For US gymnasts, 1-2 is the perfect number

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In the end, the women’s all-around gymnastics gold medal came down to a simple matter of mathematics.

Yang Yilin, Shawn Johnson, and Nastia Liukin might disagree.

After all, it was they who stood on four inches suede-encased wood, the crowd breathless, two nations waiting. It was they, who, separated by 0.6 points heading into the final rotation, hurtled across the floor, spun above the weight of the world’s expectations, and landed cat-soft on the mat, not a foot out of place.

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But in the end, there was nothing between gold and silver – nothing between Americans Liukin and Johnson – but 1.4 points.

Johnson could have worked it out in her high-school classroom – a word problem with an Olympic gold medal as the reward for the correct solution: Liukin’s difficulty score on uneven bars was 1.4 points higher than Johnson’s, and during the other three rotations, Johnson could not make up the difference.

That it came down to this – to the ethereal perfection of decimals and ones and zeroes, is a testament to the near-perfection of the gymnastics itself. Two days back in time is enough to see how often mistakes play a decisive role in determining Olympic gold. But today, there were virtually none to see.

“In all rotations [the medal winners] were all excellent,” says Liang Chow, Johnson’s coach. Speaking of Johnson, he adds: “She could not have done anything better.”

And this is a testament to Nastia Liukin. Once again – as if we needed the confirmation – Johnson proved that she is the most consistent female gymnast in the world, and that her level of consistency across all apparatuses has no equal.

But today, Liukin at last put together the performance that the gymnastics world had been waiting for. There was no doubting her ability to do it. She had nearly done it once before, taking silver in the all-around at the 2005 world championships.

But after that, injuries intervened. Then, Shawn Johnson did.

There is no sense that, even before today, Liukin viewed Johnson, her Olympic roommate, as an impediment. Quite the opposite, actually. “We’ve become better and stronger gymnasts because of each other,” says Liukin.

The proof stood on the medal stand today, together. It was the third time a nation had taken gold and silver in the women’s all-around, and the first for the US. In fact, it was only the third gold in the event for US and the second silver.

The post-match press conference was a curious sight in a sport so often laced with angst and acrimony: Each athlete, each coach realizing this was the only possible result. Just as Chow agreed that Johnson could have done no better, Yang’s coach said the same of her.

Because it all came down to mathematics. When factored in with her performance “B” score, Johnson actually lost 1.375 points to Liukin on the bars. On vault, Liukin’s worst event, Johnson made 0.85 points back with the meet’s best vault.

But the two were too even on the apparatuses that remained: beam and floor. They tied on floor – setting the meet’s joint highest score of 15.525 when the pressure was greatest – and Liukin actually edged Johnson on beam by 0.075, again setting the meet’s highest mark on the apparatus.

Here, the math was against Yang, too. With lower start scores on beam and floor than either Liukin or Johnson, she could not catch the former or hold off the latter.

For once, let us congratulate the gymnastics federation. The new scoring system worked exactly as it should, choosing from among the three most talented gymnasts by the best possible measure: the difficulty of their routines.

Imagine trying to sort out that mess with the 10.0 scoring system alone.

Perhaps it lacked the poetry of Nadia Comenici’s perfect 10s during the Montreal Games. But just as then, the numbers gave the best sense of the perfection on display.

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