Gymnastics gets joyful

After a torrent of tears from others throughout the competition, Gabby Douglas beams her way to glory

Topics: Olympics, 2012 Olympics, USA Gymnastics, gymnastics, Gabby Douglas, Television, TV, Aly Raisman, Gold medal,

Since women’s gymnastics started at the Olympics on Sunday night, there has been lots and lots and lots of crying. Of the major gymnasts competing, which, if one is to rely on NBC’s broadcasting judgments, comes down exclusively to Americans and Russians, we have seen almost every single one shed tears. Jordyn Wieber and the entire Russian team from sadness and disappointment, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross from relief and happiness, and there even seemed to be a fleck in McKayla Maroney’s eye for a few seconds after the team all-around victory. The only gymnast we haven’t seen cry is Gabby Douglas, who has been too focused, composed and fundamentally unhistrionic to go in much for sobbing, and has been blessed with the sort of charismatic, overpowering smile it would be a waste not to use.

When Gabby finished up on her floor routine last night, all but ensuring she would win the individual all-around, she broke into that mega-grin of hers. It was a joyful moment, one made even more joyful against the backdrop of all those other tears. Finally, someone making happiness look happy.

Douglas took control of the all-around on her very first element, the vault, and never let go. There were 24 gymnasts competing in the individual all-around, but NBC only focused on the five medal contenders. If this deprived the audience of some pretty wild leotards, it also finessed the drama into a nice Cold War script: The Americans — Douglas and Aly Raisman in their matching red and sequined leotards — against the Russians — Victoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina in their matching blue and sequined leotards. At 4-foot-11 Komova is the same height as Douglas, but she looks even smaller and younger, a baby bird wearing blue eye shadow and a scrunchie, who, like all birds, belongs in the air. The dramatic Mustafina is like Bette Davis as gymnast, a commanding, smoky-eyed diva, who at 5-foot-4 is almost a normal height, but with abnormal amounts of glitter in her hair. Komova would try to take on Douglas, while Mustafina tried to hold off Raisman.

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The Americans, as always, killed on vault. The Russians killed on uneven bars, but so did Douglas. (After Raisman’s performance on the bars, which dropped her down in the standings, NBC announcer Tim Daggett hinted he’s been reading the Internet: “I know I sound like I am obnoxiously critical.”) And then they went to the beam, the heartless, horrible beam. NBC aired a shot of the beam from the front, so you could see that it was not even wide enough to comfortably hold the tiny feet of Chinese gymnast Deng Lin. Mustafina hopped off this narrow torture device and then refused to accept condolences from her coach. Raisman, for whom the beam is usually a strength, wobbled and used her hands, and then did accept condolences from her coach. But Komova and Douglas, with a few balance checks between them, both survived, with Douglas looking even better (here’s the proof), her legs whipping around faster, more enticingly.

On to the floor exercise, with Douglas firmly in the lead, though the order of competitors — Mustafina, Douglas, Raisman, Komova — would at least give Komova a shot to best her.  Douglas went out and absolutely nailed her routine, gifting everyone with her huge, infectious smile afterward. Raisman, performing the “Hava Nagila” floor routine we’ve seen now three times (it wasn’t as good as it had been on Tuesday, her final leaps nowhere near as explosive or graceful), scored only exactly as much as she needed to tie Mustafina — and then lose in the tie break. This left only Komova, who had a more elegant, clean-looking floor routine than Douglas.

The gymnasts waited on the sidelines for Komova’s last score — one that NBC never actually showed us, even though we waited for minutes to see it. When it flashed, off-screen, Douglas had won. Komova began to sob, Gabby’s family began to sob, I know I teared up, but Gabby just beamed, hopped up on the mats and waved to the crowd, the best emissary for hard work the games have yet had, the only one to make it look totally worth it.

Willa Paskin
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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