Olympic competition hasn't begun and already one U.S. gymnast has lost

RIO DE JANEIRO — Marta Karolyi is 73. She’s been the United States women’s gymnastics national team coordinator since 2001, when she succeeded her husband, Bela, a fellow Hungarian-Austrian immigrant best known as the coach of both Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

Marta runs an unprecedented powerhouse. Over the next week-plus, Simone Biles is expected to become the fourth consecutive American woman to win all-around gold, while the spectacularly deep U.S. squad is heavily favored to take its second consecutive team gold. There will be a slew of individual medals, too, many of them, but not all, won by Biles.

The U.S. is a gymnastics juggernaut, an absolute machine that steamrolls the rest of the world while gaining momentum every four years. Marta is the Bill Belichick of the sport, all-powerful and unquestioned. This will be her final Olympics. She’s retiring. She can, and will, do as she pleases.

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Thursday here at the final team run-through, that meant Marta all but setting the lineup for which Americans will and won’t have a chance to join Biles and compete in the all-around, the biggest prize of the Games.

It looked as much about personality as performance – choosing veterans Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman over upstart Laurie Hernandez.

Laurie Hernandez will not get the chance to qualify for the women's all-around. (REUTERS)
Laurie Hernandez will not get the chance to qualify for the women’s all-around. (REUTERS)

“I definitely cried a lot this week,” Hernandez’s coach, Maggie Haney, said. “… [Just the] disappointment about the possibility of not being in all-around.”

Here’s how Olympic gymnastics works: Each country can send a maximum of four athletes to attempt to qualify in each of the four apparatuses – floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars and vault. If you don’t attempt all four events in qualifying, you can’t compete for an all-around medal.

The U.S. has five gymnasts. Biles, the three-time defending world champion, is locked in to compete in all four events, likely will qualify for the all-around finals and then almost assuredly take gold. She’s that much better than everyone else.

Meanwhile Madison Kocian is a bars specialist and will compete only in that.

That leaves three remaining gymnasts – Douglas and Raisman, both vets of 2012, and the 16-year-old Hernandez – but only two spots left to attempt to qualify for the all-around because the Olympics ridiculously limits the number of entrants from one country and the U.S. has too many great athletes.

The way the order was set during Thursday’s podium training, it will be Douglas and Raisman who get the chance, even though Hernandez finished better than both at the Olympic trials and consistently has outscored both across the year.

At trials, Hernandez finished second to Biles in the all-around competition with a score of 121.25. Raisman was third at 119.75. Douglas was seventh at 117.45. In Rio, Hernandez is expected to sit out the uneven bars, despite besting Raisman 29.65 to 28.75 at trials (Douglas beat them both at 30.35).

There are myriad – and mysterious – factors that go into picking the team, and the public trials is but just one of them. And gymnastics is a subjective sport. Still, the question is fair: Why would the second-highest scoring gymnast get passed over not just once, but twice?

“I cannot reveal anything,” Marta said.

While everyone was noting that nothing was completely set in stone as of Thursday afternoon, the Hernandez camp was doing its best to take the decision in stride. Hernandez herself, ever bubbling with personality, avoided the issue and focused on the positives. It’s a mixed bag of emotions – excitement about being at the Olympics, anticipation about trying to win gold in the team competition and focus on the various events.

The all-around is the all-around, though, the biggest stage of them all.

“The way the puzzle fit together, certain people have to be in certain spots, and I have to respect the decision,” Haney, Hernandez’s coach, said with obvious frustration. “[Marta] knows what she’s doing. It’s hard when I look back and [Hernandez] was second both days of the trials, and she may have even had the second highest in the world coming in here.

“It is what it is,” Haney concluded, reminding everyone to check the scores. “I don’t know what else to say.”

There isn’t much to say. The scores are the scores, but the scores aren’t the deciding factor. Hernandez may have been staring at a silver medal in all-around, but instead she’ll sit and watch.

You can accuse Marta of playing favorites or playing familiar faces or trying to reward the women who delivered so much gold four years ago. Or you can note that with an embarrassment of riches, talent everywhere, these are the decisions that barely matter in the grand scheme of things. Marta’s job is to deliver medals for America and she will – Raisman and Douglas are just playing for silver at best anyway; Biles is going to win.

Or you can just curse an athletic competition that isn’t decided by a finish line or stopwatch. This is the uncomfortable reality of gymnastics. There’s nothing to do but shrug.

“I know it’s between me and Laurie,” Raisman said. “Her bar routine does score higher than mine. It just comes down to what Marta thinks.”

What Marta thinks should deliver some intriguing drama for American audiences come Sunday when qualifying occurs. The brilliance of Biles is expected to make her one of the breakout stars of these Games.

Then there will be a duel for America’s second spot in the all-around final between two familiar faces – Douglas, who won the all-around gold four years ago, and Raisman, who finished fourth. Only one will survive.

Hernandez will have to watch the all-around from the sidelines.

Fair or not, scores or not, that’s gymnastics, the sport Marta rules, the sport Marta controls.