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College Gymnastics is broken: Virality, inflated scores and unwritten rules are the name of the game

Hopefully we can put this genie back in the bottle

COLLEGE GYMNASTICS: FEB 17 Florida at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We joke frequently here about some schools and floors being blessed by the Point Faery, but 2023 was flat-out ridiculous with inconsistent scoring and hyperinflated numbers.

It’s fair to say that this season we had a general idea of who the nation’s best teams were, but that predicting the scoring was a crapshoot. Overinflation of scores across the country favored viral phenoms, locales with Olympians, and the standard-bearers, but were so high, so seriously out of kilter, so prevalent that it skewed the national scoring in ways we’ve frankly never seen.

It was a trend we began noticing last season, when three former Olympians hit the collegiate ranks. In the decade prior, an average of 5.5 teams per year finished with an average 197.000 or above. Indeed, for decades 197+ has been the gold standard for a quality meet, with 198 being rare and reserved for national title-tier performances. But last season, the nation went from an average of 5.5 teams above 197 to literally double, 11 teams posting those numbers. This season, improbably, it raised again to a dozen teams averaging a 197. A dozen doesn’t sound like many, right? Well, it damned sure is when there are only 61 D1 teams in the entire country.

Now, instead of the top 10% of teams averaging that high mark, almost a quarter of the field in being evaluated with scores typically reserved for Super Six title contenders.

It’s hard to describe how ridiculous that is to non-gym fans, but football terms are perhaps appropriate. For the better part of a decade, on average we saw six-to-eight teams hit 40+ points-per-game. Only three times in the last decade have more than 8 teams done so. And the highest number of teams to ever reach 40+ PPG was twelve.

Now, imagine waking up next season and seeing the exact same quality of product, except that 48 of the 132 teams are suddenly hitting 40+ PPG. And worse, they’re doing so because of poor officiating. That’s literally what hit college gymnastics in the wake of the Genocide Games of 2020.

It’s not been iffy, either.

In the Norman Regional, Oklahoma had to count a beam fall and the attendant 9.2 score. That usually sinks you in competitions against near-peer talent. But not only did it not doom the Sooners, who went on to claim the Region, but they hit 198.050 — the second-highest score of the postseason, by anyone — and a number usually reserved for near flawless execution. The execution was hardly flawless, however.

It was not a one-off, either. In the decade prior to those Olympic Games, the Sooners had barely scraped a 198+ more than four times in a single season. Since then? Half a dozen times a year — 50% of the time — OU is receiving flawless marks. For the year they averaged 198.150, and in one week posted a completely absurd 198.575.

It wasn’t just Oklahoma either. On the year, an ungodly nine teams hit 198+ on the week: 15% of the field. When over the past decade, the average has been 4.5 teams posting a high of 198+.

And it wasn’t just in relation to number of high scores overall, it’s how absurdly high the scoring has become within-meets. In the previous decade, just two decades had a team attained 198.4+. Since those Olympic Games, however, we’ve seen high scores go off the rails: an unbelievable eight teams have hit 198.4+ since then, and we are averaging almost four teams per-year doing what had only been twice in a whole decade.

And what about the absurd upper limits of scores hitting 198.5? That too had happened just once in the last decade, by one team, one time. 198.5 in 2015

This year, two teams were over 198.5, and last season it was three.

There’s very clearly something wrong with gymnastics scoring, and there have been several reasons posited for it.

The first is an emphasis on virality. As fun as Katelyn Ohashi was to watch, and as high energy a production teams like UCLA, Cal and LSU put on, let’s not pretend that they are the Dream Team or the Russian National Army Team either. They’re And judges, already swayed by home sentiments, do let their emotion override their technical assessment.

When something is this much fun, you can overlook the lack of technical precision in her rotations and body control, right?

Lotta’ fun, definitely appealing to a certain type of fan as well...but not a 10.0

The other issue is one that arises from the other end of the spectrum — not sloppiness being overlooked in favor of fun, but artistry being overlooked in favor of pure athletes or technicians. And perversely, that is a criticism that has arisen from the success of Simone Biles, the US’s most decorated gymnast.

For a decade, Biles thrived on technical precision and overwhelming power, much of which was so stunning that she got repeated passes for actual errors like handchecks, bobbles or heeling the OOB marker on the floor. And like Ohashi, she crushed half of the equation of the sport that is called artistic gymnastics. So while Ohashi had the flash and fun, Biles’s routines were bereft of creativity, and often had the enthusiasm and joy of a wake.

But, damn, is it impressive even when she is making mistakes, though not being penalized for them.

As we’ve long known, “Jordan Rules” exist in every sport, and what Biles and Ohashi have done is nothing less than write an entirely new set for gymnastics.

So, this is where we are finding ourselves now in college gymnastics. A sport which had remarkably consistent scoring for two decades and established norms, is being demolished by a younger cadre of judges assessing scores based on the new, unspoken rules of the sport. TikTok has taken over the mats.

Can the genie be put back in the bottle? I don’t think so, honestly. I suspect what is going to happen is you are going to see an increasing split in team approaches — artistic or gymnastic; not artistic gymnastics. You’ll have a roster of Katelyn Ohashis and those like Cal and UCLA and LSU, who focus on fan service. Or you’ll have one of Simone Biles and the Florida / Oklahoma school of thought, one where technical merit can overcompensate for tedium. And you’ll be in good stead no matter which angle you take if you recruit well enough, because if you do it right, all of your mistakes will be forgiven.

There is a very old maxim in show business and music that has now surfaced on the mats of college campuses: “Come on strong, leave ‘em smiling in the end, and the middle will take care of itself.”

The question for many programs, including Alabama, is which version of these unspoken Jordan Rules they wish to compete under going forward. Because the system is irretrievably broken, and all they can do now is respond to the tastes of a new crop of judges.

Artistic or gymnastics. Teams won’t be doing both.


Choose your fighter:

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Hella’ fun. I love those sloppy, viral high energy routines like Katelyn Ohashi.
    (153 votes)
  • 69%
    I prefer the robotic technical precision of someone like Simone Biles, even if it lacks artistry
    (341 votes)
494 votes total Vote Now