However, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic erasing a year of anticipation-building pre-Olympic competition, there is also an air of mystery for those outside the gymnastics universe about most of the six women — alongside stalwart Simone Biles, there’s Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner.
Some — like Chiles, whose prospects were bolstered after a move to Biles’ gym — are underdogs, and some — like Skinner, who stepped away from a star spot on the University of Utah’s team to train for an Olympics berth — are stepping outside the conventional path for the sport.
For any aspiring elite gymnast, the Olympics are still everything. But up until these Games the definition of “everything” also included the pressure to turn professional, to capitalize as much as possible on the potential for money-making endorsements or other deals.
For athletes whose careers are so front-loaded into their youth, these financial concerns — along with draconian rules forbidding making money while participating in collegiate sport (thereby removing college as an option for many) — the Olympics were the primary, and often the last, stage where fans could watch their favorite US gymnasts launch themselves into history.
Now, when the gymnastics competition begins in Tokyo, it will be unlike ever before. Not only will it include a team of women 18 and older in a sport known traditionally for pixie teens, but it will also feature star gymnasts whose talents will later grace the stage (or mat) at US colleges, even if they still aspire to and plan to shoot for future Olympic greatness in — or profit from — their sport.
Six years ago, this reality was still far away. In July 2015, almost a year before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Biles, then 18, did something that seemed inevitable. In a news release, she announced that she would forgo her scholarship to UCLA, turning professional and signing with an agent. She did this so that she could take for-pay competitive and promotional opportunities that would be simply be unavailable to her, were she to be competing at the collegiate level.
Biles’ decision seemed like a foregone conclusion back then because women’s gymnastics has long occupied a unique position among other popular Olympic sports in the United States and internationally. In other Olympic sports in the US — including track and swimming — many Olympians have honed their skills through their collegiate careers before continuing their success through professional careers in their twenties (or even thirties, like Olympic trials silver medalist marathon runner Sally Kipyego), with opportunities to be compensated for their talents.
Now, elite athletes and others in their orbit can shift their mindset about college competition, no longer an opportunity devoid of the professional opportunity an Olympic berth brings. Previously, a college scholarship was seen as an alternate, less favored path for Olympic gymnasts — it was only in the absence of lucrative sponsorship deals that a full ride in exchange for an undergraduate education was more appealing.
Having more Olympians and potential Olympians in the ranks of collegiate gymnastics will be good for college programs — and for the sport overall. Historically, Olympic hopefuls could be specialists on one or two events (like Kocian, added to the 2016 Olympic team for her prowess on the uneven bars, which was the only apparatus of the four — floor exercise, vault, uneven bars and balance beam — she competed on during the team competition in Rio).
But with fewer spots available on Olympic teams (seven in 1996 became six in 2000 to 2008 before falling to five and eventually to four for 2020 — though 2024 will bring it back to five), being a contender now demands strength on all four events. Add that to the fact that athletes competing for the Olympics are trained on the open-ended scoring system, which prizes consistent boundary-pushing difficulty over perfection, and it’s clear that more than ever before, more gymnasts will be entering NCAA competition with an unprecedented skill level of difficulty and experience in the sport.
The landscape has drastically changed from pre-Rio, when Biles’ announcement seemed inevitable. No longer do high-level athletes need to choose between cash and competition; they will be able to find glory at the Olympics and beyond. Are we about to see a new era of gymnastics, with high-flying difficulty and renewed interest from the public? In Tokyo, it’s only the beginning.