Sweet 16s all round as Flying Squirrel and her sisters nail it
A raucous full-house watches America see off Russia to claim gold for the first time since Atlanta, writes IAN O'RIORDANat the North Greenwich Arena
DON’T ASK me how anyone ends up surrounded by this many teenage girls wiping tears from their eyeliner, but it is an Olympic sport, very rock ’n’ roll, and I like it.
Someone should have warned me, too, stepping off the train at North Greenwich station, that things would never be the same again – and not just my hearing.
Because after my own Olympic debut of sorts, here at the women’s team gymnastics final, it will be impossible to ever forget Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old from Newport News, USA, better known to her friends as The Flying Squirrel.
It’s what happens after two hours of watching some utterly spectacular physical mastery, and physique, and finally understanding the difference between a full-twisted double-height and a sky-high double-tuck – and why it’s so important to be square all the way and also to be beautifully round.
Douglas almost certainly stole the show, at least in my eyes, helping Team USA to their first women’s title since the famous home victory in Atlanta, in 1996, and for only their second ever.
More importantly they beat old rivals Russia into the silver medal position, with the Romanians snatching third – and leaving defending champions China in fourth.
No wonder it ended with nearly all of them holding back the tears, even if it wasn’t entirely clear which of them were tears of joy, and tears of disappointment. Team GB, with the backing of the near 16,000 sell-out, couldn’t quite rise to the occasion like their young male counterparts did the day before, but there is no shame whatsoever in finishing sixth – but just a few extra tears.
It may be more Cirque du Soleil that any other Olympic event, but it really is as irresistible a sport as they come, especially with Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones providing the soundtrack – and explains why the North Greenwich Arena (better known outside the Olympics as the 02) is a seething cauldron of noise, the only odd thing being the soldiers sitting in the high seats, presumably off duty.
Everyone stayed until the end, and when the five Team USA members took to the medal podium for a raucous singing of the Star Spangled Banner, well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“I’m so proud of these girls, we knew we had it,” says Douglas, a little later, looking incredibly petite up close, still in her shiny-red diamond studded leotard, after such a commanding performance out on the floor. “We just tried to focus on ourselves, not the Russians, just tried to pep each other and doing our pep talks.”
There was plenty of that alright, kissing and hugging and pinching of cheeks, and that was only after the warm-up.
Douglas’s mother was initially against her trying gymnastics, after her older sister Arielle got hurt, but from the age of six she was flipping off the furniture – and there was no stopping her after that.
For a team apparently under pressure to restore some pride to their sport, considering woman’s artistic gymnastics repeatedly ranks the highest among the US television viewers, Team USA effectively nailed the gold medals in the first of the four rotations, on the vault.
The days of the perfect 10 might be over, but in the days of the new combined score, for both difficulty and execution, scoring a 16 is about as good as it gets, which each of the Americans did.
Even to the uninitiated it turns out to be quite simple to follow, each of the eight finalist competing in four disciplines – the vault, the uneven bars, the beam, and the floor – in the different corners of the arena, so there’s always something going on, just like being at a real circus.
For Jordyn Wieber, the American who missed out on the individual finals, there were tears again, although “just tears of happiness” – and Team GB ended up in tears too, of joy apparently, even if their chances of medalling took a tumble, literally, on the first rotation, the vault, when Jennifer Pinches ended up falling on the floor.
Still they ended with Beth Tweddle finishing up on the uneven bars, and raising a cheer that might well have blown a hole in the large white plastic roof. The Russians were still making one last push for gold in their last rotation, on the floor, only for Anastasia Grishna to have a disastrous collapse, skimming her arm along the mat. Worse was to come when Kseniia Afanaseva couldn’t even stay on her feet. Rio 2016? That’s a lifetime away for these gymnasts, literally, because most of them will be too old by then.
The Chinese were always playing catch-up too, not helped when Yu Minobe landed on her head after falling from the beam. So it ended with Team USA with a charting topping 183.596, then Russia with 178.530, Romania on 176.414, and China with 174.430.
Aliya Mustafina is asked to sum up the mood of the Russians: “It’s difficult to say how I feel right now. I’m crying first from happiness, then from disappointment.”
As for the Chinese, all Huang Qiushuang could say was “we didn’t quite make it but I can’t really say much because I am quite emotional right now.”
There is the chance for the Chinese to make amends in the rhythmic, but for now there’s no denying the queen of the artistic, and her name is Gabby Douglas.