Just because a gymnast made it to the Olympics doesn’t mean that they will actually compete for a medal. There are 98 female and 98 male gymnasts in Rio, but only those who advance past the qualifying round will compete in the team event, the all-around competition and the individual apparatus finals. The process can be tricky to follow–here’s your cheat sheet to making sense of it:
The Team Competition
Every country has a team of five members. During the qualifying round, each team is assigned a subdivision; there are five subdivisions for the women, and three for the men (if you’re trying to find them in the Rio Olympic start lists, the U.S. women are in subdivision 4, and will compete Monday, Aug. 8 at 4:30 p.m. EDT; the U.S. men are in subdivision 2 and competed Aug. 6).
Each country can have four of its five athletes compete on each apparatus. For women, there are four pieces of equipment: vault, floor exercise, uneven bars and balance beam. Men compete on six: vault, floor, high bars, parallel bars, pommel horse and rings. Each routine is assigned a start value based on its difficulty, which is calculated by totaling all of the skills in the program. Judges deduct points from that initial value, docking gymnasts for anything from stepping out of bounds to not reaching a perfectly 180 degree handstand position to, of course, falling off the beam, bars horse or rings. They also add in an ‘Execution’ score that reflects how well the gymnast performed all the skills. Only three of the four scores will count, and the top eight teams from qualifying advance to the medal-round team competition. The men’s team event is first, on Aug. 8 at 3 p.m. EDT. The women’s team competition is Tuesday, Aug. 9 at 3 p.m. EDT.
For each nation, figuring out which four women and men will compete in the qualifying round is not just a matter of who will score the highest. The scores are also used to select the 24 gymnasts who compete in the individual all-around competition (Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 3 p.m. EDT for the men and Thursday, Aug. 11 at 3 p.m. EDT for the women). In order to qualify for that event, the gymnast must compete on every apparatus.
Only two female gymnasts and two male gymnasts per country can enter the individual all-around. The limit is designed to allow nations without deep teams to compete; otherwise the strongest teams would occupy all the spots. The two-person cutoff makes for some heartbreak: at the 2012 Olympics in London, American Jordyn Wieber finished in the top 24, but scored below her teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman.
U.S national team coordinator Martha Karolyi is a master at the calculation of the all-around. In making up a team, she balances the number of gymnasts who are proficient in all four events and can provide the U.S. the best chance of collecting medals in the all-around competition against the boost that a specialist can provide in the team event. In Rio, her lineup will pit world champion Simone Biles against the veterans Douglas, the reigning Olympic champion, and Raisman. The other Americans are less likely to contend. Madison Kocian is more proficient at bars and beam than at vault, for example, while Laurie Hernandez is a strong on all events but tends to have slightly lower difficulty values and therefore potentially lower scores than Douglas or Raisman.
The Individual Events
Even then, the gymnasts aren’t done. The eight gymnasts with the highest scores from the qualifying round from each event— again, limited to two per country — will compete again in the event finals. This is when the specialists get to shine––and often earn an Olympic medal.
So all told, top gymnasts like Biles could compete in the same routines as many as four times over nine days.
And if you’re still confused, don’t worry––because it will all change by the time the Tokyo Olympics kick off in 2020. For those Games, the gymnastics federation has decided that each country will field teams of only four athletes instead of five. We’ll have another cheat sheet ready for you then. In the meantime, enjoy this year’s action.