The Biggest Gymnastics Blunder in Olympic History

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  • The gymnastics vault is methodical, but at the 2000 Sydney Games, she placed herself two inches lower than she should have. The mistake remains one of the biggest blunders in Olympic history.

  • A total of 18 other gymnasts had difficulties advancing in the event.

  • In Blind Landing, host Ari Saperstein talks to several divers (some speaking for the first time) about how the measurement error cast doubt on the entire competition and put them in grave danger.

Gymnastics jumping is methodical. “One small step, you know, one inch is a really big difference,” says former U.S. Olympic gymnast Elise Ray in the new podcast. Blind landing. “It is a fundamental factor in your career, in your obstacles and in your entry.”

Ray was a leading contender in the all-around at the 2000 Sydney Games — until it came time to jump. She flipped at the wrong angle and crashed hard onto the mat, nearly landing on her neck. “I thought it was nerves, I thought my steps weren’t right — something I was doing,” Ray says. “I blamed myself.”

But it wasn’t her fault. The vault had been set two inches too low. Seventeen other gymnasts also struggled to clear the test, which ended up looking “more like a high school test than the mark of true Olympians,” ESPN reported at the time. Even gold medal favorite Svetlana Khorkina landed flat on her back on her first vault.

The accident remains one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history. Blind landing, Host Ari Saperstein talks to several divers (some speaking for the first time) about how the measurement error cast doubt on the entire competition and put them in serious jeopardy.

Elise Ray from the United StatesElise Ray from the United States

Ray performing the vault at the 2000 Olympics. Inpho Photography – Getty Images

On July 29, 2000, Ray won the U.S. Gymnastics Championships after landing a Yurchenko double full, one of the most difficult vaults at the time. It also secured her a spot on that year’s Olympic team. “The absolute pinnacle, right?” Ray says in Blind landing“It’s what everyone wants.”

When she fell on the vault at the Olympics a month later, she attributed it to nerves. So did many of the other gymnasts who also fell. It wasn’t until Australian gymnast Allana Slater questioned the height of the vault that gymnasts began to realize what was happening. “I’ve spent countless hours vaulting and I remember thinking, that vault looks low. It really does look like a low vault,” Slater says on the podcast.

She told her coach her theory. “I thought there was no way it was safe for me, but it wasn’t safe for everyone else either,” she says. “I remember standing there, talking to the girls on the other side… ‘The jump isn’t the right height. It’s too low. It’s too low. Look at it. Don’t you think it’s not the right height?’ I thought maybe I had gone crazy.”

A group of Olympic officials came out with measuring tapes and, as it turned out, Slater wasn’t “crazy” at all. In fact, the jump was two inches shorter than it should have been.

But how did it happen?

In Blind landingSaperstein says it wasn’t a “Tonya Harding situation,” because no one had anything to gain. “No one I’ve talked to, no one has ever raised the idea of ​​foul play or sabotage. Partly because 18 gymnasts from a wide variety of countries competed in the vault at the wrong height,” she says. “The day before the women’s all-around, someone made a serious mistake and reset it incorrectly, setting the vault a notch, or two inches, too low.”

And it wasn’t just that the vault wasn’t installed correctly. In almost every case, the checks and balances meant to catch the error failed. “Countless people — judges, technicians, officials — who are supposed to double- and quadruple-check all the equipment for this exact reason,” Saperstein says.

The mistake not only cast a shadow of doubt over the matches, but was also very dangerous. According to Blind landingA Spanish gymnast nearly fell to the ground while jumping. Another Brazilian gymnast bounced on her head. And Annika Reeder of Great Britain hurt her ankle and had to be carried off the mat.

Annika ReederAnnika Reeder

Great Britain’s Annika Reeder receives help from her coaches after injuring her ankle on the jump.Clive Brunskill – Getty Images

To correct the mistake, Olympic officials allowed the gymnasts to retake the event. But by then, the mistake had taken its toll. Confidence was shaken, many gymnasts fell in their other events, and medal contenders were no longer in the running. “Maybe I would have won the all-around, but it’s all a matter of chance,” Svetlana Khorkina says in an interview with The Daily Beast. Blind landing.“Nobody apologized to me.”

svetlana jorkinasvetlana jorkina

Gold medal favourite Svetlana Khorkina of Russia falls as she lands on her jump. Jamie Squire – Getty Images

Kym Dowdell, competition director for gymnastics at the 2000 Games, says: Blind landing “Mistakes are never acceptable. Never. But what is even more unacceptable is when you don’t learn from those mistakes. So a lot of learning was done from that mistake and that was being corrected.” Dowdell goes on to assure listeners that there is now “a whole process” at the Olympics where technical authorities “go through and measure the apparatus in great detail before each session of the competition begins.”

For the gymnasts, the way the situation was handled left a lasting impact. “It was kind of delayed anger,” Ray says on the podcast. “But after the fact, when you get home and reflect, like, ‘Wow, that was supposed to be the best competition of my career. That was my dream, that was my… then yeah. The anger started to set in for sure. And the questions of, ‘How did this happen? Who allowed that to happen?’ Those questions were big, big ones. And that anger stayed with me for a couple of years.”

After the Olympics, Ray left elite gymnastics to pursue a college career and later became a gymnastics coach. “I am 100% happy and feel very blessed for the path that led me to where I am,” she says in Blind landing“It was pretty scary at the time, but that’s life, isn’t it? It’s unexpected, with twists and turns, and you have to have some kind of faith that you’re on the right path.”

The five episodes of Blind landing are now available on Apple Podcasts and all major podcasting platforms.

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