the Chinese, this was not as good as we could have done (especially with Shawn Johnson’s side-step that she took throughout the Games on her 2 1/2). Next up was bars. Johnson second (after Memmel), and had really only one minor form deduction for a score that is similar to that she has received in other international competitions. Nastia Liukin’s bars were almost flawless in the air, but I think she deserves to lose a lot on the terrible form in her dismount. Still, her score was high. But after this point the Chinese had a 1-point lead, meaning they had recovered 1.5 points over us on bars. The fact that two of their competitors had a 7.7 start value did not help. I think that after bars, all of the energy that we had had was sucked out of us. Even though the Chinese had a fall on beam, we matched it with Alicia Sacramone’s fall on her dismount. That was pretty much the end of this competition. Even without the fall we still would have been .7 behind if we had matched the Chinese scores otherwise. As it happens, we made up .5 on the beam, leaving us with a 1-point deficit. That means that even without Sacramone’s fall, we still would have been .2 behind. It might have given us a little bit of mojo for floor though. As we know, by the time we got to floor, especially after Sacramone’s lead-off, the Chinese just had to wait for their turn to perform what was basically a victory dance. And all three, and particularly Jiang Yuyuan (as far as getting the crowd engaged), did just that.
Now the 2007 Worlds. It started off better, but watching only the first rotation is slightly deceiving, because we came close to losing in the third. Sam Peszek led off with a huge DTY, and everyone knows the lead-off person is key. Yang Yilin also had a huge step, winding up with a score under 14.5. Then, remember that Cheng Fei — then the world champion — fell on her 2 1/2. This is what we used to count on the Chinese for — falls. That is not a reasonable strategy. After these vaults, we had a 1.6-point lead over the Chinese, and as their combined A-score was only 1.8-points more than ours at the time, we had nearly made up the difference. (This even with Johnson posting a 15.150 on her DTY vs. the 16.0 she got at the Olympics for a 2 1/2.) On bars, He Ning (not on the Olympic team) had an amazing set, but Yang Yilin missed a few handstands and had a low landing. The Americans, by contrast, were flawless — at their levels (Johnson scored her standard 15.375). Going in to the third rotation, the United States was in first. But this is the famous meet where, just as Ekaterina Kramarenko was sending the Russians crashing into last place by faulting on the vault for a 0.0, Liukin was nearly falling off the beam and compensating by landing her dismount as a back tuck. This then led to Johnson’s early fall off the beam (before a spectacular recovery). Once again, we had some major problems. The only thing that saved us was Li Shanshan’s fall out of bounds on floor. Not only did this hurt China’s score on floor, it gave the Americans a sense that they could win it. Johnson went up and nailed it, and Sacramone was then in her tremendously sassy mood which, combined with her pep talk to the team between rotations three and four, made her the hero of these championships. (Quite the difference from the blame-game she’s been the focus of since the Olympics. (As we all know, John Roethlisberger, and anyone else with a brain, have convincingly argued that this is not the case.)
The Bottom Line:
At Worlds, we were first in all of the rotations except beam. By contrast, at the Olympics, we were first only twice, and second and third on bars and floor (the Romanians were second). Our two best apparatuses, relative to the Chinese, are probably vault and floor. At Worlds, we beat them on vault by nearly 1.6, and they finished in fifth on that apparatus. At the Olympics, they finished second, and that by only around .5. On floor, we beat them by nearly one point at Worlds. The big difference at the Olympics? We lost by 1.3 points to the Chinese — on the floor. The Chinese made huge improvements over the last year, and most importantly in consistency. We relied on this not happening.
My point is: not only did we perform better (at least on some apparatuses), but the Chinese performed worse. We relied on their mistakes, not only to depress their scores, but to boost ours by giving us confidence. There is no doubt that there is a huge effect of context on athletes’ performance, and the Americans felt ready to win at Worlds. They didn’t seem as secure in that feeling at the Olympics.
If anyone is to “blame” for the loss at the Olympics, it’s the U.S. team leaders for not realizing that eventually the Chinese and their A-score advantage would eventually come out on top. (A good clue would have been that they won Worlds in 2006), for the first time ever.
So that we don’t leave this one on a down note, here’s a picture of our World champions (still reigning!):