LONDON — The podiums and walls inside the North Greenwich Arena are the color of Pepto-Bismol, shockingly pink and more likely to cause dyspepsia than to cure it. “It’s crazy,” testified US gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. “It makes your eyes go wild.”
Not that her teammates are complaining. “Pink is our favorite color for many years,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, whose reigning world champions begin their Olympic quest on Sunday afternoon. “I’m happy for it.”
Gold, of course, is their preferred hue and the Americans never have won a medal of that color at an overseas Games. In both Athens and Beijing, they came in as world titlists and were outpointed by the Romanians and the Chinese. This time, the US is coming off a dominant performance at last year’s global meet in Tokyo, where despite losing captain Alicia Sacramone with a torn Achilles’ tendon, the Yanks still hammered the Russians by more than four points and Jordyn Wieber collected the all-around crown.
Four members of that team are back — Wieber, Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Needham native Aly Raisman, who was elected team captain. But given their recent history at Olympus, the Yanks aren’t expecting any coronation. If the Chinese men can finish sixth, as they did in their Saturday qualifying group, anybody can get the wobblies. “We don’t talk about medals and colors,” said Karolyi, whose squad had to settle for silver in 2004 and 2008. “We talk about quality of preparation.”
Which is why the team treated last week’s podium training as a competition. With only five gymnasts on the roster this time, consistency on every apparatus is paramount. That’s why the US team is top-heavy with reliable all-arounders in Wieber, trials victor Douglas, and Raisman, who was fourth in Tokyo.
All of them will compete in all four events in the qualifying round, which will determine the 24 contestants for the all-around and the eight for each apparatus final. Kyla Ross, the only global newcomer, will be up on all but vault, where Maroney, the world titlist, will be a priceless one-trick pony. The question is whether this team, which has no Games veterans, can match the extraordinary production by the Class of 2008, which won eight medals in China’s home gym, including golds by Nastia Liukin in all-around and Shawn Johnson on balance beam.
The planetary landscape has changed significantly during the past quadrennium. China has slipped to third on the ladder and has only two members returning from their gold-medal team — He Kexin and Deng Linlin. The Romanians, who were third last time, have been scrambling to rebuild on the fly, coaxing back triple gold-medalist Catalina Ponor, who’d retired in 2007, to add maturity to a young squad. “I just woke up one morning and thought, I have to go back,” said the 24-year-old Ponor, who’d been coaching in the US before she returned to help her teammates win the European title in May.
And the Russians, who owned the sport until the Magnificent 7 upended them in Atlanta in 1996, are on the rise after missing the Olympic podium for the first time in Beijing. Though the Americans took them apart at the world meet, the Motherland was without former world champion Aliya Mustafina. Now she’s back, along with Victoria Komova, who finished less than four-100ths of a point behind Wieber last year.
But over the past dozen years, the Americans have been the world’s most consistently productive squad, making the team podium at every global meet, reliably restocking after every Games. If they perform the way they usually do they have an excellent chance to accomplish what none of their predecessors has. “We feel like we are definitely ready to go out on the competition floor and fight,” said Karolyi.
There’s been so much flux since Beijing that Karolyi hasn’t even bothered scouting the Russians and Chinese. “I have no control over it,” she said. “It wouldn’t change what we prepare.” This is the US squad that Karolyi had in her head a couple of months ago and it doesn’t bother her that she wasn’t able to choose it at camp instead of at earlier trials. “I don’t feel bad,” she said. “This is the team that I like.”
And this is the lineup that she’d written down several weeks ago. It was good enough to beat the same rivals last year and Karolyi figures that it’s still good enough, provided that her gymnasts execute. And if they do, they wouldn’t mind that gold medal dangling from a shocking-pink ribbon.