FORT WORTH, Texas – Making the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics is already going to be tough enough. It doesn’t need to be made more difficult.
Yet that’s a potential scenario because of absurdity by the International Gymnastics Federation, timidity by USA Gymnastics and, yes, self-centeredness by Jade Carey and her father Brian, who is also her coach.
As it stands now, the United States will be able to take six women to Tokyo: a four-person team; Carey; and another “plus-one” athlete that is likely to go to an event specialist. But Carey’s spot, which hasn’t been officially awarded but is mathematically clinched by her success at the individual event World Cup series, is nominative, meaning it belongs to her and her alone.
If Carey gives it up to compete as part of the four-person U.S. team, that takes an opportunity away from another American. Instead of five spots being available, there will be only four, and one of her teammates will see her Olympic dream evaporate.
“Everybody knows that. She knows it. We know that,” national team coordinator Tom Forster said after the national championships concluded Sunday night. “But we live in world of athlete-centeredness, and the athletes have the choice. So it will be up to her if she’s in that position.”
USA TODAY Sports asked to speak with Carey and/or her father at the U.S. Classic two weeks ago, as well as after each night of competition at nationals, but USA Gymnastics did not make them available. It’s unclear if that was the Careys’ decision or the federation’s.
At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media summit in April, however, Carey said she was planning on competing for a spot on the U.S. team.
“We’ll just see how it goes there,” she said, “and ultimately it’s up to the selection committee to decide.”
That’s not how this was supposed to work. And unlikely as it might be to occur – only the top two at Olympic trials are guaranteed spots, and Carey was sixth at nationals – it’s shameful there’s even a chance a woman who has spent years with the Olympics as her goal could be shut out in a numbers game because no one had the foresight, or fortitude, to prevent it.
The blame starts with the former International Gymnastics Federation president, who had an inexplicable obsession with shrinking Olympic team sizes, theoretically to provide more opportunities to specialists and gymnasts from smaller countries. Seven-person teams became six-person teams in Sydney, which then became five-person teams in Beijing and, now for Tokyo, four-person squads.
The FIG said countries could earn up to two of these “plus-one” spots for Tokyo – begging the question of the point of all of this – and devised a convoluted process to allocate them. That included awarding spots to the winners in the individual event World Cup series, where Carey holds the top spot on both vault and floor exercise.
Had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened, the series would have concluded last spring and Carey would have had to make a decision about her spot well before Olympic trials. But the FIG dithered and delayed, not announcing until last week that it would, indeed, hold the final World Cup in the series.
Because it’s scheduled for June 23-26, Carey is under no pressure to make a decision about her spot before the Olympic trials begin June 24.
Now, USA Gymnastics could have told Carey that, since she already has an individual spot, she’s not eligible to compete for a spot on the team. Or that if she wanted to try for the team, she needed to decline that individual spot before trials.
But the federation has been a dumpster fire since hundreds of girls and young women said they were sexually abused by former team and Michigan State physician Larry Nassar, revealing a deeply toxic culture in the women’s program that allowed him to prey on gymnasts. USA Gymnastics is desperate to prove that its days of treating athletes as if they’re disposable, medal producing robots are over, and federation officials know the same people criticizing them for not taking a more definitive stance on Carey using her individual spot would also howl if they actually did.
And Carey, who is 21, is not blameless, either.
She knew when she decided in 2018 to pursue a World Cup series spot that she was risking a chance to win gold with the U.S. team in exchange for guaranteeing she’d make the Olympics, and both she and her father said – repeatedly – that they were OK with that tradeoff.
“Ultimately, it was going to be her decision. But I was hoping that she would take that spot, anyway,” Brian Carey said in January 2020. “Anything can happen at any moment. If you get a stomach flu at the Olympic trials, then you could be sitting at home watching.”
Now she’s going back on that bargain she made.
While it’s absolutely Carey’s right to do that, it doesn’t make it right – particularly when someone else’s Olympic hopes are in the balance.
All of this is likely to be a moot point. Forster indicated Sunday that Carey would have to lock one of the two spots at trials to make the U.S. team. Simone Biles is all but certain to get one of those, and Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles were a class above the rest of the field at nationals.
“Jade, I do believe, will be performing as an individual in the Olympics,” Forster said.
The only positive thing about this is that the FIG is going back to five-person teams for the Paris Olympics, so there’s no chance of this mess happening again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.