Why gymnastics roster sizes were reduced for 2021 Tokyo Olympics

The U.S. national gymnastics teams are facing tougher roster decisions than usual ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

That’s because Olympic gymnastics rosters are contracting for the third time in the last four Olympics. As a result, only four men and four women will qualify for the team competitions at the Summer Games, and that will make for difficult final cuts ahead of the event.

The United States women’s team will face a particularly hair-splitting process of making cuts. Two-time Olympic gold medal winner Simone Biles is a shoo-in for the team as she hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013. Jordan Chiles, Suni Lee and Jade Carey all stand a good chance of making it as well.

Plenty of other competitors will challenge for a spot at Team USA’s gymnastics qualifiers this week, however. They include Emma Malabuyo, Leanne Wong, Grace McCallum, Skye Blakely, MyKayla Skinner and Kara Eaker. In a normal year, at least one of these women would make the team, but with just four team spots available, they could get squeezed out — or be pushed into an alternate role.

Why did the Olympics decide to shrink the gymnastics rosters from five to four for the Tokyo Olympics? And do organizers plan to continue the practice? Here’s what to know about the controversial decision, and how and why it happened.

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Why was the size of Olympics gymnastics teams reduced?

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) approved the reduction of Olympic gymnastics team rosters in May 2015. FIG’s president at the time, Bruno Grandi, had two goals in making the change, per Liz Clarke of The Washington Post.

First, Grandi wanted to emphasize all-around performers in gymnastics as he felt that the sport was “drifting too much toward specialists” who focused on excelling in one area. Second, Grandi believed that reducing the size of teams would allow smaller countries to compete with larger countries that traditionally have more depth.

Dissenters, including U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, argued that some of the world’s best gymnasts wouldn’t make the cut as a result of the rule changes.

“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,” Karolyi said, per NBC Sports. “Even when the team was six we had to leave home some strong ones. I totally don’t feel like I am really happy about that, but decisions will be taken, and we will be with any kind of decision. That’s what we did in the past, even if something doesn’t seem like very smart or very good, but once the rules are set for us, we will go with it.”

Grandi had a lot of power in the gymnastics world in 2015, so he was able to push through the changes and implement them for the Tokyo Olympics. The decision was approved by a 29-7 vote with one abstention.

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Why do some countries get extra Olympic gymnasts?

This was also the work of Grandi. He instituted a program that allowed countries to earn up to two additional Olympic spots per nation through performances at various world and continental championships.

Grandi did this to counter the argument that fewer of the world’s best gymnasts would be allowed to participate in the Olympics because of the roster size restrictions.

But the athletes that earn these extra spots are only allowed to participate in individual events and aren’t a part of the team competition. They even have to wear differently colored leotards to specify that they aren’t part of the team event squad.

Additionally, the qualifying measures used to determine these extra spots were deemed “overly confusing” and will be abandoned by gymnastics federations in the future. They will still be in effect for the Tokyo Olympics, but the sport will go back to teams of five for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It was also crucial for us to implement a qualification system for Paris 2024 that everybody can understand while being fair to the best athletes,” current FIG president Morinari Watanabe said in a May 2019 press release.

As such, the now-retired Grandi’s brainchild will be short-lived.

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Olympic gymnastics roster sizes by the years

Since Team USA’s “Magnificent Seven” of Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the sport has steadily cut the number of gymnasts participating each year.

In fact, gymnastics roster sizes have decreased in three of the last four Olympics and have been nearly halved since 1996.

YearSiteRoster size
1996Atlanta7
2000Sydney6
2004Athens6
2008Beijing6
2012London5
2016Rio de Janeiro5
2020Tokyo4

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