The 2016 Olympic Test Event took place in the Olympic Arena in Barra de Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro. Competition began in Saturday, April 16th with MAG qualifications, continued on Sunday, April 17th with WAG qualifications and concluded on Monday, April 18th with MAG and WAG event finals.
What can I say? It was an eventful weekend. A rollercoaster of emotions for every gymnastics fan filled with highs and lows, depending on the gymnastics programme you were routing for.
However, if you’re like me and was routing for the Romanian team (WHO WASN’T?) then the weekend was most certainly filled with some lows.
Spanning from 1976 until 2012, Romania, once a mecca of gymnastics that gave us Nadia and the perfect 10, gave us Andrea Raducan, Simona Amanar, Daniela Silivas, Ecaterina Szabo, Lavinia Milosovici, Gina Gogean, Catalina Ponor & Sandra Izbasa, to name but a few Romanian legends, managed to climb to the podium and collect a team medal at every single Olympic Games, from 1976 until 2012. This, a streak that ended this weekend after the Romanian team, which included 3 time Olympic Champion, Catalina Ponor, in the early stages of her comeback failed to qualify a full team to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
The Romanian team taking the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games
Whilst for a while the Romanian team have not looked like the Romania of old and have been struggling, they have always had one or two strong gymnasts to pull the team score up and they always manage to pull it together and keep plodding along.
However, now it seems Romania have reached a fork in the road moment and changes must be made to this struggling programme that was once so great. The talk is no longer that Romania will come back but rather how they fell so far, they are now under the microscope, being watched by the entire gymnastics community to see whether they will reform and rebuild or continue to crumble and disintegrate like the Ukranian programme did after reaching a high point in 1996 with Lilia Podkopeyeva’s Olympic triumph.
Many of the comments that criticised the programme centred around athlete development. In recent years, Romania, with the exception of a few gymnasts have heavily relied on older gymnasts returning and coming out of retirement to help the team, rather than developing young talent to the point where they are Olympic standard. This, exemplified perfectly with the comeback of Catalina Ponor in a bid to qualify Romania to the 2016 Olympic Games. Whilst it is not unusual for Olympians to want to return, for a 2004 Olympic Champion to have to come back to competition in order for a country to have any hope of qualifying is ridiculous. Moreover, what does it do to the confidence of the young gymnasts. Surely, it lessens the confidence they have in themselves. It says to them, they are not good enough to qualify on their own. It discourages them from wanting to improve and hold on to their Olympic dreams.
Catalina Ponor winning gold at the 2004 Olympic Games
No one is blaming the gymnasts. It is the programme that must be blamed. It is something that is not surprising. It is not shocking. It has been coming for a long time however now, whilst many have had hope that Romania will return, it seems that hope can no longer exist. There has long been ignorance surrounding the crumbling system, with many holding onto memories of the glory days and refusing to accept that this downfall was inevitable. However, with this failure to qualify, the crumbling programme is hard to ignore, it is undeniable that something is wrong with the programme and something must be changed. Many may argue that if Romanian standout, Larisa Iordache had of competed, Romania would have qualified. However, one must ask themselves, if a team is relying solely on one gymnast to qualify them to the Olympics, should they even be at the Olympics? Surely you can’t argue that they should. Surely you can’t call that a team effort, that is not a solid gymnastics programme that has strength and depth, that is a programme that needs reform and has needed reform for a long time.
Nonetheless, it was a sad day for gymnastics that sparked many emotions amongst gymnastics fans, gymnasts, coaches and many others who have followed gymnastics at any point in their lives. It sparked rage, sadness, despair and also hope that this huge disappointment would force Romania to reform, instead of ignoring the issue. Let’s hope that the comments swirling around the gymnastics world that there is a lack of interest in rebuilding the programme, a lack of funding, that Romnanian gymnastics is finished are unfounded. Maybe Martha will return after retirement from her post at USA Gymnastics and reform that programme. One can dream can’t they?
Soooo, whilst Romania were the big story of the weekend, there was also a wealth of other emotions felt that reverberated around the world and evoked both anger and elation.
History making moments for Ireland, Armenia, Uzbekistan, India and Jamaica paralleled the history making moment of Romania not qualifying, however evoked elation, rather than despair.
Ellis O’Reilly, the 18 year old Irish gymnast who trains at Europa Gymnastics in London, England qualified to the 2016 Olympic Games as the first ever Irish WAG gymnast. O’Reilly, whose grandfather was Irish, which allows her to compete for Ireland had an All-Around score of 50.032 which qualified her to the 2016 Games. Not exactly a strong programme, Ireland also qualified one MAG gymnast, Kieran Behan, who qualified to his second Olympics after making history as the first ever Irish gymnast to qualify to the Games in 2012. Obviously an incredible achievement that will hopefully serve to develop the sport further in Ireland.
