Friday, August 8, 2008

"IF WE HAVE A NAME, I THINK WE WANT TO BE CALLED THE SUPER SIX": Just as figure skating is the marquee attraction in the Winter Games, gymnastics is the main event for the summer games. Commenter Taylor (catchphrase: "deal with it! ") has us covered:
The chances of USA Gymnastics winning big are only matched by their personalities this year - great fodder for melodramatic hometown hero introductions and Magnificent Seven comparisons. Even more ready-for-primetime: for both the men and women's teams, it's a showdown between the US and China.

Things are a shaken up on both sides of Team USA. Paul Hamm took himself out of the running after his hand injury continued to plague him. Too bad, as Hamm could have used the opportunity to win gold without the scoring controversy.

Enter eternal alternate Raj Bhavsar, who after being denied the trip to Athens four years ago, started his own intense training schedule and zen regimen worthy of Bruce Wayne. When he was named alternate (yet again), Raj talked a lot about the intrinsic reward of working hard. It's a nice sentiment, but he deserved to be named in the first place. When you see what Raj Bhavsar can do on rings, you too will want one of the iconic t-shirts his cheering section wears (Go Team Raj!). Former world champ and US secret weapon Chellsie Memmel [spelling property of SYTYCD -- ed.] injured her ankle on Sunday, but she's not out, especially considering her strongest event is uneven bars. If necessary, her likely replacement is Jana Bieger. "Bieger bars" are big and powerful, but maybe not enough.

Once the team match is over, the rest of the women's team will all but disappear under a barrage of Shawn vs. Nastia, middle American firecracker vs. Russian Olympic champ DNA, power vs. grace, etc., etc. I want to scorn the the effervescent, baby-faced Shawn Johnson for already being deemed America's next sweetheart, her face plastered on Coke cans. I can't bring myself to do it, the girl's got supernatural talent. In every event, she is either alone in her difficulty or tied with the world's best. Her giants on the uneven bars are somehow twice as tall as she is. She hits every routine, every single time.

But Nastia Liukin, the daughter of an gold medal Soviet gymnast (who is also her coach), is far more entertaining to watch. She's not as perfectly consistent and her mistakes are often caused when she pushes herself to perform beyond her technical skills. Nastia has a stage actor's presence on floor, and rarely sacrifices form in any of the apparati. Plus her difficulty value on uneven bars is a full point and fourth tenths above Shawn's - she's a curve wrecker.

I can't not mention Alicia Sacramone [please join me in nicknaming her "Ginny" – ed.], who strikes me as a person fully enjoying being wiser, self-possessed, and totally over the bullshit after a Raj-like disappointment in 2004. She's unofficial team big sis and has the most exciting floor routine and beam dismount of the whole team.

Then there's the very real international threats of Romanian Steliana Nistor, Jade Barbosa from Brazil, and the entire Chinese team. China's specialists (Yang Yilin on bars, already Olympian Cheng Fei on vault, Jiang in the all-around) may not catch up to Johnson or Lukin, but the tiny even-for-gymnastics crew with a hometurf advantage could sweep the team match. Expect soul-searching but pointless narratives from NBC about the harshness of the Chinese gymnastics machine, especially after reports of possible fudging of half the team's ages.

On the commentary side, Bela Karolyi will again be joining Bob Costas on the floor for intros. Watch as Costas' face slides into panic and amusement as he tries to interpret Karoyli's verbal and literal jazz hands. And sending millions of people to their mute buttons during the meets will be Al Trautwig, who wins my personal Fred Willard Prize for most inane sports commentary. (Some of my favorites Al quips from the trials: "It's amazing that the US can send a man of Chinese descent to the Beijing Olympics!" and "Lives are changing here tonight in Philadelphia: some with fate, some with destiny." "She is a super-competitive young lady!" No shit, Al.)

Team prelims are on Saturday and Sunday, with the finals on Monday and Tuesday. After that, the all-around and event competitions begin. In a move of staggering but probably correct assumption about their demographic, Oxygen is hosting an daily roundup of gymnastic competition in the evenings.
(ETA by Taylor: [After press time], Morgan Hamm injured his ankle and is out as well. Raj can't even save the men's chances now.)

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