The Vault: Part 3

The officials tried to solve the vault problem. Their decision had major consequences for everyone in the arena — but no one more so than the frontrunner, Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina. 


Episode transcript

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone — this is a serialized story, so if you haven’t listened from the beginning, go back to Episode One and start from there.

Previously, on Blind Landing…
ALLANA SLATER: The vault’s the wrong height, it’s too low.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
The vault set too low … was set too low … was two inches lower …

ALLANA SLATER: You know, who goes to the Olympic Games and thinks the equipment is going to be set up incorrectly?

DR. BILL SANDS: If the horse is in the wrong place, even by a couple inches, you’re pretty well doomed.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
Gymnasts sat, flopped, and crashed … several scary falls …

ALLANA SLATER: You know, that’s a lot of scary, scary things that happen to a lot of girls.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): During the women’s gymnastics all-around final at the 2000 Olympics, the vault was set at the wrong height. It was two inches too low. And by the time the problem was discovered, eight gymnasts had fallen on vault.

This had never happened before, so there was no road map for what to do next. And when officials tried to make things right, they picked the one solution that felt totally wrong to the gymnasts.

I’m Ari Saperstein and this is Blind Landing, the untold story of one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history.

Episode Three.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] What was the solution that they told you, at the time?

ELISE RAY: You mean that we could go back and do the event over again? (laughs) Yes, that was the solution. So we were told anyone that competed on the setting that was incorrect could go back and repeat the event.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise Ray was the first gymnast to fall on vault during the all-around. It was halfway through the competition before officials realized the problem, but they came up with a solution pretty quickly: a redo. Anyone who competed on the low vault would get to go again at the end of the competition.

ELISE RAY: And if the vault setting was unheard of, this was whatever unheard of is times a million.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): A vault redo — that sounds like such a simple, straightforward and sensible solution. But you have to remember: this is the Olympic all-around competition. The all-around is when you add up all four events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise, and you get an all-around score. So, after her very scary fall on vault, Elise had three more events to compete.

ELISE RAY: It’s so much a mental state, right? We’ve talked about this a little bit. So the feeling that I had after vault did the damage that it did throughout the whole competition.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): After falling on vault, Elise moved on to the balance beam.

ELISE RAY: Beam was one of my strongest events in my whole career. And I was prepared the best I could have been.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And on beam, she fell again.

ELISE RAY: I was just not in a state to perform the way I should have because of everything that had happened.

First event — vault — started the way it did, and it was just like … I can’t explain it in any other way besides just, you know, popping an air balloon. Like you go from fully inflated, ready to go, to absolutely nothing. And so to pick yourself up from that for three, or in my case, four more events, it was just … I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] So part of it is because it’s not that one event that’s impacted. It’s the whole competition because of where your mental state is at.

ELISE RAY: Right, it’s a collective, yeah, those four events are a collective effort. So the domino effect is real, right? So I just — once the damage is done, you can’t go back. If it’s the collection of work, you have a hard time separating it all.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And the thing is, other than the vault, nothing else in the arena stopped. Gymnasts who had crashed on vault, like Elise, were now trying to compete on the beam, or the floor, or the uneven bars. The officials didn’t seem to have a plan for how to tell everyone what was going on and what was next.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] So did … did an official ever come up to you and tell you guys?

KELLI HILL: No. Not until the end.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Kelli Hill, Elise’s coach.

KELLI HILL: It was all gossip around the floor that we were going to be allowed to do the vault again.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] They don’t make an announcement in the arena to try to tell — they don’t do anything to let people know that they still have a chance?

KELLI HILL: Not that I remember. I don’t remember there being a lot of information. I remember us all trying to talk among ourselves and try to figure out what we were supposed to do.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] I have to say, I’m pretty struck by the way that information got to you … or didn’t get to you … they don’t stop the competition? They don’t—?

KELLI HILL: They didn’t.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] They didn’t.

KELLI HILL: No, they did not stop the competition.

ELISE RAY: I remember asking Kelli, like, “What’s going on?” It was very evident that something was going on in the arena.

KELLI HILL: That’s why we were trying, as coaches, trying to figure out what was happening. The whole thing was a mess. It was just a complete mess.

