TOKYO — Forty-one years ago a group of American college hockey players upset a legendary team of professionals from the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics.
It was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
It would be inaccurate, even insulting, to compare the 2020 Russian women’s gymnastics team to that old USA hockey crew. This is no rag-tag group of amateurs.
The Russians are among the finest in the world. On Sunday, Angelina Melnikova, Vladislava Urazova and Viktoria Listunova came in fourth, fifth and sixth in all-around qualifying at the Tokyo Olympics.
Still, while the gymnastic Russians might not be the hockey Americans, the American gymnasts (led by Simone Biles and currently on an 11-year team-winning streak) sure are the hockey Russians, if not more so.
So here we go, perhaps.
Tuesday’s team final is some kind of intergenerational, inter-sport, inter-Olympic measure of revenge, because you can’t get much more powerhouse than the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
Yet at Sunday’s Olympic qualifying, it was the overlooked Russians who finished first and the heavily hyped Americans second — 171.629 to 170.562. A 1.067 advantage is fairly sizable by gymnastics standards.
While those scores won’t carry over to Tuesday’s team final, the result sent shock waves throughout the gymnastics world. The U.S. was, and remains, the significant favorite to win gold here. BetMGM had them -650 coming into the Games, though after Sunday that's dropped to -450.
The Americans not only haven’t lost a team event anywhere since 2010, it hadn't lost a qualifying since then either.
This stuff just doesn’t happen. Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. won team gold by an astounding 8.209 points. Under the present scoring system, the next largest margin ever was 2.375.
It’s like winning a football game 100-0, returning with what has been heralded as an even better team and ...
“This might be a great awakening for us,” said Tom Forester, the United States’ high-performance coordinator. “And we’ll take advantage of it.”
They’ll need to, because this Russian team is clearly not interested in just rolling over and giving up the gold due to American press clippings or past accomplishments. Tokyo is where Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, after all.
“We hope that [we win],” Melinkova, who was 16 years old when her team got annihilated by the Americans in Rio. “We’re also going to struggle and fight. We have to. That’s the expectation for us.”
Teams and athletes love to say no one believed they could win. It's usually hyperbole. Not in this case. Pretty much nobody thinks the Russians can beat the Americans. No one.
The good news for the United States is there was so much bad news on Sunday. There were uncharacteristic performances throughout, including Biles, who if she performs to her potential can all but swat the Russians away herself.
However, on Sunday she went out of bounds during her floor routine at the end of a tumbling pass, stepped off the mat during vault and needed extra steps to complete her beam dismount. She still qualified first overall for the all around competition, of course, but this was a very human performance for an often otherworldly gymnast.
You could see the frustration and nerves in every scrunched up expression, eye roll or frown.
The usually reliable Jordan Chiles had a particularly rough day at the worst possible time. She hoped to qualify top two in the all-around. She wound up 40th, struggling on bars, floor and beam before breaking into tears as Biles tried to console her.
Grace McCallum also left points all over the place and left fans questioning why she was chosen for the team over McKayla Skinner or Jade Carey. Sunisa Lee, meanwhile, did well, (third in overall) although her floor performance could have been better.
Perhaps this is a sign of a struggling group competing in a sport where confidence and mental focus are paramount.
Or it’s that one bad day by a lot of otherwise gifted athletes who, if they clean up even some of their errors, will find themselves atop the podium again. If they do what they are capable of, this won’t be close. The U.S. is better. Or should be.
“I feel we did a pretty good job,” Biles said. “Obviously there are little things we need to work on, so we’ll go back and practice and work on that, just so we can do our best performance at the team finals. That’s what matters. We’re really striving for the top three.”
The top three? That’s a nice, humble, sportsmanlike statement but a team this talented didn’t come here to win a bronze.
It’s gold or it’s a massive disappointment for the Americans ... and a massive celebration in Russia.
After all, that Soviet hockey team actually took silver back in 1980, and they sure don’t make movies about that in Moscow.
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