Sunday, August 17
The Event: Gymnastics – Men’s Floor Finals, Women’s Vault Finals, Men’s Pommel Horse Finals, and Women’s Floor Finals
The Competitors: There were no US men in the floor finals, but the vault and pommel horse each featured one American, and the women’s floor exercise had two. Every event had one or two Chinese competitors, and Russia, Romania, Germany and several other countries were also represented at least once.
The Venue: National Indoor Stadium is one of the new stadiums, located on the Olympic Green right next to the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest. Although not as famous as its neighbors (more on them when we visit later in the week), it’s a beautiful stadium with a curving, winglike roof, and even though our seats were relatively high up, we had a great view of all the action.
What we knew: Very little. I guess we had read that the US women disappointed in the Team All-Around competition, but we were still ready to go all out from the stands.
How we prepared: We tracked down Beijing’s only flag store to pick up the largest version of the Stars and Stripes permissible at Olympic venues, plus a smaller pennant to wave around. Also, when we realized we were sitting near several other young Americans, we conspired to form a cheering section loud enough to get noticed by the cameras and/or athletes far below.
What happened: This was an awesome event! There was something really personal about the individual performances, especially with the women, who showed a lot of emotion. After Zou Kai of China easily won gold in the men’s floor exercise, things got more interesting in the women’s vault. Alicia Sacramone of the US started out in the lead (thanks to our raucous cheering), only to be passed by the powerful Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei, who nevertheless was clearly vulnerable after a bad landing on her second vault. A Russian gymnast looked to pass her with two great vaults, but after mysterious deliberations by the judges she was disqualified on an apparent technicality, which we all booed. The severe-looking German with the unpronounceable name who came next kept things interesting, though, landing two great vaults and splitting a huge grin after the second one. It turns out this is her fifth Olympics; she stopped seeming so severe when we realized that she must be almost forty. She also couldn’t stop grinning from that point on through the medal ceremony, except when she was comforting younger gymnasts after bad landings. She became one of our favorites on the night, and looked to win gold until the last gymnast, from North Korea, landed two flawed-looking vaults that were still enough for first place (was this questionable judging, we wondered, or just admittedly ill-informed spectating?).
The men’s pommel horse was also fun; the Chinese all-around winner Wei Yang got an enormous ovation, and although he didn’t place, the other Chinese gymnast in the event, Xiao Qin, ended up winning gold with a performance that must have been technically perfect, since it wasn’t otherwise very exciting. The American in the event got our hearts racing with a spectacular routine, twisting his legs upside-down as much as rightside-up, but he fell just before his dismount and this destroyed his score — otherwise he must have been on track for an easy gold. We made sure he heard our support from the nosebleed section anyway. But the best part of this event was the young, eager-looking Briton who performed well enough for bronze, and showed no restraint in looking like it was the best thing that had ever happened in his life. The Croatian who placed second was also thrilled; seeing these young athletes so overjoyed was a definite highlight of the competition.
The last event was the women’s floor, also the first with two Americans. Our cheering section responded well, flag-waving and chanting “USA” loud enough to get a wave from Shawn Johnson as she walked out with the other gymnasts, even though we were way up in the top deck. She performed first and almost perfectly, finishing with one of those tiny girl giant smiles that can make women’s gymnasts so endearing. Her lead held up through solid performances by Chinese, Brazilian and Russian gymnasts, marred only by small missteps that nevertheless kept them back. One of the final performances came from Nastia Liukin, the other American, who, according to the Russian guy behind me, was favored to win. Her performance was incredible to watch — much more fluid and beautiful than any of the others — but one bad landing put her just behind Shawn in the standings. One other gymnast failed to catch up, and then the final gymnast, from Romania, stepped onto the floor and delivered another near-flawless routine that just edged out Shawn’s score. Although she dropped the Americans into silver and bronze, watching the Romanian’s unabashed tears on the podium as the flags were raised was enough for us to feel good about the whole thing.
Also of note: After the floor exercise and medal ceremony we were feeling so much love for our US gymnasts that we made our way down to where Shawn and Nastia were giving interviews to international press. We managed to catch their attention from the stands between interviews for just long enough to grin stupidly and wave our flag at them. I think they really appreciated the sentiment.