In the McKayla Maroney era, U.S. women’s gymnastics is (literally) stronger than ever

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McKayla Maroney, vaulting. ()
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The accomplishment of the "Fab Five" in winning the first team gold medal for the U.S. in women’s gymnastics since 1996 was thrilling. It was also, among other things, a reminder that much of what fans have come to love about women's gymnastics is changing, probably for good.

Take the still-new scoring system. The Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) gutted the iconic "perfect ten" system in 2006, following a scoring error in the men's all-around competition during the 2004 Athens Games that probably cost South Korea a gold medal. Judges used the new method during the 2008 Beijing games, and its use in this Olympics has made it clear that it isn't going anywhere. 

Now, instead of one score from one set of judges, there are two scores from two judging panels—for difficulty and execution—which add up to between 14 and 17 for elite competitors. An added "D" score essentially elevates the maximum possible score to infinity, as competitors receive extra credit of sorts for extreme elements.

Gone are the days when winners were made by tenths and hundredths of a point. Competition now extends into the thousandths of a point.

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The system priviliges daring over precision and consistency: Sloppy execution can be made up for in "D" score, so the emphasis on perfection is lost. There is room built in for mistakes, if the element performed is difficult enough.

If you think this sounds dangerous, you're right. Injuries to top gymnasts have been on the rise across the world, as the winning strategy shifts. The already short shelf life for a gymnast is going to get even shorter, as they sacrifice themselves to the demands of spectacle.

And it is a spectacle, the whole thing: the astounding acrobatics the girls perform; the distorted dimensions of their figures, muscles just this side of grotesque and faces still filled out with baby fat; the international competition that's been polished over the last forty years, channeling aggression through the pointed toes and tumbling of little girls who shoot around like rockets with pig tails and perky grins. (I will continue to use "girl" even though the sport is officially "women's" gymnastics; see Aly Raisman gush about her senior prom here.)

Some of the changes to the sport are occuring at the individual level, like the impending retirement of the celebrity coaching team of Bela and Marta Karolyi. The married couple is now more famous than most of their star protégées, who include Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. 

The Karolyis have been rolling their native-Transylvanian "r's and pumping fists from the sidelines at games since the 1970s, becoming pop-culture icons who have lent a comforting, sometimes comic presence to a nail-bitingly dangerous sport with a fast-evolving line-up.

They are the coaching team that led the "Magnificent Seven" to the US's first team gold in Atlanta in 1996, secured after Kerri Strug nailed her vault on a severely injured foot.

The TV audience listened with disbelief as Bela encouraged her to perform again on the sprain: "Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold. You can do it, you better do it."

She did, and they won. Who can forget the image of Bela carrying Kerri to the podium to accept the gold medal with her foot in a cast? The moment even earned a SNL parody, with Darrell Hammond growling as Bela alongside a chirpy Chris Kattan as Kippy Strug, Kerri's brother.

When Bela retired as team coordinator, Marta took over. Their training ranch hosts the girls before nearly every major competition. Marta has, in fact, been blamed for many of the injuries that have plagued the U.S. team. Former students, including one of the "Magnificent Seven" Dominique Moceanu, have been publicly critical of the intensity with which she pushes athletes. Where Bela is seen as a theatrical softy (there is an adorable if bizarre clip of him showing the TODAY show's Natalie Morales around the ranch and introducing her to their pet goose, Lady Gaga), Marta is the stereotypically stony Eastern-bloc coach, straight out of a Rocky sequel.

When Jordyn Wieber was eliminated from the individual all-around competition, getting nudged out of one of the two spots for American girls by higher-scoring teammate Aly Raisman, Bela lamented it as a "travesty." Marta's response was a little more chilly. "What do you say? Jordyn did her best but was edged by her teammates."

For anybody else who remembers the 1984 made-for-TV movie Nadia about the Romanian prodigy Nadia Comaneci, the first woman to win a perfect ten in the Olympics, Marta Karolyi was played by Talia Balsam, George Clooney's first and only wife, now playing Mona Sterling on “Mad Men”. For aspiring gymnasts, Nadia's defiance was the real triumph of the movie: In a fit of rebellion, she snuck out to have a good time, drinking and snacking—snacking!—the night before the Montreal games. And then she makes history. If you do remember the movie, you're probably among the same ex-gymnasts, like me, who involuntarily find themselves squaring shoulders and raising chins every time a girl steps up to an apparatus, knees twitching and tightening from the couch after watching a dismount.

The Karolyis are not quite the last remnant of Soviet-era competition at these Olympics.

