Evening the playing field in Gymnastics – is it possible or not worth discussing? 

Each major event in Gymnastics often brings with it a host of controversy and a multitude of new conversation topics. The World Championships and Olympics being the foremost events in Gymnastics, both cause quite the stir amongst the gymnastics community and brings forth new controversies and conversation topics. One such controversy is the “fairness” of Gymnastics. Often gymnasts, coaches and gymnastics fans make the plea that the system is unfair and smaller and less dominant teams are at a disadvantage at World Championships, Olympics and other events such as World Cups. One of the most notable pleas came from Italian gymnast, Carlotta Ferlito who, following Simone Biles capturing the bronze medal in the beam final at the 2013 World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium commented on the inequality of the judges when judging the American team, stating “Biles…made the podium because the USA always complains. The Judges always protect the Americans.”

simone-carlotta    Left: Simone Biles; Right: Carlotta Ferlito 

While this comment was widely criticised and ultimately led to Ferlito apologising for her comments via Twitter, it once again stirred up the age old debate of the even playing field within all sports, including gymnastics. The debate that led to the enforcement of the two per country rule, following the unprecedented dominance of Romania at the 2000 Sydney Olympics which saw Romania dominate the All-Around podium, winning the Gold, Silver and Bronze medal (later to be reduced to just Gold and Silver after Andreea Raducan was stripped of her Gold medal following a positive test result for a banned substance).

AMANAR RADUCAN OLARUSimona Amanar, Andreea Raducan and Maria Olaru on the podium at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

Albeit, this amazing feat, along with a Gold medal in the team competition for Romania saw a major change occur in the sport of Gymnastics that sought to even the playing field and not let the powerhouses of the sport dominate in such tremendous fashion and let other teams enter the mix and medal at major events. Whilst, at the time this new rule seemed like a move in the right direction, time has proven that it was not so much a move in the right direction and an evening of the playing field but rather a penalisation of the top teams or rather the individual gymnasts of those teams.

Many gymnasts have suffered as a result of the rule, the most recent and probably the most notable being the case of Jordyn Wieber at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Wieber, entering into the Olympic year was the favourite to lead team USA to victory in London and also gain and individual gold medal in the AA after becoming World AA Champion in 2011, Olympic victory seemed like a right of passage. However as time would tell Olympic AA Champion was not an accolade meant for Wieber.

Following a few slight mistakes in qualifications Jordyn did not qualify for the AA final because 2 of her teammates, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman had qualified in higher positions. So despite Jordyn being in 4th after qualifications, her quest for Olympic AA glory was over, because whilst gymnasts who qualified in 11th, 15th, even 20th qualified, because Wieber had the misfortune of being a member of a strong team, she would not advance and not have the opportunity to vie for an Olympic AA title.

Jordyn Wieber dealing with the disappointment of not qualifying to the Olympic AA final.

Additionally, while the two per country rule is probably the most notable attempt to even the playing field of gymnastics and as a result penalise gymnasts from top teams, the Olympic qualification system may also exemplify this. While, medaling at the 2015 World Championships means the individual gymnast is automatically qualified for the Olympics, if that gymnasts team qualifies for the Olympics, the individual medal of that gymnast doesn’t qualify the gymnast but rather it is the country who qualifies 5 spots, irregardless of names. Of course this is a good system. It allows gymnasts from countries who wouldn’t otherwise qualify a team who are exceptional individually to qualify to the Olympics. Gymnasts like Hong Un-jong from North Korea who won silver on the Vault at the 2015 World Championships and is a contender for an Olympic gold on Vault.  However, the majority of individual medalists at the 2015 World Championships were not from smaller, less dominant countries but from teams that qualified in the team competition.The only other individual medalist that was part of a team that didn’t qualify to the Olympics as a team was Larisa Iordache of Romania, however as this medal was in the All-Around it doesn’t qualify her. Ridiculous. I know. So how fair is the system. From my vantage point, it penalises the individuals of the top teams who medaled at the World Championships. They do not, as an individual necessarily get the chance at Olympic glory, because they are from a top team. Whilst gymnasts winning the same accolade are directly named at the World Championships and know that they are heading for Rio in August 2016.

Pauline Schafer on the podium at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

All in all, it is a ridiculous argument, sport is not always fair, and it is slightly silly of me to pity the gymnasts of powerhouses who have great fortune in their lives and gymnastics careers but it is worth a consideration. Should an attempt be made to even the playing field in Gymnastics, such as the two per country rule. Overall, time has proven that, whilst well intentioned, perhaps these rules and regulations are not the best thing for Gymnastics. At the moment however it seems that it is a continuous pattern, with each new Olympic cycle, attempts seem to be made to lesson the dominance of top teams and ultimately penalise them, with new rules and regulations.


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