The Olympic Google Curse – An Old School Gymnastics Blog
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The Olympic Google Curse – An Old School Gymnastics Blog

While Googling a name of a famous gymnast at the end of December, I noticed a change had been made to the way Google presents the names of famous gymnasts. The way it works is if you are a famous figure, at the top of the search result when people type in your name Google will add a very short description of who you are and why you are relevant. Some examples:

Joe Bien: 46th U.S. President
Elon Musk: Chief Executive Officer of Twitter
Stephen Hawking: English theoretical physicist
Greta Thunberg: Swedish activist
Britney Spears: American singer

The same format applies to gymnasts and often times a gymnast will be considered famous enough to get this description under her name after competing in a major competition. Sometimes it takes as little as competing in a National Championships or a major junior competition to generate enough online discussion to qualify for the special listing.

Once a gymnast receives this feature that Google calls its “Knowledge Graph,” it can say “American gymnast” or “American Olympic athlete” at the top of the search result. The nationality will always adjust to the country of origin for the gymnast in question. Or Google will leave the nationality blank and simply say “Olympic athlete.” While Google’s algorithm does a very good job in correctly determining nationality, it struggles when it comes to separating gymnasts who appeared in the Olympics from those who have not.

This leads to what I like to call “The Google Curse” where Google occasionally mislabels a famous gymnast who hasn’t gone to the Olympics and described them as an “Olympian.” Tormenting gymnastics fans in the process that some of their sentimental favorites suffered the heartbreak of not making an Olympic team. Or declaring a gymnast to be a future Olympian and putting fans through the anxiety of hoping it won’t prove to be a jinx.

At times the Google Curse has prematurely labeled a young athlete as an Olympian before she has even completed her first Olympic cycle. Other times the Google Curse will label an established veteran who missed her chance at the Olympics due to injury as an Olympian. Some noteworthy examples:

Riley McCusker

Riley McCusker had strong results as a 1st-year senior in 2017 and was a former training partner of 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez. This gave McCusker an established reputation from the very beginning of her senior career. In 2018 McCusker would make the American lineup at the World Championships, only to miss this same competition in 2019. At the time her withdrawal from the 2019 World Championships was reported to be rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo).

Entering the 2021 Olympic season McCusker was a strong contender for the Olympic team. One popular talking point in McCusker’s favor was that she had one of the best bar routines in the world and was a viable candidate to qualify to event finals at the Tokyo Olympics. But shortly before U.S. Olympic Trials Riley suffered an injury. While she was still able to compete, the hobbled McCusker was unable to return to full form in time for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Ultimately leading to the decision by USA Gymnastics to not add her to the Olympic team.

Giorgia Villa

Giorgia Villa has the distinction of being one of the most popular juniors of the last decade. The hype surrounding a young Villa and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was so intense that Giorgia began receiving media attention by major national-level Italian media sources during the 2016 Olympics. This for a junior prospect who wouldn’t be eligible for senior competition until 2019.

Villa validated the hype surrounding her career by winning the All-Around titles at both the Youth Olympic Games and the Junior European Championships in 2018. Then in 2019 upon her senior debut she was part of an iconic Italian team that won a team medal at the World Championships. It was Italy’s first medal in the team event in 69 years.

But like McCusker, Giorgia Villa suffered an injury shortly before the Olympics and was ruled out of the event. While readers may be inclined to speculate that Google labeled Giorgia Villa an “Olympian” because of her appearance at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, this is most likely a coincidence. Numerous gymnasts who never competed in the Youth Olympics have also been mislabeled by Google.

Leanne Wong

Leanne Wong was one of the younger members of Team USA looking to make the Tokyo Olympic team. Wong only narrowly missed the cut being formally named a travelling alternate for the Olympic lineup.

Kayla DiCello

Kayla DiCello’s career played out much the same way as Leanne Wong. Like Wong, Kayla DiCello was a young gymnast entering the 2021 Olympics looking to earn her first assignment in a major senior-level competition, but was named a team alternate instead. Readers may speculate that Google labeled DiCello and Wong as Olympians because they were indeed Olympic alternates.

But the same didn’t happen for Kara Eaker and Emma Malabuyo who were also Olympic alternates. At the same time it did occur with Riley McCusker who was not named an Olympic alternate. As with Giorgia Villa and the Youth Olympics, it is probably a coincidence that a pair of Olympic alternates were labeled Olympians. It should be noted that in 2019 and 2020 both Wong in DiCello won medals at the American Cup. They also won All-Around medals at the 2021 World Championships. These high profile competitions are probably what generated enough media attention to label them as Olympic gymnasts by the Google algorithm.

Lorette Charpy

Lorette Charpy made the French lineup for the World Championships in 2017, 2018, and again in 2019. In 2020 she appeared at the American Cup which was one of the very last sporting events of any kind to be held before the Covid-19 Pandemic shut down virtually all major sporting events for most of 2020.

Charpy was considered one of the strongest members of the French team and her spot in the Olympic lineup was all but guaranteed. Unfortunately for Lorette, she suffered a major injury four months before the Olympics which ended her Olympic aspirations for the current cycle.

Shilese Jones

After spending five years at the senior level without earning a major assignment at the Olympics or World Championships, Shilese Jones finally achieved breakout success in 2022. Ultimately earning a team gold medal, an All-Around silver medal, and one additional medal on the uneven bars at the 2022 World Championships. This 3-peat medal haul generated massive praise for Shilese, and also triggered the Google algorithm declaring her an Olympian.