There is also Oksana Chusovitina, a 37-year-old mother who only competes on the vault. She's been to six Olympics and competed as a member of the Soviet team, and Uzbekistan's (and now Germany's). She gave 15-year-old American wunderkind McKayla Maroney a run for money at last year's world championship, but this is expected to be Chusovitina's last Olympics.

Though it is the end of the era of politically-infused gymnastics—Ceausescu loomed over Comaneci's post-gold medal competitions and East Germany used to be one of the top contenders in any competition—this Olympics marks a return to form for Eastern European countries that were once major players but have lagged in recent years.

Russia took silver in the team all-around, and Romania won the bronze. If the U.S. is seen as the heart of gymnastics at the moment, Romania might be its soul. Their team this year is particularly impressive: Larisa Iordache is poised to become a star, and the balletic grace that fueled Diana Bulimar during her floor exercise routine was a highlight of Tuesday's team competition.

The Romanians and the Russians actually have a distinct look from the Americans, and it's a difference that has become more dramatic since the new scoring system was implemented: The inflated scoring has produced an analog in the bulging in the muscles of the Americans, who have beefed up to perform difficult skills. The Romanians and the Russians have remained lithe by comparison, preferring the lean lines of dancers to the power of the Americans—and it appears to be costing them.

It's a visual difference that represents a bigger split in gymnastics-philosophy that's underway as a result of the scoring system. Shannon Miller, the most decorated American gymnast in history and a member of the 1996 Magnificent Seven team, could barely hold back her critiques of the contemporary sport, which she says is losing its "artistic" half.

"These days they pack in so much tumbling to get the difficulty score up, it's nice to see a little bit of dance," she explained at one point during the NBC broadcast of the team competition.

Without the artistry, the girls end up performing more like the men, who do not use music and tumble back and forth as a showcase for their power rather than their personalities. It's always impressive but never as memorable.

In a sport known for the mental toughness it requires, this has already been a year full of breakdowns and tears. There's that heartbreaking video of Wieber crying after she just misses the cutoff to qualify for the individual competition. And there’s heartbreaking imagery of the Russians, too: It was actually a close competition between the U.S. and Russia until the last apparatus, when two of the three girls competing for Russia fell during their floor exercise routines.

"Russia is not happy," said a British commentator as the camera zoomed in on Aliya Mustafina's tears, mixing with the rainbow glitter of her make-up.

It’s hard to say whether those emotions are a product of the normal stresses of competition, or whether they’re another byproduct of the intense training for those coveted "D" scores, pushing girls to a mental breaking point as well as a physical one.

So what to expect from the individual all-around competition on Thursday?

China’s Deng Linlin and Huang Qiushuang can’t be counted out. Russia's Viktoria Kumova had the highest score of the qualifying round, and she is a beautiful performer, with the length and grace of Nastia Liukin. The Romanians have a similar balletic style, combined with a bit more of the compact power necessary to win, though one of my favorites, Diana Bulimar, will not be competing.

For the U.S., there's Aly Raisman, who took Wieber’s place. She's a solid and serious performer who seems to be surprising even herself as she knocks out great routines. 

And there’s Gabby Douglas, the bubbly and brilliant teenager who has nailed every skill and performance at the games, who has the rare combination of petite power and elegant lines. She falls somewhere in between body-builder and dancer, and her routines are infectious. 

These girls train so much, twice a day, nearly every day for years, to get to that near-meditative state of muscle memory that it takes to master such difficult skills. They are fighting not just gravity, but their own natural development to be able to move like they do. (A "growth spurt" for Aliya Mustafina was cited by Miller alongside a list of recent injuries, in terms of things that are going against her.)

In Thursday's individual all-around competition, there will be a lot of talk of balance checks, deductions, Arabians, double pikes, Amanars, twisting layouts, releases, and dismounts. Every heartbeat without a movement is room for a wobble, and every wobble is a window for a fall, or worse. You'll also notice more upbeat music on the floor, leotards with more sparkle that deviate from team colors; the girls are competing for themselves, rather than just for their countries, and there are usually more smiles, too.

At the 2016 games in Rio, a lot will be different. Skills not yet invented will be diagrammed on the homepage of The New York Times, like the high-scoring but dangerous Amanar vault McKayla Maroney excels at was this year. Gabby Douglas is likely to be wily veteran, and the sentimental favorite.

There will be no more Cold War remnants, and the graceful, perfect-ten routine will be a distant memory. A more subtle battle between grace and power will take its place.