The showdown is upon us. It's showtime. With all due respect to devotees of Anglo-Sino basketball, the 100-meter dash and Michael Phelps, here comes the marquee event of these Beijing Games: the women's gymnastics team finals.
The beauty of it is China and the U.S. will be paired together, competing on the same apparatus at the same time. The two favorites for gold will know exactly where they stand relative to each other, and so will the raucously pro-Chinese crowd at the 19,000-seat National Indoor Stadium. The first event will be vault, followed by the uneven bars, the treacherous beam and, finally, the floor exercise. Here are the key things to watch for.
1. Bridget Sloan will lead the U.S. off in vault. It's her only event of the finals, and if she lands it cleanly, as she did in the preliminaries, it will get the U.S. off to the start it needs. Shawn Johnson, who's competing in all four rotations, is next, followed by Alicia Sacramone. The U.S. has to beat the Chinese in this event if they're to win the gold medal. Interestingly, the final Chinese vaulter, Jiang Yuyuan, had difficulty in the prelims in the vault and posted the lowest score on her team, so it was discarded. In the finals, three gymnasts compete, and all three scores count.
2. China will almost certainly win the uneven bars, which is its specialty. The question is: by how much? Chellsie Memmel, who will lead the U.S. in this rotation, fell in the preliminaries, a mistake that coach Martha Karolyi assured anyone in earshot would not be repeated in the finals. Johnson, steady in the bars but hamstrung by a low start value, is next, followed by Nastia Liukin, by far the best American in this event. Liukin fell on her dismount in the prelims, which helped China beat the U.S. by a point and a half in bars. The U.S. must keep the Chinese margin of victory here to below one point.
3. The Americans have taken to calling themselves The Beam Team, so confident are they in their skills at this apparatus. This could be where the gold medal is won or lost. The trio of Sacramone, Liukin and Johnson were all flawless on the balance beam in the preliminaries, and the U.S. beat the Chinese, who traditionally dominate it, by .35. If the Americans can repeat those performances, and they've managed to get past the uneven bars without blood being spilled, the gold will be their's to lose.
4. Some observers have noted that the music played for the Chinese gymnasts on the floor exercise is louder than it is for other competitors, the better to get the crowd involved and mask small mistakes. The U.S. is traditionally dominant on floor, but in the preliminaries Sacramone uncharacteristically stepped out of bounds and posted a disappointing 14.425. Largely as a result, China beat the U.S. in the floor by a relatively wide margin of .70. That can't happen again if the U.S. is to win gold.
Liukin will be up second, and the final U.S. gymnasts of the night is the one on whom their gold medal hopes have rested from the start: the diminutive Johnson. The world champion in this event, she's planning to add a 1½ twist move onto her final pass. She's had some trouble with it in training sessions, but look for her to land it in the finals, leading the U.S. team to its first team gold since 1996.