The first day of women’s gymnastics is a marathon: The qualification rounds, which decide which teams and athletes will vie for medals, last about 12 hours.
For the Americans, the story to watch is which athletes, besides Simone Biles, will move on to the all-around competition and the event finals. Here’s what you need to know.
How to watch in the United States
Be prepared for an all-nighter if you want to watch live. The first round, featuring Italy and Japan, starts Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Russia and China, which are in the hunt for the silver team medal, begin competing at 10:50 p.m. The Americans compete in Round 3, on Sunday at 2:10 a.m. The final round, No. 5, kicks off at 7:20 a.m.
In the United States, you can stream the competition via NBC’s Olympics site, its Peacock streaming service or the NBC Sports app.
Many fans will prefer to stream a replay or watch the tape-delayed broadcast on NBC, which will air between 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. To avoid spoilers, turn off mobile news notifications and try to stay off social media.
Who’s who among the Americans
Four gymnasts make up the team representing the United States: Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. Two women are competing on their own: Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner.
Biles, 24, is the reigning Olympic all-around champion and the only American returning from the 2016 squad. In Tokyo, she is expected to break the record for combined world and Olympic medals in women’s gymnastics, which is 32 and belongs to Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union.
Latynina also holds the sport’s Olympic medal record; if Biles wins five medals, as she is expected to, she will rank third on that list.
Biles and Chiles, 20, are likely to help the team on every apparatus — vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercise. Lee, who is 18 and goes by Suni, is a strong all-arounder and the American other than Biles who is most likely to win gold in an individual event. She can perform the most difficult uneven-bars routines in the world.
Carey, 21, and Skinner, 24, are potential medalists on vault and floor. In June, Carey showed that she is capable of a double layout with three twists on the floor, a skill that Biles called “crazy,” according to Tim Daggett, the Olympian and NBC commentator. McCallum, 18, contributes solid scores wherever she is needed.
How does the scoring work?
Gymnasts’ routines receive a “D score” for difficulty (such as 6.0 for a difficult vault called the Cheng) and an “E score” for execution (starting at 10 and decreasing for errors). The two scores are combined, meaning a Cheng can score a maximum of 16.0. For a more in-depth explanation, watch this helpful video from YouTube.
The “perfect 10” was scrapped in elite competition in 2006, though that top score is still used in women’s college gymnastics and elsewhere.
How does the qualification work for teams?
There are 11 other teams in Tokyo: Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia, which is competing as R.O.C., an abbreviation for Russian Olympic Committee. (The Russian team name was banned from the Games as part of the penalties for a doping cover-up.)
This weekend, teams will use all four of their gymnasts and drop the lowest mark on each apparatus. The eight squads with the highest total scores qualify for the team final on Tuesday, when the United States is all but certain to win the gold medal.
How does the qualification work for individuals?
Here’s where things get a bit confusing. While 48 gymnasts are part of teams, 50 gymnasts are not, and they will not be eligible for a team medal.
Carey and Skinner will rotate among the apparatuses with the U.S. team, but they will wear different leotards, and their efforts won’t count toward the team score. (Carey earned her Olympic berth by competing in the multiyear World Cup series; an athlete selection committee gave Skinner the spot the United States received for winning the team event at the 2019 world championships.)
The top 24 gymnasts — whether team members or individual competitors — who compete in every event will advance to the individual all-around competition, on Thursday. The top eight athletes on each apparatus will go on to the event finals.
But only two women per country can take part in the all-around or in any event final. In 2016, for instance, Gabby Douglas finished third in the all-around, behind Biles and Aly Raisman, but couldn’t advance because of this rule. Instead, an athlete from another nation — with a lower qualifying score — participated.
Is Biles the reason the United States is so dominant?
Yes, but also no.
Biles does gymnastics that are so difficult, she can fall and still win a competition. Look for her to launch a powerful Yurchenko double pike vault — which will be named for her if she completes it in the Games — and throw a double tuck with three twists on floor. She is the only woman to have landed these skills in competition.
A squad without Biles would almost certainly score lower yet still win gold. Spencer Barnes, a host of the gymnastics podcast Gymcastic, has estimated that the Americans could count up to four falls and still beat a “hit” meet from all of the other teams.
The Americans have won the team event in every Olympics and world championship since 2011.
What else should I know?
Keep an eye on the Japanese and British teams; they should both advance to the team final and have a chance of landing on the podium, especially if Russia and China make mistakes.
For a second straight Olympics, Romania didn’t qualify a team, but Larisa Iordache, the country’s biggest star, is competing and could earn a spot in the beam final. She is the gymnast who has come closest to topping Biles in an all-around at a world championship, in 2014.