FARGO — Fans of the summer Olympics have had to wait a lot longer than usual to see the global spectacle of sports that comes our way every four years.
Consider 1980 and 1984 Olympian Kathy Johnson Clarke among those most excited for the gymnastics competition in Tokyo.
The two-time Olympic medalist and ESPN gymnastics commentator will be watching closely as the action unfolds July 24 through Aug. 3.
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Six women make up this year’s squad: Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum will vie for the team title, while Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner will represent the U.S. as individuals.
Forum reporter Robin Huebner was a member of the U.S. National Gymnastics team with Johnson Clarke in the mid-1970s. She recently talked about this year’s Games and reminisced with Johnson Clarke, 61, who lives in Longwood, Fla.
The following are excerpts from that interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Huebner: Kathy, these athletes were training for 2020, and here we are a full year later (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Talk about how difficult the delayed competition is for these athletes.
Johnson Clarke: For some of them they were ready. … That year, the build-up to that, was specific for that timing. And once it changed, it sort of indiscriminately hurt some and helped others. It allowed certain athletes to all of a sudden be eligible for these Olympic Games (due to a minimum age of 16). It really hurt Morgan Hurd (2017 World all-around champion), especially with her elbow injuries and surgeries. So I think everybody needs to keep that in mind.
Huebner: With one alternate athlete, Kara Eaker, recently testing positive for COVID, how concerned are you about our team being able to present itself at its full strength?
Johnson Clarke: I know that this team and all these coaches, they’ve done everything they can, and they're doing everything they can to keep the separation they need. They're wearing masks when they need to mask. They're all vaccinated, except for one alternate (not Eaker). I'm glad they made the decision to have no spectators. Is that hard on the athletes? Absolutely, but these athletes have had over a year to deal with isolation ... to train hard and to compete and perform without that energy of a crowd.
Huebner: Provided there are no major obstacles with COVID ... how do you think this U.S. team will do?
Johnson Clarke: I'm very impressed with our team. I mean, we have been so dominant for so long. We have been through the wringer and justifiably so. We've had a lot of trauma in our sport these last couple of years, and these athletes that are now going to be on the world stage in Tokyo have been through a lot with that. (A reference to the sex abuse scandal involving former USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of athletes under the guise of medical treatment. He was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault). They’ve trained in isolation, trained through injuries and through quarantines, not having access to gyms at the beginning, so these athletes are so prepared.
Huebner: Who is their biggest competition?
Johnson Clarke: They're doing very risky routines, but they're so prepared to hit. The competition is going to be with Russia and China. At the last World Championships in 2019, the United States, Russia and Italy finished one, two, three. I will assure you that China is coming back really strong for these Olympic Games, and they're going to make a statement.
Huebner: Let’s talk about Simone Biles.
Johnson Clarke: This is her era, this is her time and we are all very, very lucky to be living in the time of Simone. She's extraordinary in so many ways. Physically, athletically, technically. Her level of difficulty on floor exercise and on vault is literally through the roof. She has made herself pretty much unbeatable on those two events. The cool thing about Simone is she doesn't want to win with a fall. She doesn't want to win with a mistake.
Huebner: Only a handful of men and no women have previously performed the double Yurchenko vault that Simone is going to do in Tokyo. (It will be renamed The Biles in the women’s Code of Points if she performs it successfully). Did you ever think you'd see someone on the women's side do it?
Johnson Clarke: Honestly, no. I think now that women have seen Simone do it, there will be a couple more that can do it. But it’s going to take a unique athlete with the combination of the physical qualities necessary to do it, the technical qualities and precision to be able to do it, because she literally does it better than any male gymnast I've ever seen.
Johnson Clark went on to discuss a rule that allows only two gymnasts per country to advance to the Olympic all around and individual event finals.
Johnson Clarke: We could conceivably have the top four, but only two of them will go to finals. We remember it back in our day, Robin, when trying to compete against the Soviets. They could have placed top six on every single event. The reasoning behind the two per country is to give other countries an opportunity. And there will be constant argument. Which way we should do it? Shouldn't it be the very best in the world, regardless? There are arguments for and against.
Johnson Clarke also discussed being a spectator of the games.
Johnson Clarke: Anybody who watches the Olympics with me, I have to warn them. My husband’s used to it. … I'm feeling everything, so I may scream, I may jump, I just want it so much for them! What you want is for everybody to have their perfect meet, and then … the scores will fall where they fall. People will make finals, people will just miss finals. Medals will be won and some medals will be just missed by fractions of a point. There’s this hyper-focus on who wins the gold medal, but also ... the opportunity to have your personal best, the best you’ve ever done under the pressure of the Olympics, is the goal of every single athlete there.
The women’s gymnastics competition in Tokyo runs Saturday, July 24, through Tuesday, Aug. 3, and will be presented across the networks and platforms of NBCUniversal.