Mary Lou Retton called it the “queen bee” medal.
She’s not trying to say that three consecutive all-around golds at the world championships is unimpressive, of course. Just that an Olympic all-around gold is different, and necessary. A gymnast like Simone Biles won’t cement her superlative reputation until she has that Olympic all-around gold around her neck.
“I think the Olympics have a specialness to them,” Retton said after the American Cup in early 2016. “In our [gymnastics] world, world championships are just as important, but the public expects an Olympic win, an Olympic gold.”
Retton might be the expert on what an Olympic all-around win can do for a gymnasts’ career. The 1984 Olympic champion was the first U.S. women to win that title, and has been a sports icon ever since.
“The Olympic all-around gold medal, the ‘queen bee’ is the most important. I think [Biles] needs it as part of her repertoire,” Retton added emphatically.
And if she doesn’t get it?
“I just don’t see that happening, at all.”
Neither does anyone else. That Biles will be the Olympic all-around champion has been a foregone conclusion for years, at least since she won her third all-around title at the 2015 Worlds.
A fourth consecutive title only intensified those expectations, the kind that can turn into crushing pressure.
But the eight routines Biles has done so far in Rio show no trace of self-doubt. Biles has been as exceptional as ever, leading the U.S. team to a gold medal a few days after she qualified to the all-around final with a total score of 62.366.
It was higher than Aly Raisman’s, the second-place qualifier who will join Biles in the final, by 1.759 points. For comparison, Gabby Douglas won gold over Russia’s Viktoria Komova in 2012 by 0.259.
And the top non-U.S. qualifier, Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, was 3.634 points behind Biles. If Biles had fallen three times in qualifying, she still would have beaten out everyone but her own teammates.
Speaking of, Douglas finished the qualifying round in third place, between Raisman and Andrade. But the two-per-country rule permits only two teammates to advance to a final, meaning Douglas will not get the chance to defend her 2012 title.
She could have rewrote the record books by becoming the first female gymnast since Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles. But just by appearing in Rio, she’s made history of her own: Douglas is the first U.S. women to become Olympic all-around champion and return for a second Olympics. It’s a rare thing; no female Olympic all-around champion from any country has done it since Nadia Comaneci in 1980.
So with Biles’ likely lead—although the scores don’t carry over from qualifications and everyone will start from zero, Biles’ higher difficulty scores give her advantage from the get-go—and the absence of Douglas, viewers shouldn’t expect much drama, right?
That’s never the case in women’s gymnastics. The 4-inch wide balance beam alone makes sure of that. And there’s also a bevy of uber-talented gymnasts who want a piece of Olympic glory.
There will be Raisman, dead set on righting the wrongs of the 2012 London Olympics. In the all-around final four years ago, Raisman tied for third place with Russia’s Aliya Mustafina but lost the tiebreaker and the medal.
Mustafina is back for Rio as well, and qualified sixth to the all-around final despite a fall off the balance beam. The stoic Russian has been hampered by injuries in the last few years, including a knee and back injury that forced her out of the 2015 World Championships. But she has a well-deserved reputation for turning it on when it counts, finding a competitive fire that allows her to shine brightest in high-pressure situations.
Brazilian fans would love to see one of their own make the podium, and both Andrade and 16-year-old Flavia Saraiva will be competing in the all-around in hopes of becoming a hometown hero.
Another gymnast to watch will be the Netherlands’ Eythora Thorsdottir, who was ranked eighth in qualifications. The Dutch have never been known for explosive tumbling or powerful vaulting like the Americans, so they don’t try to beat the competition at the difficulty game. Instead, gymnasts from the Netherlands emphasize excellent execution and innovative dance, doing the hardest spins and leaps and doing them nearly perfectly. Thorsdottir’s floor routine, where she plays the character of a zombie, is not to be missed.
Shang Chunsong finished fourth in the all-around at the 2015 Worlds, but arrived in Rio suffering from a flu-like illness that understandably kept her from performing at her best. She ranked 20th in qualifying, close to not even making the final. She looked stronger in the team competition, leading the Chinese women to bronze.
Raisman and Biles will both start on vault, then rotate through uneven bars and vault before finishing on floor exercise. The all-around final will start at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, Aug. 11 and can be watched live on NBCOlympics.com.
After the competition ends, keep watching for The Daily Dismount recap show. Hosted by Tanith White with Olympians Jonathan Horton and Courtney Kupets Carter, The Daily Dismount will discuss all the most exciting moments of the competition as well as show the medal ceremony.