ALLANA SLATER: It changed the trajectory of the entire competition for everyone involved.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Allana Slater, the Australian gymnast we heard from in our last episode.

ALLANA SLATER: And that’s really sad. Because it would have been a very different Olympic final, all-around final. And we may or may not have had a different champion, but we’ll never know.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): What happened on vault had consequences that impacted the entire competition. The falls and stumbles that gymnasts had when it was set too low impacted their confidence, their concentration, and their mindset. These were consequences that a vault redo could never repair, especially when it came to one gymnast in particular. A gymnast named Svetlana Khorkina.

ALLANA SLATER: Svetlana Khorkina, she is a fierce competitor.

ELISE RAY: I always loved Svetlana Khorkina.

ALLANA SLATER: She had the potential to become Olympic champion.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: At competitions in 2000, I couldn’t have made a single mistake because I was the leader of international gymnastics and in my best shape.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana Khorkina is one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time. She was coming into the 2000 Games having already won the Russian Championships, European Championships, and World Championships. Svetlana wasn’t at Sydney just to compete — she was there to win gold.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: When I was competing at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, I knew that there were no more contenders for gold in the individual all-around but me. I was in the best shape of my whole elite career and knew that this medal would be 100% mine.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): If Svetlana sounds exceptionally confident, that’s because … she was. And, of course, she had the track record to back it up. And her competitors didn’t hate on Svetlana for having that attitude. In fact, according to Elise, it’s what they liked about her.

ELISE RAY: I love that she had spunk and sass and spoke her mind. I just loved her gymnastics, oh my gosh.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: Since I had finished first in the qualification, I had always felt before the final that I would place first in the all-around.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana didn’t just win the qualifications for the all-around — she won it by three tenths. In gymnastics, three tenths? That’s huge. That’s like finishing a race while the rest of the pack still has another lap to go.

And as if that didn’t make enough of a statement, at the all-around final Svetlana wore an outfit to go with her larger-than-life persona: a black, Swarovski-crystal encrusted leotard — what she called her, quote, “wedding dress” leotard. Svetlana wanted all eyes on her. And that … that’s certainly what happened during the all-around, especially when she went to vault, because every broadcast in that arena turned their camera to her. All capturing this one moment …

[SOUND OF SVETLANA YELLING]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): … this is Svetlana telling her coach to straighten the springboard at the base of the vault.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Sometimes the gymnast finds that she is shouted at by the coach. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

She’s not shy.

This moment, which commentators applied a sort of “diva narrative” to, it was being misinterpreted. Svetlana, in preparing to go on vault, she was feeling on edge because she was planning to do one of the most difficult vaults in the world, something only she had ever done. The risk? It was the Russian way — go big or go home. The yelling? It was the Svetlana way — in that she was gonna make damn sure the spring board was perfect as she got one step closer to the gold.

And Svetlana, she actually writes about what happens next, in detail, in her memoir.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: The light went on, I started the run for my first attempt. I closed my eyes for a second and rushed into the battle. A powerful push with my legs, and then a flight …

[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS SPEEDING UP, A JUMP, THEN A FALL]

… and I landed on my knees, smashing them into the ground.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana, the frontrunner, fell on vault.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: My first thought after the fall on vault? It was pain. Pain in my knees and pain in my heart because I knew that with such a mistake on vault I wouldn’t be able to be the winner of the all-around.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana was heartbroken, and under the impression that the gold was gone. She had no idea there was something wrong with the vault, and no idea that she’d get another shot.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: No one even suspected that someone could set an apparatus not according to the standards.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): As Svetlana goes to her next event, that’s when the officials discover that the vault is the wrong height. But, like we heard, they don’t stop the competition or make an announcement on the overhead speakers. The officials go around one by one telling gymnasts about the vault mistake and the redo. But they don’t make their way to Svetlana before she starts her uneven bars routine. Again, Svetlana describes this moment in her memoir:

SVETLANA KHORKINA: No matter how hard I tried to tune into my favorite event, the uneven bars, my mental game was destroyed. I kept thinking about that unfortunate vault. If not for that silly error, I would have been the leader. Without understanding that the horse was set incorrectly, I blamed myself. The shock from vault was so hard that when doing a release, a skill that I invented, that was named after me …

[SOUND OF FALLING AND CROWD GASPING]

… I fell from the high bar, landing on my smashed knees again.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana fell again. This time, on the bars. So afterwards, when an official finally makes their way over to Svetlana and tells her about the vault redo, all she can think about is how, no matter what, she can’t undo the fall on bars.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: I learned about the wrongly set height of the vault only after I made the mistake on bars. If I was told earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have made the mistake on bars. I would have made another attempt on vault again with the other gymnasts. Maybe I would have won the all-around. But it is all maybes.

