LONDON — The Americans grabbed hands and backed up, eager to get a better view of the scoreboard.
There really was no need. That Olympic gold medal was in the bag the minute they took the floor.
The Americans lived up to their considerable hype and then some Tuesday night, routing silver medalist Russia and everybody else on their way to their first Olympic title in women's gymnastics since 1996. Their score of 183.596 was a whopping five points ahead of Russia and made their final event, floor exercise, more like a coronation. Romania won the bronze.
With the Russians on the sidelines crying, the Americans stood at the center of the floor, clapping, cheering and basking in a winner's glow. When the score for captain Aly Raisman flashed, the Americans screamed and a chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rang out around the arena. The women held up their index fingers for the cameras — just in case anyone had a doubt.
The Americans had come into the last two Olympics as world champions, only to leave without a gold. But this team is the strongest, top to bottom, the USA has ever had, and the rest of the world never stood a chance. After the U.S. opened with a barrage of booming vaults, everyone else was playing for silver.
Now all they have to do is find themselves a catchy nickname, like "The Magnificent Seven" from 1996. Some have suggested "The Fab Five," but that belongs to Michigan basketball's Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Co. Others have tossed out "The Fierce Five."
How about "Best Gymnastics Team in the World. By A Lot."
Some teenagers might find that pressure tough to bear, but the Americans reveled in it. When they saw the Russians and Romanians peeking in the doorway during training sessions, they would add some extra oomph to their routines, the better to intimidate the competition.
And when the gold was on the line, the Americans were simply spectacular.
They essentially won the gold medal with their first event, vault, putting on a fireworks show right in front of the Russians.
All of the Americans do Amanars, one of the toughest vaults in the world — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. It's got a start value — the measure of difficulty — of 6.5, a whopping 0.7 above the vault most other gymnasts do, and they ripped off one massive one after another.
World champion Jordyn Wieber went first and did perhaps the best one she's ever done, getting great height in the air with her legs locked together. When her feet slammed into the mat on landing, she threw up her arms and smiled broadly. Anyone who wondered how she would recover from the shock of failing to qualify for the all-around competition got their answer.
Gabby Douglas went next and her vault was even better. And then came McKayla Maroney, who let everyone know why she's a heavy favorite to add the Olympic gold to her world title in vault. She got so much height on her Amanar it's a wonder she didn't bump her head on the overhead camera. She hit the mat with tremendous force yet didn't so much as wiggle, triumphantly thrusting her arms in the air as she saluted the judges.
The Americans strutted out of the event with a 1.7-point lead, and never looked back.
Russia erased all but four-tenths of the deficit on uneven bars, where Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina defy the laws of gravity, but the team began falling apart on balance beam. Mustafina swayed and wobbled so badly on the landing of a leap it's a wonder she didn't fall off; Komova almost stepped on the judges on her dismount.
The Americans, meanwhile, made the 4-inch slab that stands 4 feet in the air look like child's play. Kyla Ross, the only American who wasn't on that world team last year (she was too young), looks like a ballerina with her long legs and gorgeous lines. She landed one somersault with her left foot curled over the edge of the beam, yet never flinched.
Douglas has struggled on balance beam all summer, with a fall the second day of the U.S. championships costing her the title. But she has been clutch in London, delivering the highest score in qualifying and again Tuesday night.
She whipped off a series of backflips as if she was still on the ground, a look of intense concentration on her face. She had a small balance check on a leap, swaying slightly and waving her arms to steady herself, but it was a minor error. Her score of 15.233 would all but seal the gold for the Americans, and they strutted over to floor exercise eager to close out the night with a big show.
While the Russians struggled — Anastasia Grishina stumbled forward on one pass and botched another when she all but came to a dead stop in the middle of the floor, and world champion Ksenia Afanaseva landed her dismount on her knees — the Americans kicked off their victory party.
Wieber's bright smile grew as she danced and tumbled, the crowd clapping in time to her techno pop music. Fans the world over are going to have the "Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo" from the start of Douglas' music in their heads, and little girls are sure to be bouncing in their backyards trying to get as high as she does on her leaps. Raisman closed it out with a rollicking routine to "Hava Nagila." While her teammates cheered, Raisman soared high on her tumbling passes yet she landed so securely she may as well have been stepping into a bucket of cement.
Coach Mihai Brestyan was jumping up and down as Raisman finished, the tears already starting to fall. But as she fell into her teammates arms, the tears turned to shrieks of joy.