Gymnastics is complicated. Skills that vary by one teensy-tiny aspect have completely different names, techniques and difficulty values. Scores in elite can go infinitely high, and the values of the skills and the requirements for each event and the average composite tally of all the different factors that go into the score itself change every four years. It’s only fitting, then, that the qualification process for Tokyo 2020 is so insanely complex that the mental gymnastics involved in decoding it deserve an event final of its own.
But this is the Olympics, and these things matter—and now that it’s 2019, the stakes are getting higher. We’re here to break down the Tokyo qualification process, as simply as possible.
Let’s start with the basics:
There are 98 spots available for gymnasts.
There is a team competition and an individual competition. The medals up for grabs in the individual competition are for the four events—vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise—and for the all-around.
Twelve full teams will qualify; the remaining spots are for individuals.
A team is made up of four gymnasts.
The individuals on a team can compete in both the team competition and the individual competition.
A country with a qualifying team can qualify up to two additional gymnasts, who will compete only as individuals. The maximum number of gymnasts per country with a qualifying team is six.
A country with a non-qualifying team can qualify up to seven individual gymnasts, all of who will compete as individuals.
An individual spot can be nominative (where it goes to the athlete, not the federation) or non-nominative (where it goes to the federation, not the athlete).
Just like in years past, 12 teams will qualify to the Olympics. These team spots are earned through the 2018 and 2019 World Championships. The top three teams from the 2018 World Championships have already qualified: the United States, Russia and China. The top nine teams at the 2019 World Championships (not including the countries that have already qualified) will get the remaining spots.
Each country gets four women per team, and those spots are non-nominative; it’s up to each country whom they decide to bring.
Individual Spots: Nominative
When a spot is nominative, it means that it goes to the gymnast herself, not to the country she represents. There are two ways that a gymnast can earn a nominative spot:
2019 World Championships: The top 20 all-arounders at the 2019 World Championships who represent countries that don’t qualify a full team all earn nominative spots to Tokyo, for up to two gymnasts per country. In addition, there are 12 spots set aside for anyone not on a qualifying team that wins an individual event medal. If those 12 spots aren’t all used up—say, if gymnasts from the United States or Russia or any other team that qualifies end up with any individual medals—then the remaining spots will go towards more all-arounders from non-qualifying countries. So in theory, if none of those 12 spots are taken, the top 32 all-arounders from Worlds get tickets to Tokyo, not just the top 20.
Apparatus World Cup Series: The World Cup Series is a series of international meets that happen throughout a given season. In the past, these weren’t that big a deal; the medalists could win prize money, but they had nothing to do with the qualifications for other meets. Now, they’re a way to earn a spot to the Olympics, which makes them a lot more important.
Here’s how it works: There are eight apparatus World Cups in the 2018-2019 season, and the overall series winner on each event gets a nominative spot. Those winners are determined by a point system. Gymnasts get a certain number of points when they place in the top 12 in a competition—and at the end of the series, each gymnast gets points for their top three finishes. Those points are tallied and the person with the top points for each event gets a nominative spot. So let’s say I went to four World Cups for vault, and I placed first, second, third and fifth. My fifth-place finish would be dropped, and I’d tally up the points for my first, second and third standings. If that was better than any of the vaulters in the series, then I’d get a spot to Tokyo.
There are a few things worth noting about this route. Unlike the all-arounders and event medalists at 2019 Worlds, gymnasts can get individual spots this way even if their teams have already qualified to Tokyo. However, they can’t have been on the team that actually secured that qualification for their country. For example, since Simone Biles, Morgan Hurd, Grace McCallum, Riley McCusker and Kara Eaker were all on the 2018 Worlds team that qualified the USA to Tokyo, none of them can earn a spot this way. But since Jade Carey was not on that team (she actually chose to remove herself from consideration), she is free to go the apparatus World Cup route and see if she can qualify her own individual spot.
It’s also important to note that if a gymnast who earns a nominative spot gets injured or decides to pull out of the Olympics for whatever reason, that spot does NOT go to that gymnast’s country to fill; it goes to whoever comes next in the apparatus World Cup standings for that given event.
Host Country Rule: For each Olympics, a spot is guaranteed for the host country, in case that country doesn’t qualify through the traditional means. Japan will certainly qualify gymnasts through these other channels, so their spot will get kicked back and filled from the ranks of the top all-arounders from 2019 Worlds.
Individual Spots: Non-Nominative
Unlike nominative spots, non-nominative spots belong to the country, not the gymnast who earned it—so for teams with a deep bench of talented gymnasts, like the United States, this is the more appealing route. (The U.S. then has the control to give that spot to whoever is looking best right before the Olympics.) Here’s how those non-nominative spots can get qualified:
All-Around World Cup Series: Unlike the apparatus World Cup series, where the spots goes to the top gymnast, the spot from the all-around World Cup series goes to the top country. This means that the United States can send three different gymnasts to three (or more) different all-around World Cups, and if the United States gets the most points, then the United States qualifies the spot, not the gymnasts who competed. It’s worth noting that the only countries invited to these all-around World Cups are the top 12 teams that have already qualified to Tokyo—so these spots are only available to the countries that are already bringing a full team. Just like the apparatus World Cups, however, the gymnasts who were on the qualifying team cannot compete in this series—meaning the U.S. can’t send Biles, Hurd, McCusker, McCallum or Eaker.
2019 Continental Championships: An Olympic rule about continental representation says that at least two gymnasts from each continent need to compete (besides Oceania, which gets one spot). The Continental Championships rule is here to make sure that happens. The top two all-arounders (or one for Oceania) from each 2019 continental championship—the European Championships, Asian Championships, African Championships, Pan-American Championships and whatever the continental championship for Oceania is—earn spots for their countries. A country can only qualify one spot here, however, so if a country gets both the gold and silver, the second spot would go to whoever got the bronze.
With the continental championship route, the spot for a country that qualified a full team is non-nominative, while a spot for a country that did not qualify a full team is nominative.
Tripartite Rule: The Tripartite spot goes to a gymnast from a federation that brought less than eight gymnasts total for both the 2016 and 2012 Olympics. This spot, like the two above spots, is non-nominative.
What This Means for the United States
The United States can qualify a total of six gymnasts to Tokyo: four for the team, and two for individual spots. Those individual spots can be qualified through either the all-around World Cup series (where the spot would go to the country), the Pan-American Championships (where the spot would go to the country) or the apparatus World Cup series (where the spot would go to the gymnast). Let’s say, however, that Jade Carey qualifies a nominative spot through the apparatus World Cups, and then the United States gets a spot through the all-around World Cups; in that case, the United States would be ineligible to qualify any more spots, and they couldn’t get one at the Pan-Ams.
USA Gymnastics has created strict rules around who they’ll send to the apparatus World Cups (or at least who they’ll fund, and how long they’ll fund them for), but they can’t stop gymnasts who want to attempt to go that route and can pay their own way.
No matter how you cut it, this process is deeply complicated—and that’s even before we get into the rules of the actual Olympic competition. But watching it unfold over the next year and a half is bound to be exciting—and we hope that it results in fair and diverse representation at the Olympic games. Stay tuned for more updates as these spots get awarded!
Brette Warshaw is a freelance writer and consultant based in New York City. You can follow her at @bstarwarshaw.