The release of the documentary Athlete A on Netflix has rekindled a discussion on whether Maggie Nichols was unfairly left off the 2016 Olympic team because she was the first to report sexual abuse by Larry Nassar to team officials. Athlete A does not mark the first time this allegation has surfaced, but it does mark the first time it has been presented on a major platform continuing what is one of the most fiercely debated topics amongst gymnastics fans. The point of this article is not to determine whether the allegation is true or not, but to highlight certain points that get lost in the discussion.
Thoughts on the possible motive.
It has been frequently been asked why USAG would intentionally leave Maggie Nichols off the 2016 team while naming Aly Raisman who herself was a Nassar survivor. The explanation to this question is the concept of “containment.” In 2015 USAG knew they already had two cases of an Olympian being abused (Raisman and McKayla Maroney) and did not want to see that number increase to three. The more Olympians coming forward as a Nassar survivor, the more media attention the story would generate.
It could also be asked if this was a punitive measure against the Nichols family for making inquiries about the status of the Nassar investigation. It is a completely reasonable request for a parent to want updates on how USAG is handling the sexual abuse case of their own child. But for senior USAG figures, such requests may have alienated them and led to a retaliatory response.
Can these allegations be proven?
There isn’t a “smoking gun” proving this allegation to be true. When all the scoring data is analyzed, there isn’t a specific piece of data that dictates “every gymnast who hit this threshold has made the Olympic team, Maggie reached that threshold and didn’t make the team.”
Another key component of this allegation is that while Maggie’s exclusion from the starting lineup is controversial, her exclusion from one of the three alternate roles is significantly more controversial. There are an abundance of gymnerds who feel her omission from the starting lineup was justified, but her omission from the alternate roles was completely inexcusable. The Maggie Nichols Rio controversy is not one debate, but two debates.
Was it justified to leave her out of the starting lineup? Was it justified to not name Maggie Nichols as an alternate? For many, it is Maggie not being named to an alternate position that gives credence to the allegation that she was unfairly discriminated against.
The alternate position is still a highly prestigious assignment that gymnasts value immensely. Those who earn it frequently label themselves as Olympians on their social media accounts and put it on their resumes. At least one gymnast who was an alternate on the 2016 American team has a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her body. It is a memory that even though they weren’t officially named to the Olympic team, they still were able to travel to Brazil and be part of it. To not earn the alternate assignment is a painful pill to swallow and the loss of a unique life experience.
The logical fallacy of the “backs up” approach.
The center of the controversy rests on how Maggie fits into the three alternate roles. Her exclusion is frequently defended by citing the role of specialists. Alternate Ragan Smith was a strong beam worker and “backs up” Olympian Laurie Hernandez whose speciality was beam. The same could be said for alternate Ashton Locklear who backs up Olympian Madison Kocian as both gymnasts were uneven bars specialists.
The logical fallacy is not that the “backs up” approach is a bad model for constructing a team, it is actually a great model. The logical fallacy is assuming it was the only way to construct a team. The “backs up” approach prioritizes the ceiling scoring potential of a team. It ensures that a high scoring gymnast on one apparatus can be replaced with another high scoring gymnast on that same apparatus. But it comes at the cost of limiting the flexibility of the team and makes it less capable of adapting to a wide range of scenarios.
When a team suffers a wave of injuries this model quickly becomes a liability. Especially if specialists on the same apparatus get injured. This is something that should be on the mind of Team USA officials as gymnastics is a highly injury prone sport and there are numerous examples in gymnastics history of teams getting decimated by injury. Most notably the 1997 World Championships where Ukraine fielded a lineup of just four gymnasts whereas everyone else had six.
An alternative model would have been to take the three best All-Arounders and protect the floor* scoring potential of the team as no matter how bleak the injury situation gets, the more versatile All-Arounders could plug any gap.
*Floor = the economic term, not the gymnastics term.
This is not to say USAG should have gone with a different model to construct the 2016 team. The “backs up” model is highly advantageous when it comes to winning medals in event finals. The point is, USAG chose which type of team construction-philosophy they were going to adopt when building a team. Just like they chose how much they were going to weigh 2016 Trials over past results, give consideration to previous injury history, and whether that athlete would be at full health in time for the Olympics. Lastly, they choose whether or not to consider how much they valued an athlete’s results based on her being on an upswing (showing improvement compared to previous months) or a downswing.
Every single decision USAG made always appeared to be to the detriment of Maggie. Virtually all of the discussion over this controversy involves debating whether Maggie fit the selection criteria. But little attention is being paid as to whether USAG shifted the selection criteria to not fit Maggie.
Thoughts on the 2016 Olympic Trials
Lauren Hopkins over at The Gymternet made the following comment in her writeup of the Maggie Nichols Rio controversy:
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the public-facing judges were purposely told to low-ball Maggie so that she couldn’t rank in a position that would get her an alternate spot.
It is a fascinating point and something she is 100% correct on. This is a very real possibility and it wouldn’t even be unprecedented. Prior to the switch to a committee system, the Olympic Trials were subject to allegations of biased judging in order to prevent a gymnast from qualifying to the Olympic team that senior officials didn’t want.