ANGIE FIFER: It’s really easy to let one mistake turn, just multiply and snowball out of control.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Angie Fifer, a sports psychologist and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

ANGIE FIFER: My background is really focused on the performance side of psychology, rather than the clinical side. My focus is solely on how to be your best more consistently.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Angie says that gymnasts actually train for falling, that they train to bring a positive mentality from one event to the next, even when they make mistakes.

ANGIE FIFER: We want to be as in the moment, and as present as possible. And so, “bring my best self to this next skill, even if the skill before just went bad.”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But this moment — falling at the Olympic Games and therefore it being mathematically impossible to medal — is one that Angie says, really, no one could be expected to push through. Not even a gymnast as strong and accomplished as Svetlana Khorkina.

ANGIE FIFER: You know, the gymnastics all-around competition, it takes four years to get there. And you have this one moment, and all of your eggs are in that basket. And for something, for an error like that to have happened to her, with all her eggs in that basket, you know, and she could have had all the sports psychology training in the world and been, you know, a super proficient mental skills expert — but in that one moment, not been able to handle it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Because the weight of that moment, being the absolute pinnacle anyone could reach, and the consequence of that fall being simply impossible to come back from, is just such an impossible-to-quantify weight for someone to move beyond.

ANGIE FIFER: Exactly. You know, she kind of had a roadblock that was outside of her control.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And Angie Fifer, she’s not just coming at this from the perspective of a sports psychologist.

ANGIE FIFER: I actually was a gymnast myself.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And back when Angie was competing as a teen …

ANGIE FIFER: I watched the 2000 vault controversy. So I do remember very clearly, you know, seeing Khorkina fall, and in an Olympic Games all-around final, it’s devastating. The competition, it’s about everybody doing their best and seeing who ends up on top. So to see her fall and then find out it was because the vault was at the wrong height and then to hear how that kind of really, like, tainted the competition, you know and it ruined her potential for an all-around gold. And it took away the competition itself because now it wasn’t her best versus the other competitors’ best. It really … it shouldn’t have happened.

[SOUND OF CROWDS IN AN ARENA FADES IN]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): As the all-around competition came to a close, the crowd was confused. Because on one side of the arena were Romanian gymnasts cheering and celebrating, because on the scoreboard they were in first, second, and third place, primed for a Romanian podium sweep of the all-around. But on the other side of the arena, over by the vault …

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Ladies and gentlemen, as a result of the incorrect setting on the apparatus, five gymnasts have chosen to repeat their vaults.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Five gymnasts line up for their vault redo. And these five, they all fell on the vault when it was set too low. And after falling on the vault, most of them went on to fall on other events as well, so even a perfect 10 on their redo, it wouldn’t change the medal stand, which is why the Romanians are celebrating even as the competition continues. Some of the five were motivated to go again because in some countries, national funding for a sport is directly tied to Olympic finishes — so any chance to move up in the rankings is a big deal. For others, like Elise Ray …

ELISE RAY: The only sort of redemption out of that is, “See, yeah. I can make my vaults, you know, when this setting is correct.” Maybe that’s a little bit of a redemption … but it doesn’t feel like that to me at all.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise — in fact, everyone who went again — had great vaults and improved their scores, further evidence that the vault height caused their initial falls. And with her new score, Elise moved up 22 spots, from 35th place to 13th. But she was still far away from a medal because of the fall on beam that she had, the one she couldn’t redo.

