Well, this is a weird one-off.
Over the years, the United States women’s Olympic gymnastic team has undergone some steady downsizing: In 1996, there was the Magnificent Seven. In 2000, the team shrank to six. In 2012 and 2016, the teams were whittled down to the Fierce Five and the Final Five, respectively. Now, in 2021, the Team USA gymnastics team will only sport four members during the upcoming Tokyo Games. So, why does the team keep getting smaller? Well, it won’t keep shrinking forever, so don’t worry.
The decision to downsize the Olympic gymnastics team was made back in 2015, though 2021 is the first year it’s coming into effect. Per The Washington Post, the rules changed for two main reasons: first, officials with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) believed larger teams would encourage specialists, and not put enough emphasis on well-rounded athletes who excelled in every practice (think: vault, uneven bars, floor, and balance beam). FIG also hoped a team downsize would give countries with smaller talent pools a better competitive edge against Olympic powerhouses, such as the United States, Russia, and China. Per the Post, the decision is largely credited to Bruno Grandi, the president of FIG from 1996 to 2016. Grandi thought that participating countries should showcase a pruned team of top-tier gymnasts who could shine in every category, instead of a large team of athletes who perfected their technique in only one or two events.
When the decision was announced in 2015, many people weren’t happy about it, including some former Olympic competitors. “Are you kidding me?!? Changing the 2020 gymnastics Olympic team to 4 girls instead of 5?” wrote Olympic gold-medalist Alexandra Raisman in a May 2015 tweet. Raisman was the captain of both the 2012 Fierce Five and the 2016 Final Five Olympic teams. “What's next? A team of one member? What a shame.”
Gymnasts, coaches, and fans alike haven’t exactly been happy about the team downsize, especially since they already felt like a team of five just wasn’t enough to showcase America’s deep bench of medal-worthy athletes. “Even when the team was six we had to leave home some strong ones,” said Martha Karolyi, then-coordinator of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, in a May 2015 NBC interview. “It will hurt the spectacle, what the gymnasts can provide for the whole world, and would eliminate some of the strongest gymnasts just in our country,” she added.
However, FIG insisted the rule change may be a good thing for the United States: In addition to a four-person team, countries competing in 2021 are now allowed to earn spots for two additional athletes to compete in individual apparatus events, increasing the number of medal-eligible competitors from four to six. In 2021, America’s four-person Olympic team consists of Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum, with Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner competing in individual apparatus events.
If these new rules seem a little fuzzy to you, don’t worry — you’re not the only one. After Grandi retired in 2016, gymnastics federations reviewed the rule changes, and decided they were too confusing, per the Post. However, the decision to reverse the rules didn’t come in time to apply to the upcoming Tokyo Games. So, while America will see six athletes on the Olympic stage in 2021, you can expect to see five-person gymnastics teams in the 2024 Paris Games.