Part of the tension of watching the Olympics is knowing a single misstep could cost an athlete the competition — or sometimes, worse. During the women’s gymnastics vault event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 18-year-old U.S. National Champion Elise Ray came inches from sustaining life-threatening injuries when she sprinted down the 25-meter runway, rocketed off the springboard but essentially missed the vault, barely grazing it with her fingertips before flipping flat onto her back on the other side. It was a heart-stopping fall, and it wasn’t a fluke. Nearly a dozen athletes made uncharacteristic mistakes, at least one causing an injury, before the 19th competitor noticed what was wrong: the vault apparatus itself was set two inches too low, and for an event that hinges on precision, this mistake was wreaking havoc on the competition and putting athletes’ safety at risk.
The independent podcast Blind Landing, which premiered all five episodes on July 19th, investigates the fallout of the mis-set vault, describing the equipment error as one of the worst mistakes in Olympic history. In the series, journalist and host Ari Saperstein interviews Ray and her coach about Ray’s experience that day, and speaks with the Australian gymnast Allana Slater, who figured out what was wrong with the vault. He also talks to Russian gymnast and frontrunner for gold Svetlana Khorkina, who lost her chance at the medal after she made a rare mistake in her best event after she fell on her knees during the vault. “My mental game was destroyed,” she tells Saperstein. “I kept thinking about that unfortunate vault.”
Olympic officials provide context about what was happening behind the scenes, as they sought to correct the mistake without stopping the competition, while a sports psychologist speaks to the inevitable ramifications for athletes of an equipment failure like this. Produced by Jessica Taylor Price, Myka Kielbon, and Christian Green, the series offers a look inside the official workings of elite gymnastics, where coaches and officials downplayed more than one athlete’s concerns about the vault and later offered no explanation or apology for a mistake that, it turned out, was not quite as unprecedented as it seemed.