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NBC’s Gymnastics Broadcast Didn’t Tell The Whole Story

Screencap via Team USA Tracker

If you watched NBC’s tape-delayed women’s gymnastics broadcast last night, you saw all four routines from Simone Biles. You saw all of her hiccups. You watched her bound backwards off the floor mat and onto another planet, step off the vault landing mat and take multiple steps after her beam dismount. If this was the only broadcast of the women’s gymnastics qualifiers you watched, it would be reasonable for you to turn off the TV thinking that Biles’s errors were the only reason Team USA finished second to Russia in team qualifying. 

After all, when NBC gymnastics host Terry Gannon pointed out that the Russian Olympic Committee was in the lead going into Team USA’s final rotation, NBC analyst Tim Daggett actually straight up told you it was all Biles’s fault. “The big reason? Simone Biles is not being Simone Biles-like today,” he said. “When she is on she is so ahead of everybody else and she has been losing a half a point here, a half of a point there.”

As Dvora Meyers first pointed out on Twitter, what NBC didn’t show, or even talk about, on the broadcast is the other gymnasts’ uncharacteristic errors, which were crucial to understanding why the U.S. finished more than a point behind the ROC. Daggett is technically correct in placing it all on Biles because that is unfortunately USAG’s entire Olympic strategy. This team is dependent on Biles’s other-worldly scores to save the day. Daggett's assessment of USAG’s strategy was right on, but the NBC broadcast offered no criticism or further commentary on that obviously flawed strategy, nor did the network even broadcast additional missteps made by Biles's teammates. 

NBC didn’t show Jordan Chiles hitting her feet on the floor during a transition to the low bar in her uneven bars routine and scoring a 12.866. The network didn't show her fall off the beam on the next rotation and stumble forward on her dismount landing, scoring 11.566, which placed her 78th out of 91 gymnasts who competed on beam in qualifiers. NBC also didn’t discuss the impact of Grace McCallum stepping out of bounds on floor (her floor score was one of three that counted to the team total because Sunisa Lee’s score was even lower, though that was mostly expected). 

Chiles has been the U.S.’s most consistent gymnast this year. She’s hit over and over and over again and hasn’t missed a routine all year, and the fact that she struggled on two out of four events is a very important part of this story. It’s gymnastics, and the unpredictable nature of the high-risk, high-reward sport is what makes it so entertaining and so popular. 

There was only one vague mention of Chiles’s disappointing performance on the uneven bars. Gannon said, “Having gone already on uneven bars, Grace McCallum was very good, some problems on the routine with Jordan Chiles, but here is now Simone getting set.” Cut to Biles’s very good bar routine, which scored well enough to get her into the event final on her weakest discipline. 

There was zero mention of Chiles’s beam errors on the broadcast, a performance that was so out of character for her that she had a visceral emotional reaction (shown in closeup detail on the live USA tracker stream, but not at all on the NBC replay). Chiles hunched over, her head down and her hands on her knees, while Biles and coach Cecile Landi tried to soothe her. Chiles scored two points higher on beam at the Olympic Trials (14.233 and 13.9).

NBC showed only two routines from Chiles, her solid floor routine with powerful tumbling and impressive stick on her double twisting Yurchenko vault. Chiles finished third at the Olympic Trials, behind Biles and Sunisa Lee, and had a chance to contend for a spot in the all-around competition. It doesn’t make any sense to cut her bars and beam routine from the broadcast when, theoretically, on her best day she could have challenged Lee for an all-around spot. 

But NBC showed each of individual athlete Jade Carey’s routines, and did a good job following her surprising quest to make the all-around final, which ultimately failed with a critical 12.866 beam score from the judges on her last rotation. 

After Carey outscored MyKayla Skinner on vault, bumping her teammate from the vault final because of the two-athletes-per-county rule, the NBC analysts didn’t discuss it at all. Gannon mentioned once that only two athletes per country can make the event finals and that Skinner and Carey would be competing for the second spot on vault, but other than that, there was no recognition of Skinner’s Olympics ending in qualifications. The Team USA tracker feed, which spent a lot of time zooming in on the U.S. gymnasts standing around waiting for their next event, captured Skinner’s raw emotion. She hugged her coach and held back tears. She stood away from the other gymnasts and stared off into the distance, wiping her nose with her grips when she realized her Olympic dreams were already over. NBC aired a small feature on Skinner just before her floor routine, which was Team USA’s first rotation. Skinner finished fourth overall on vault, behind only Biles, Carey, and Brazil's Rebecca Andrade; she hit all four routines and she deserved a better sendoff from NBC’s broadcast. 

The NBC broadcast continuously downplayed the U.S. falling to Russia. “By the way,"
Gannon said during the U.S.’s third rotation, “they trail the Russian Olympic Committee right now. It’s very close and the scores don’t carry over, this is all about just qualifying.” 

Gannon said several times that the scores don’t carry over, but finishing second to ROC is not something that should just be tossed off during a broadcast. It was a big deal, the first time in more than a decade that the U.S. women haven’t finished first in qualifying for a major event. 

The start list for tomorrow's team final came out today. The format is three athletes per event, and all three scores count. In a somewhat surprising call, USAG decided to put McCallum on every event, removing the consistent-except-on-Sunday Chiles from bars and beam, the two events she struggled on that NBC didn’t show you. 

It’s just qualifiers, you might think. The scores don't carry over, you were told. So why does it matter that NBC didn’t show every important routine? It matters because fans who were unable to tune in for the live broadcast of the qualifications, which aired in the wee hours of the morning, were given an incomplete and often misleading version of events by NBC's primetime broadcast. Whatever NBC's reasoning for selectively editing the broadcast was, the end result was something that undermined any fan's ability to understand exactly why the scores ended up the way they did. It was no different than if ABC had decided to edit all of Giannis Antetokounmpo's free throws out of Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

If you want to make sure you get a full accounting of the women's team final, I recommend streaming the Team USA Tracker feed and the main coverage feed here. The event starts at 6:45 a.m. EDT. Don’t bother with the primetime replay unless you prefer only knowing half the story. 

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