As the defending women's world all-around gymnastics champion, Jordyn Wieber became one of the prominent American faces leading up to these Games. Wieber was expected to make a strong run to become the third consecutive American to capture the all-around gold medal.
Thing is, people forgot to tell Ally Raisman. Wieber was a little shaky on some of her events during qualifying on Sunday, and while Gabby Douglas performed extraordinarily on the first three events, Raisman remained consistent and solid. When it all settled down after the American finished floor exercise, it turned out that Wieber, although fourth overall, was the third best American. Current rules state that the top 24 scorers in the all-around qualify, with a limit of two per nation. Is this fair?
Historically, gymnastics allowed all six members of each national team to qualify for both the all-around finals and each of the individual apparatus finals. In the 1972 Munich games, the all-around final was separated from the team event for the first time. Previously, the medals for the team and all-around events were decided from the compulsory and optional exercises and awarded on the same day.
At Munich, there was an all-around final with 36 athletes competing, with no national quotas. The top 12 men included all six Japanese with three East Germans and three Soviets. The top eight women included five Soviets and thee East Germans. The individual apparatus finals took the top six qualifiers on each event. For the men, Japan took 22 of the 36 qualifying spots, the Soviets had 9, Klaus Koste of East Germany three and one each for Poland and Switzerland. To cap it off, the Japanese men took the top five places on the high bar.
For the 1976 Olympics, the individual apparatus finals had a national quota of two athletes, with three athletes maximum from each country in the all-around. In 1984, the apparatus finals expanded to eight gymnasts. These rules remained in place through the 2000 Olympics, with the quota reduced to two athletes in the all-around.
When the individual apparatus finals take place over the weekend, the athletes competing will be from a wide variety of countries. At the 2004 Olympics, gold medalists for the men came from Canada, Greece, Spain, Ukraine and Italy. These countries did not have national teams that competed for medals.
Since gymnastics has a team event and individual competitions, countries like the United States must field an entire team. A gymnast who is a specialist on the rings, the best in the world, would have very little chance of making the U.S. team, being only able to contribute to one of the six events for the team score. However, if that same gymnast was from a small country like Togo, he could qualify for the Olympics to compete only on that event and take home a medal.
But to open up the perspective, all sports in the Olympics have national quotas. Otherwise, we could see a dozen Kenyan steeplechasers or almost the entire table tennis tournament consisting of Chinese. Track and field is limited to three athletes per event.
Swimming used to have a national quota of three athletes, but after the United States men swept the medals in four events in Montreal and the East German women did the same in six events at the 1980 Games, a quota of two swimmers was established beginning in 1984.
Tyler Clary was the silver medalist in the 400 meter individual medley behind Ryan Lochte at the world championships last year. When Michael Phelps decided to return to the event, Clary finished third at the trials and could not compete in an event where he was a definite medal contender. These quotas make the Olympic Trials such a compelling event.
Many sports have a quota of one athlete, such as boxing, wrestling, sailing, track cycling, rowing, judo and taekwondo. The International Olympic Commitee wants to see a broad representation of nations in each event. There are also continental quotas. That is why we have a women's soccer tournament with two lower ranked African nations, but the second ranked Germans are at home.
The quotas are in place for a reason, and the reasons took place at a time when sports such as gymnastics were dominated by a handful of countries. They took place long before Jordyn Wieber was born and reach across all the sports in the Olympic Games.