Olympics outrage: Should Jordyn Wieber be in the all-around final?

Criticism mounts after favorite Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for the all-around final at the Olympics despite a solid performance. Rules allow only two American gymnasts in the final. 

Gregory Bull/AP
Coach Jenny Zhang consoles US gymnast Jordyn Wieber as she cries after failing to qualify for the women's all-around finals during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification at the 2012 Summer Olympics Sunday.

Jordyn Wieber, welcome to the Olympics. 

Logic dictates that we ask the question: How could Ms. Wieber, the 2011 all-around world champion – who even on an off day Sunday finished fourth in the qualification round – not make an Olympic all-around final of 24 girls?

Put another way: Twenty-one girls who scored lower than her on Sunday – many of whom have as much chance of medaling as Queen Elizabeth (at least, the non-parachuting version) – will be competing Thursday in the event that defines the careers of the world’s best gymnasts.

And yet the girl who is likely the world’s best gymnast will not be there. 

Outrageous? Absolutely.

Unusual? Hardly.

It is the Olympics.

Since 2004, the Olympics have had a two-per country rule for the gymnastics finals, and since Gabrielle Douglas and Alexandra Raisman were among the three girls who put up higher scores than Wieber Sunday, Wieber became the odd girl out. 

The Olympic philosophy is "we want to spread the wealth, we want to spread sport to other parts of the world," says David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." Otherwise, there would be no Saudi Arabian woman runners or American badminton players. 

But Wieber's failure to make a final that her scores suggest she clearly deserved points to a philosophy run amok, says Mr. Wallechinsky. "Sure, let them compete in the Olympics, but you don't have to let them compete in the final," he says. 

In truth, this is nothing new. Just look back four years. In the qualifying round for the all-around in Beijing, Russian Ksenia Afanasyeva posted the sixth-best score, but was the third-best Russian. She watched as a Belgian – whom she outscored by 3.650 points – competed in the all-around, and finished last.

Tricks to avoid getting Wieber'd

Even before 2004, when the per-team limit was three, the top countries performed their own special brand of gymnastics – with their lineups – to ensure their top girls didn't get Wieber'd. 

In 1992, one of the three all-around finalists for the Russian Unified team suffered an injury (gasp!), conveniently allowing their top gymnast, who fell on the beam and finished fourth on the team in the qualification round, to enter the all-around. She won gold, and it was later confirmed that the injury was a complete fabrication.

Four years later, when the same thing happened to the best Romanian gymnast, the coaches simply pulled one of their top three finishers, saying she "didn't work hard enough." (We're guessing she did, actually.) 

Surely, the US would never consider claiming that Ms. Douglas or Ms. Raisman had an "injury" to get Wieber into the final. Otherwise, what was that whole cold war thing about? But as the US rises in the ranks of women's gymnastics, we are now becoming the Soviets of old, and we are starting to see what they were grousing about all along. 

Now, Sunday's example was particularly – perhaps even historically – egregious. Wieber scored a whopping 5.800 points higher than the lowest qualifier Sunday.

But imagine if she had qualified. The US would have put the No. 2, 3, and 4 qualifiers in the final. A medal sweep would not have been out of the question. Indeed, it might have been almost probable.

Happy as that thought must be to the legions of little American girls with visions of Wieber prancing through their heads, it is not a prospect that makes the Olympic movement giddy. It is why they installed the per-team limit in the first place. In the beginning, there had been none.

"They would get complaints: The Russians are too strong, the Japanese are too strong," says Wallechinsky.

Similar issue in swimming

In fact, the two-per-country limit shouldn't seem so unusual to Americans. It's the reason the US cannot have a medal sweep in swimming.

Admittedly, John Geddert, coach of Team USA and Wieber's personal coach, is not the most impartial of observers, but he suggests that maybe gymnastics' governing body, FIG, should think twice before using the same rules for swimming and gymnastics. Swimmers, after all, can now have careers spanning several Olympics. A female gymnast, by comparison, has the career span of a mayfly.

"One kid is going to make a mistake that costs her country a medal, and they have to live with that the rest of their life," he said Sunday, according to the gymnastics website Gymnastike. "So the FIG really needs to start rethinking some of these things. A kid’s training their entire life, and because they’re the third best in their country, they don’t get to go to the dream competition. I just, I don’t know where they’re coming from."

For once, it seems, the Americans and the Russians have something to agree on. 

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