Are the Americans Really Good at Gymnastics?

How the US gymnasts became the best in the world

Fab Five -- Fierce Five -- Olympic Gymnastics Team
© Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

For the past decade, the answer, especially on the women's side, is yes.

American women's teams have dominated the competition.

The American women won Olympic gold as a team in 2012 in London, and earned silver in 2008 in Beijing and 2004 in Athens.

The team also won gold at the world championships in 2015, 2014, 2011, 2007, and 2003, and took silver as a team in 2010 and 2006.

And the American women are best in the all-around too.

The US women's team has also produced remarkably strong all-around competitors. Simone Biles has won the all-around at three straight world championships from 2013-2015, each time with a US teammate on the podium with her. (In 2015 it was Gabby Douglas who took the silver, while in 2014 and 2013, Kyla Ross earned bronze and silver, respectively.)

At the 2012 Olympics, Douglas  took the top spot, and at the 2011 worlds, Jordyn Wieber earned the all-around title. In 2009, Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross went 1-2 at worlds, and in 2008 at the Olympics, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson achieved the same feat. In 2007, Shawn Johnson won the world all-around title, in 2006 Jana Bieger took second at worlds, and in 2005, Chellsie Memmel and Nastia Liukin earned gold and silver, respectively, at worlds.

In short, the American women have dominated the individual all-around in recent years, and perhaps what's most impressive is that there are very few repeat medalists. Of the six American women who've won world all-around titles (Simone Biles 2013-2015; Jordyn Wieber 2011; Bridget Sloan 2009; Shawn Johnson 2007; Chellsie Memmel 2005; Shannon Miller 1993 and 1994), only Biles and Miller have repeated. The US women have also won the last three Olympic all-around titles (Gabby Douglas 2012; Nastia Liukin 2008; Carly Patterson 2004.)

Why are the American women so good?

It's tough to say. The Soviet Union was the dominant force in women's gymnastics until its breakup in 1992 with 11 world titles, and the Chinese, Romanian, and Russian women have all had periods of success as well. The Romanian team won worlds five times in the '90s and early 2000s  (1994; 1995; 1997; 1999; 2001) and won the Olympic team title in 2000 and 2004, while China earned Olympic gold in 2008. Russia has been the Americans' biggest rival lately, earning silver at both the 2012 Olympics and 2011 worlds, and winning the 2010 world title.

It could be partly due to the open-ended Code of Points, which encourages high levels of difficulty. What's thought of as traditionally American gymnastics – power and lots of tricks – is suited well for the current rules. The US has also benefited from turmoil in the other top programs, most notably the Soviet breakup, which resulted in many top Soviet coaches heading to the US in search of higher-paying jobs. The United States has also collaborated much more in the past 15 years than before that, with national team training camps scheduled regularly throughout the year where coaches and gymnasts can share their knowledge.

Furthermore, the Romanian and Russian programs have experienced drastic coaching changes of late that have affected their ability to remain at the top.

The American men are good too -- just not quite as dominant.

The US men have also been a strong force in gymnastics, but China and Japan have been the main story for the past decade. China has dominated the world team titles, winning every one from 1994-2014 with the exception of 2001, when Belarus earned gold. The Chinese men have also won the last two Olympic titles, with Japan second both times. But Japan upset China at the 2015 worlds, meaning the Rio Olympic team title is up for grabs.

Japan has dominated in the individual all-around, with Kohei Uchimura winning six straight world all-around titles as well as the Olympic all-around one in 2012. The US men picked up the Olympic silver in 2004 and bronze in 2008, and led the world in prelims in 2012 before falling to fifth in team finals. The US men have also won four world team medals since 1994. So on the men's side, the US is right at the cusp of being one of the top teams, but is still not quite at the level of China and Japan.