ELISE RAY: It’s not like I can, you know, insert the vault that I made, insert it back into the first rotation. It doesn’t matter. It was just — I was kind of numb.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: I still couldn’t move on from what happened on vault.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Svetlana Khorkina was one of the few gymnasts that fell on vault who didn’t go again.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: The Olympic Games are not a small-town competition. No one has a right to make mistakes, including those who ensure the safety of the competitions, and the standard of apparatuses, and so on. That is why I thought it right not to attempt another vault at the end of the competition.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The way Svetlana saw it was that she wasn’t going to cosign a solution she thought was unfair. She wasn’t going to fix someone else’s mistake by vaulting again.

SVETLANA KHORKINA: The only thing, I guess, that they were able to do was to give a chance to redo vaults again. But this in no way solved any problems or corrected the mistake that was made while setting the vault. After all, I had already made two mistakes in the all-around competition.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Simply put: since she couldn’t take back the fall on bars, why do the vault again? What was the point?

ALLANA SLATER: Starting again would have been the fairest option.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Australian gymnast Allana Slater.

ALLANA SLATER: I think if you spoke to most athletes around the world, it would have been better off — we probably all have the same opinion. It would have been nice to have started the competition again.

ELISE RAY: I mean, I remember there were whisperings of doing the competition over again. That would be way more fair than just, you know, tacking on an event and replacing that score.

ALLANA SLATER: I think we all, at the end of the day, have so much respect for each other and we know how hard we all worked. And for that moment, in your Olympic all-around final, you want the best person to win because they had the best day, not because an equipment failure, not because everyone had mistakes. It’s sad that we’ll never actually know what the real outcome was based on just everyone having their best day.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Things actually became even more complicated in the days after the all-around…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Andrea Raducan tested positive to pseudoephedrine, and therefore committed a doping offense …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The all-around winner, Romanian gymnast Andrea Raducan, tested positive for a banned substance — a cold medicine — and had her gold medal taken away. And that, that’s a story for its own podcast, but, suffice to say, like the vault controversy, a lot of gymnasts don’t agree with the way it was handled.

ELISE RAY: Yeah, I don’t think Sudafed, you know, makes you win an Olympics.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): There’s really no better way to say it than how coach Kelli Hill put it: The Sydney all-around competition, it was a mess. Even the gymnasts who medaled, they’ve all spoken out critically about the way things were handled at Sydney. And the gymnast who walked away with gold, a different Romanian named Simona Amânar, she said that she doesn’t see herself as the true winner.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Do you have a person in your mind that you see as the winner of the all-around?

ELISE RAY: I think if I had to pick — well, it’s hard because, Khorkina, if she had vaulted on the correct, you know, if she had had a normal competition, would she have won? Maybe, you know, and Raducan, you know, do I think that the cold medicine helped her win? No, I don’t. Maybe she’d flat out won, you know? So yeah. I don’t know.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This question was a lot easier for Allana Slater to answer.

ALLANA SLATER: Nobody. Nobody is the winner of that event.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): For all the complaints gymnasts have about Sydney, Allana expressed some sympathy for the people in charge of the competition. Maybe, in part, because Allana is now a gymnastics judge herself and understands what it’s like to be on the other side of things.

ALLANA SLATER: How do you make the decision to make it as fair as possible? When that’s never happened before, and it’s not in the rules, how do you make that decision when there’s been no precedence? And it’s very hard, as an organizing committee, to make that decision. So in that moment, that seemed like the fairest choice in the moment that they had. I don’t know whether if that happened again, people would have a different opinion.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): How do you make a decision when there’s no precedent? And what would happen if the vault was set too low again?

On the next episode of Blind Landing…

KYM DOWDELL: When an apparatus fails, you go again. That’s my opinion. Of course, some gymnasts will say that it should have started again.

KELLI HILL: It’s not an equipment failure. It’s not like the vault fell down. They set it wrong.

MARIA OLARU: I was sure, very sure that something is wrong.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time on Blind Landing.

CREDITS

Blind Landing is reported by me, Ari Saperstein — and produced by me, Christian Green, Myka Kielbon, and Jessica Taylor Price. Our translator is Luba Baladzhaeva and our voice actor is Marley Feuerwerker-Otto. Special thanks to Ellen Weiss and Mia Zuckerkandel. And thanks to our interviewees for sharing their stories.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s