With its spangled spandex, tinny pop music, and a Karolyi cheering on the sidelines, Tuesday’s women’s gymnastics team final looked on the surface like any other Olympic gymnastics event of the past few decades. By now, the ambience is familiar to any passionate gymnastics fan (that is, anyone who tunes in every four years and then forgets about the uneven bars until the next opening ceremony). The pleasure comes from the mixture of triumphs and tears, landings stuck and unstuck.
But what if you threw an Olympic gymnastics event and everything went exactly according to plan? No unhappy tears, barely a misplaced hop, wobbles imperceptible without slo-mo—just utter and absolute world domination. That was the story for the American team, made up of Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, Aly Raisman, and the woman who is probably the greatest female gymnast in history, 19-year-old Simone Biles.
The biggest question on Tuesday night was not whether the Americans would win, but how NBC would endeavor to make their inevitable victory interesting. The network faced at least two serious challenges. First was the fact that the competition took place hours before prime time and the results had already been widely reported by the time Bob Costas materialized on screen at 8 p.m. ET. Second was the U.S. team’s absolute dominance coming into the final. They qualified almost 10 points ahead of their nearest rivals, an astonishing feat that NBC’s Tim Daggett compared to winning a football game 120–0. On Monday, an odds-tracking site put the American team’s chances to win gold at 94 percent.
Sure enough, the Americans wiped the floor with the competition. They wiped the balance beam, uneven bars, and vault with them, too. The final scores for the top three teams: 184.897 for the USA, 176.688 for Russia, and 176.003 for China. As an awestruck Daggett put it, “You run out of superlatives when you’re talking about the U.S. women.”
NBC has the muscle memory to squeeze drama out of a gymnastics rout. When the U.S. team won gold four years ago, Reeves Wiedeman pointed out in the New Yorker this week, the network opted not to air a Russian gymnast’s fall during her floor exercise, to make it seem like the American gold was in danger. NBC’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, recently explained the network’s heavy use of tape delay by suggesting the women who make up the majority of the Olympic audience are invested in narrative over numbers. “They’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey,” he said. “It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.” But what’s a reality show with no unpleasant personalities, or a miniseries with no cliffhangers? That’s not just a problem for a ratings-hungry network. As a viewer, it’s more fun to watch the home team take on an archrival who’s in top form. But on Tuesday, Russia looked more like the Olympics equivalent of the Washington Generals, with one of its stars, Angelina Melnikova, falling off the beam.
Daggett, Nastia Liukin, and Al Trautwig seemed to concede defeat last night, their well-honed skills of melodrama cultivation no match for the indomitability of these five American women. “This is gymnastics, baby, 101! Fly high and stick the landing,” Daggett exclaimed (not for the first time) over Biles’ uneven bars routine. A few minutes later: “This is what you call textbook.” There was no drama here, real or imagined. We’d all skipped ahead to the last page of the book—we knew how it would end before it started. The evening unspooled on television as a celebration of greatness, more like an exhibition event than a competition. When the camera cut to the American team between events, they looked utterly relaxed. So much for dramatic tension.
They didn’t look too stressed out during their performances, either. Laurie Hernandez, nicknamed the Human Emoji, bounded through her floor routine with infectious giddiness. Raisman, the reigning gold medalist in the floor exercise, received the evening’s highest score in that event with a routine almost absurdly packed with flips and handsprings and twists. Biles crushed the Amanar, one of the most difficult vaults in women’s gymnastics. She wobbled ever so slightly on the beam, then launched herself like a rocket off the end. At the end of the night, she needed fewer than eight points on the floor to seal the team’s gold. She earned a score of 15.8.
On Thursday, Biles and Raisman will compete in the women’s individual all-around competition. They will likely finish first and second respectively, and the defending gold medalist Gabby Douglas would’ve probably finished third if the U.S. had been allowed three entrants in the all-arounds. Biles could easily win five gold medals by the time the games are over—or, that is, she could make it look easy to win five gold medals. That might make things tricky for NBC. But even without the extra drama, it’s a beautiful thing for everyone else.