LONDON -- Gymnast Jordyn Wieber, crowned individual all-around world champion a mere nine months ago, will be an onlooker at Tuesday's final at these Olympic Games.
People will crunch the numbers and debate the pressures and distractions of occupying the It Girl seat as Wieber has since last fall. Some will speculate that it's getting harder and harder to stay in top form from season to season in a sport that demands remarkable physiology and psychological toughness from spectacularly young athletes.
Those are all valid explanations, but in the end, Wieber fell victim not so much to her own incremental flaws in execution as she did to the depth in her own country. The standard has been set very high for a very long time, and for the past couple of years, she has helped elevate it. Without Wieber's combination of athleticism and composure to chase, would Gabrielle Douglas and Aly Raisman have performed the way they did in Sunday's qualifying?
The points and fractions of points that made the difference were more a product of Douglas and Raisman doing things right than Wieber doing things wrong. That was little consolation Sunday night. The sight of the normally stoic Wieber dissolving into tears was almost more shocking than seeing her minor miscues on floor exercise and balance beam.
Yet it's not as if the result came out of nowhere. Raisman has been Wieber's low-key, solid sidekick for a while now. At the prestigious American Cup at Madison Square Garden in March, Douglas, who was competing in exhibition mode, outscored Wieber and then confirmed that wasn't a fluke by edging her at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.
Sustained excellence is difficult in any sport but particularly so in women's gymnastics because the window of opportunity opens so early. It can snap shut quickly due to simple physical changes as opposed to lapsed work ethic.
While it's not impossible to qualify for successive Summer Games, as Shannon Miller did in 1992 and 1996, it's getting more difficult, especially when athletes understandably take time away from the sport's punishing demands on still-immature bodies. The three athletes who attempted it this time -- Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone -- all fell short for various reasons. Wieber's experience proves that it's hard to stay on top even in successive years.
At the American Cup, Wieber's hazel-eyed gaze was steady, inscrutable and, most of all, professional, as reporters swarmed around her. She didn't appear to be either buying into or openly resisting the hype -- just dealing with it. In that way, Wieber projects the same aura as most of the U.S. stars who have preceded her: a modest small-town girl with a big gift. The bet here is she'll take full advantage of her chances to put that on display over the rest of the meet.