The sad reality is that USAG has a wide range of options to not only blacklist a gymnast, but to cover its tracks and make it look like said athlete was left off the team for legitimate reasons. I’m not saying this is what happened to Maggie Nichols, but it could have. The takeaway here is that the 2016 Olympic Trials results are often presented as a “truth-teller” scoring sheet proving Ragan Smith was a slightly better gymnast than Maggie, but gymnastics fans should be more cautious in the way they value the legitimacy of those scores.
Thoughts on Maggie
As a gymnastics superpower, USA Gymnastics is frequently put in a position where it has to leave top-rate gymnasts at home. The program simply has more high-caliber gymnasts than it knows what to do with. It results in situations where the team selection process is so competitive, you can have as many as a dozen gymnasts and any one of them would have deserved her spot on the team. It is reminiscent of the former Soviet dynasty who in 1976 had to grapple with choosing a six person team, while having seven active gymnasts who would later go on to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
For the gymnasts who are left off the Olympic team, it is often as simple as there being four great reasons why they should have made the team, but five great reasons why the other options were better. Think of what that does for an athlete psychologically. After spending nearly all of her life training in the gym, living a lifestyle that required thousands of miles in travel each year and tens of thousands of dollars in training costs, it is a completely rational response to say “I should have made the team.”
By all accounts Maggie never once sulked over her exclusion from the team nor express bitterness towards the ones who went to Rio. All Maggie ever did was be part of a narrative where her supporters highlight the reasons she should have made the team, even as there were possibly even more reasons that excluding her from the team was the correct decision. Maggie herself has never directly made comments that her exclusion was unjust, instead allowing members of her inner circle to make those statements for her.
Maggie Nichols is not the first gymnast to have gone through this. In 1992 Natalia Kalinina was controversially left off the Unified Team and that exclusion is often attributed to her Ukrainian background rather than her gymnastics credentials. In 1972 Larissa Petrik was left off the Olympic team and felt it was a decision motivated by resentment over her famed 1964 victory against Larissa Latynina who was now a coach and instrumental in choosing the Munich team.
There are no bad gymnasts in any of these stories. Rather these are superstar teams loaded with great gymnasts, that had to leave other great gymnasts at home. And the ones left at home have nothing to do but question “why me?”
Every gymnast who went to Rio was a great athlete and so is Maggie Nichols. I often nickname NCAA gymnastics as the “revenge of the alternates.” It is where top gymnasts who didn’t become major Olympic stars return to competition at the college level and dominate the scene. Proving that the potential to be a highly successful Olympian was always there, but fate and luck had other plans. Maggie’s status as one of the greatest NCAA gymnasts of all time is a testament to the talent she always had.
Thoughts on USAG
USAG is not off the hook by any means. Athlete A raised the possibility of Maggie being wrongfully excluded from the 2016 Olympic team, but it did something else. It hinted at USAG attempting to diminish Maggie’s media exposure and cited two specific examples. The first example was Maggie being barred from appearing in a commercial with Simone Biles. The second was Maggie’s parents not being televised during the broadcast of the Olympic trials as was the case with the parents of other gymnast.
These examples go beyond mere speculation of Maggie being discriminated against, but documented examples of USAG doing exactly that. It is a particular sore point because gymnastics fans love their favorite gymnasts and want to see them have success. And the definition of “success” is not just winning medals, but reaping the rewards for the fruits of their labor in the form of media exposure and/or sponsorship opportunities. If USAG isn’t guilty of taking away Maggie’s Olympic dream, they are certainly guilty of diminishing her moment in the spotlight. And that’s just as egregious of an offense.
Maggie’s parents deserved to have been included in the broadcast. Maggie deserved to be able to go on YouTube twenty years from now, show the 2016 Olympic trials to her kids, and be able to point out things like “there’s Grandma and Grandpa in the stands.” That is what USAG took from Maggie Nichols and it is reprehensible. The question becomes, what else did they take?
Even if Maggie Nichols was left off the 2016 Olympic on merit stemming from a subpar performance at trials, USAG still could have been guilty of directly hindering her athletic career. Maggie Nichols suffered a knee injury in the buildup to the Rio Olympics that proved to be a critical factor in her not making Olympic team. If that injury was linked to overtraining, and her overtraining was encouraged by USAG, then USAG is responsible. This could be as simple as Maggie (or her coach) getting the impression from USAG coaches that she was on the outside looking in, and started increasing her training hours in response.
The other scenario is that USAG had planned to unfairly exclude her from the team, but didn’t need to implement that plan after Maggie’s performance at 2016 Olympic Trials was enough to remove her from the team. In that scenario USAG is no different than a mobster who hired a hitman to kill someone, but the intended target died of a heart attack before the hitman could complete the job.
This story will go down as one of the most controversial moments in American gymnastics history. Fans will always have different opinions. There are those who believe Maggie should having been in the starting lineup while an even greater number of fans believe that at the very least, she should have been named to an alternate spot. But the premise gymnastics fans seem to be in the most universial agreement with:
Maggie Nichols never had a chance.