This was one of the last examples of Google’s flawed algorithm before major changes were made to fix it.

Towards the end of 2022 Google seemed to have realized this problem and adjusted its algorithm to remove virtually all references to Olympic status when users Google most gymnasts. Going as far as to remove the word “Olympic” from even the search result of Simone Biles. Simone is now labeled as simply “American gymnast” with the same change being the new description for Leanne Wong, Shilese Jones, and other American gymnasts who were formerly impacted by the Google Curse. Charpy and Villa have also had their search results fixed as well.

The vast majority of gymnasts are now described under this simpler description that doesn’t imply Olympic status. For these gymnasts, the Google curse appears to be dead. Strangely enough, this change seemed to impact most countries, but not all. Google still has a strong tendency to use the “Olympic” description for gymnasts from Russia, Ukraine, and China. As of right now, the following gymnasts are still labeled as Olympians.

Anastasia Bachynska

Anastasia Bachynska was a core member of the Ukrainian National Team and an obvious choice for its starting lineup. However, Ukraine didn’t score high enough to qualify an Olympic team and Ukraine sent only one athlete in women’s gymnastics to the 2021 Olympics (Diana Varinska). Bachynska was one of Ukraine’s most important gymnasts of the era, but in the wake of the Russian invasion of her country she retired from the sport at just 18 years old, having never appeared in the Olympics.

Liu Tingting

Liu Tingting was one of China’s most important gymnasts during the 2017-2021 Olympic cycle. She represented China at the World Championships in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Tingting was also a highly successful gymnast having won a gold medal on beam in 2018 and a silver medal in 2019. Unfortunately for Tingting, as China witnessed the rise of younger gymnasts such as Ou Yushan and Guan Chenchen, while returning veteran Tang Xijing seemed destined to takeover the leadership role of the program, it was difficult to find a spot for Liu Tingting on the 2021 Olympic team.

She was an aging veteran competing in a program known for its rapid turnaround and constant infusion of young talent. Most critically, Liu Tingting provided strength on events where China already had a high scoring lineup, and didn’t fill critical needs on the events China was weak on. Most notably vault and floor.

Tatiana Nabieva

Tatiana Nabieva’s senior debut occurred at the 2010 World Championships where she was part of Russia’s gold medal winning team. It was Russia’s most historic win of the post-Soviet era. Even though she made the Russian World Championships lineup in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014, Nabieva’s unlucky year came in 2012. It was the only time Tatiana did not make the starting Russian lineup in this 5-year stretch. Unfortunately for Nabieva, it just so happened to be an Olympic year.

Tatiana competed as an elite at the senior level for a staggering 11 years, but never formally competed in the Olympics. She is currently coaching in China.

Anastasia Motak

During Covid-19 most programs opted to skip the 2020 European Championships which were held at the very end of the year. This allowed Ukraine’s Anastasia Motak to achieve breakout success and became one of the most talked about gymnasts of the competition. Motak was a young gymnast and all signs point to her being a gymnast on the rise who would play a larger role in the future.

But what happened instead was following the 2021 European Championships Motak made an unexpected nationality change and switched countries to Poland. Ever since the nationality change Motak has remained in relative obscurity. Motak continues to compete, but has not been performing high level routines. It was an unexpected development for a gymnast who was competitive in two different European Championships.

Motak is the only gymnast featured in this article who is labeled an Olympian by Google despite having never appearing in either the World Championships or Olympics.

Maria Minaeva

Like Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong, Russia’s Maria Minaeva was a young gymnast who was just old enough to compete at the 2021 Olympics, but was left off the Olympic team in favor of an older and more established gymnast. Maria Minaeva would instead compete at the 2021 World Championships which was held shortly after the Olympics.

Strangely enough, Google does not label the three most famous gymnasts of Russia’s National Team as Olympians (Angelina Melnikova, Vladislava Urazova, and Viktoria Listunova). But for many of the remaining national team members, the Google Knowledge Graph labels them as Olympic gymnasts such as Lilia Akhaimova and Anastasia Ilyankova. Maria Minaeva just happens to be one of the non-Olympians on the Russian team that Google mistakenly applied this description to as well. Google labels Minaeva an Olympian, even while specifically removing the word “Olympic” from Melnikova’s search result.

The Google Curse is nothing more than a small factual error in Google’s auto-generated search results that give gymnastics fans an innocent laugh or cry depending on their mood. But it can be fun watching the careers of gymnasts impacted by the Google Curse and witnessing them beat it. Or joking that Google knows the future when a rising star was prematurely labeled an Olympian.

One final detail in regards to Google’s ability to label gymnasts as “Olympians,” the feature is open to feedback. If gymnastics fans click on the three little dots next to the description, they can tell Google that a particular description is wrong. If gymnastics fans wanted to, they could try to correct these errors.

It was also fun to think about the gymnasts themselves and what they could do with it. Imagine how hilarious it would be for these gymnasts to retort with “oh yeah, Google my name” to anyone who expressed doubts if they were actually a high level gymnast. Even though the Google Curse is a reminder of Olympic glory that never was, it is also an acknowledgement that as far as the gymnastics community is concerned, these gymnasts are held in the same high regard as Olympians themselves.

Although it is up to Carly Patterson to say whether Google got her Knowledge Graph right or wrong.

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