This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
When American gymnast Jade Carey hurdled toward the vault during Sunday’s apparatus final, something was off. She took a little extra shuffle or stutter step as she went into her roundoff onto the springboard. And in the post-flight phase of the vault, we saw the impact of this small misstep: Instead of doing her planned skill — half onto the table, one-and-a-half twists off before landing — she went straight backward and did a simple back tuck off. Essentially what Carey did was a “timer” — a non-twisting version of a competition vault. It’s the kind of move a gymnast would do during a one-touch warmup to get a feel for the apparatus.
Except there isn’t a one-touch warmup in the apparatus finals of world and Olympic competition. It was eliminated in 2001 by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). A one-touch warmup is, more or less, what it sounds like. The athletes get about 30 seconds depending on the event to run through a few skills or just feel out the equipment before competing. This has long been a staple of elite competition, and it still is — at least in certain rounds. There is a one-touch in qualifications, in team finals, and in the individual all-around finals. But it is not permitted in the apparatus finals. The one-touch was initially eliminated for team finals and the results were predictably disastrous. At the 2003 world championships, there was a rash of falls. China received a team deduction for its athlete flipping on the podium, which resulted in them losing the bronze. By the next Olympic cycle, the one-touch was back for the team event.
But on the apparatus final, the gymnast will warm up in a back gym, suit up and head out to the arena to compete. Depending on where they are in the competition order and what happens in front of them — say, an injury to another gymnast, a judging delay or both — the athletes can be waiting for up to an hour for their chance to compete, as 2012 Olympic vault silver medalist McKayla Maroney pointed out in her Instagram stories. Maroney spoke of struggling to stay warm on the sidelines in an over-air-conditioned arena, running up and down the sidelines and massaging her legs as the cameras caught her every move. (If you’ve ever noticed Chinese gymnasts wearing full-length coats on the sidelines, that’s why.)
Carey’s botched vault was devastating to her score. Not only did she end up doing a vault with a much lower difficulty score than she originally had intended, but she also got hit with a neutral deduction for doing two vaults with the same entry, which is not permitted in the apparatus final. (Her second vault, which she successfully pulled off, was a straightforward Yurchenko-style approach with two-and-a-half twists off, one of the most difficult in the competition.) Carey, a two-time world silver medalist on vault who was favored to take the title after Simone Biles withdrew,1 finished in last place. (She came back Monday to win the gold medal on floor exercise.) MyKayla Skinner, who replaced Biles in the final, took the silver, and Olympic all-around silver medalist Rebeca Andrade took the gold.
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After vault, all-around gold medalist Sunisa Lee missed almost every connection in her intricate uneven bar routine, which she had not done in her previous Olympic bar routines. She ended up winning the bronze only because nearly every other gymnast in the final had errors.
Almost immediately after Carey botched the vault, former gymnasts took to social media to talk about the lack of one-touch and how dangerous it could be. Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion and a member of the 2008 silver-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, tweeted, “Seriously, figure it out and give them a one touch. Athlete safety is clearly not your top priority in event finals. It should be.” 2016 gold medalist Laurie Hernandez asked for the one-touch to be reinstated for the apparatus finals. Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, coach of Biles and Jordan Chiles and a 1996 Olympian for France, also called for a return of the one-touch.
And the calls weren’t just coming from former athletes on social media. The gymnasts and the coaches at the competition also opened up about how they felt about lack of one-touch time. “I think that rule is so dumb,” Lee told the media. “And it’s honestly so dangerous.” Her coach, Jess Graba, was as forceful as his pupil. “You could really get hurt doing this.” And South Korean gymnast Yeo Seo-jeong, who won the vault bronze 25 years after her father won the vault silver in Atlanta, also spoke up in favor of a one-touch. “If we had a chance to warm up, I think I would have been less anxious and nervous.” The sentiment regarding the one-touch was the same regardless of whether the athlete hit. Skinner did arguably two of the best vaults she’s ever performed en route to silver, and her coach, Lisa Spini, also tweeted in support of the one-touch. This level of consensus is striking.
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Biles hasn’t yet made a statement about the one-touch, but when I interviewed her for Texas Monthly in March about the Yurchenko double pike she had been training and asked her if we might see it at the Games, she said, “I feel like it might be a better bet to do it in the all-around final because you do get that one-touch warmup, rather than vault finals where you don’t.” You know a rule is bad when it discourages the best vaulter on the planet from showing her best vault in the final, which is precisely when you’d want to see that vault.
So if all these gymnasts, both past and present, hate this rule, why does it remain in place? The answer is simple and cynical: TV broadcasts. When USA Gymnastics petitioned in 2010 to have the one-touch reinstated for the apparatus final, FIG rejected this proposal, stating: “Media demands sufficed for a rejection. The truth is podium warm-ups irritate TV broadcasters, who are looking for a certain rhythm, an entertaining show, highlights and short sequences. The downtime that would result from podium warm-ups would only serve to undermine entertainment quality and, worse, encourage networks to cover other discipline with a more suitable programme.”
It’s not surprising that FIG has prioritized TV broadcasters’ concerns ahead of those of their own athletes even though the athletes have a compelling argument in their favor — they’d like to avoid injury, please and thank you — whereas the networks just have to figure out what to do with some downtime on air. They could, of course, show the warmups, giving the people what they want — more gymnastics. And they can use the warmups as an opportunity to educate the viewers a bit more. They could cut to commercial. (Isn’t this how they make money?) Or, if all of that seems too dull, they could have Nastia Liukin talk about her outfits.
Also, Olympic gymnastics competitions are rarely shown live on network TV. The Tokyo broadcast of this year’s competition has been a heavily edited affair. NBC even edited out Yeo, the bronze medalist on vault, from its primetime show. Her eponymous front handspring double twist was the single best vault in the final. It’s hard to square this omission with the “warmups are boring” argument. And even taking the concerns about a solid entertainment product seriously, how good a product can it be if everyone is falling?
It’s altogether fitting that this particular issue has reared up during the pandemic Games. The Tokyo Olympics are here but for the grace of television profits. The International Olympic Committee held them over the objections of the majority of the Japanese population, who continue to protest. Many of the things that make the Games joyful for the athletes have been stripped away due to legitimate contagion concerns.2 No audience, no friends and family in the stands, no meeting athletes from other sports from all over the world. And there’s little local benefit to the Games via tourism and other forms of spending. This Olympics is a strictly made-for-TV event.
The argument for one-touch warmups to be reinstated shouldn’t rest on Carey’s mistake or any other. Mistakes and injuries happen in all phases of competition, regardless of the warmup options. In the event finals in particular, gymnasts are tired after a long week of competition, and that fatigue may also lead to more mistakes, which may be exacerbated by the lack of one-touch warmups. “By the time you get to event finals, you really have nothing left to give,” Maroney said. It’s hard to prove that the falls and other mistakes in Tokyo are directly attributable to the lack of a one-touch warmup. But that shouldn’t matter.
It’s the moral argument, not the technical one, that should win out because it can’t be undermined by a “well, actually.” It’s not about this mistake or that one. It’s about what the athletes say they need. The athletes are the ones who are putting their bodies on the line in competition. If they say they need the one-touch — to boost their confidence, to prevent injury or just because — that is reason enough to reinstate it. The institutions of gymnastics have allegedly been working toward becoming more athlete-centered; the athletes have spoken here clearly and unanimously.