For Armenia, there was elation as Houry Gebeshian, the 26 year old, former NCAA gymnast from the U.S also qualified as the first ever Armenian WAG gymnast to the 2016 Olympic Games. This inspiring an incredibly hardworking gymnast truly embodies an Olympian. After finishing up NCAA gymnastics at the University of Iowa and recieving her Bachelor’s degree, Houry decided to compete internationally, representing Armenia, allowed to do so due to her Armenian roots, having been born in the U.S. Ever the superwoman, Houry also received her Masters degree and now trains for the Olympics alongside working as a physicians assistant to pay the hefty bills a gymnastic career can concur. This is certainly one woman who deserves her Olympic berth and she will go to Rio this Summer with a lot of support behind her. If you would like to learn more about Houry, check out Lauren Hopkins interview with her: https://thegymter.net/2016/01/31/hootingforhoury-gebeshians-dreams-coming-true/
For Uzbekistan, there was much elation in every single corner of the gymnastics world, regardless of where your allegiance lay as we watched the legend, the one and only Oksana Chusovitina qualify for her 7th Olympic Games. The Olympic and World Champion is 40 years old and has competed under several flags at the international level, the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, the white flag of the Unified team in Barcelona in 1992, the black, yellow and red of Germany and now, the blue, white and green of her native Uzbekistan. This woman, like Houry truly embodies the Olympic spirit and will go to Rio with the support of the entire gymnastics community.
Oksana Chusovitina after winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games
Likewise, Toni-Ann Williams, the Cal Berkeley gymnast who represents Jamaica internationally will also go to Rio with huge support behind her. Williams, who is currently competing in the NCAA for the University of California, Berkeley made history as the first ever Jamaican gymnast to qualify to the Olympic Games. This powerful gymnast who was born in the U.S competes for Jamaica, thanks to her Jamaican roots and was selected to compete at the Test Event over former British Olympic alternate and current gymnast at the University of California, Los Angeles, Danusia Francis.
Dipa Karmakar of India, also made history by becoming the first ever Indian WAG gymnast to qualify to the Olympic Games, one of very few women who will represent India in Rio. The 22 year old Commonwealth Games bronze medalist has garnered much attention for performing the Produnova Vault. An incredibly difficult Vault which she generally falls on as she simply does not have enough rotation, Dipa simply performs it for the risk reward benefit. This ‘benefit’ had many screaming for change in the system, questioning whether risking your life is worth the reward. However, now that she has made history, she has become an Olympian, she became the first Indian WAG gymnast to qualify for a final at last years World Championships, she has won international medals, will she take out the risk and stop performing the vault. Somehow I think she won’t. As an All-Around gymnast, Dipa has improved tremendously in the last year and that vault can add so much, just by virtue of the difficulty value, that it would be a big loss to her All-Around score, even though she has improved.
So, they were the moments and the gymnasts that evoked elation across the gymnastics community. However, one gymnast evoked anger. Thema Williams, who has been the source of much controversy and the centre of much scandal over the last year caused quite a stir in Rio. After ultimately being selected to represent Trinidad and Tobago at the Olympic Test Event following surreal controversy over a topless image of Thema, the situation became even more bizarre, making me question whether I had entered the twilight zone or was I still firmly placed in the gymnastics world. Whilst it is hard to decifer who is truly to blame and what actually happened with reports coming from every different angle and noone truly sure what exactly happened, so far the narrative reads that following Podium Training in Rio, coach of Thema Williams, John Geddert, formerly the coach of Olympic and World Champion, Jordyn Wieber, sent an email to the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation stating that Thema was a disaster and was not performing well. According to the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation, upon receiving this email, they attempted to contact Mr.Geddert for explanation of the email to no avail. Fearing that Thema would not be able to earn Trinidad and Tobago the historic spot at the 2016 Olympic Games, and with the best interests of the programme at heart, they decided to fly Marisa Dick, the other contender for the Olympic Test Event spot to Rio, pulling Thema from the competition and allowing Dick to represent instead. It is an unspeakably bizarre case. Not only did Dick have to fly in from Canada overnight, compete not having attended podium training, she flew in without her coach whilst Geddert, Thema’s coach flew back to Michigan, whilst Thema remained in the Brazilian capital.
Geddert has since claimed that whilst he did state Thema was a little rough in podium training his comments were taken out of context and everyone was a mess and by no means did this mean Thema would be unable to qualify to the Games. Many, rightly so are indeed blaming Geddert for his foolish behaviour, describing an athletes performance as a disaster is obviously going to elicit extreme reactions from a federation, obviously a federation is going to do everything in their power to qualify a spot at the Olympics. However some are also blaming the federation, stating that it was their plan to get rid of Thema from the beginning, after the battle for this spot at the Test Event was so hotly contested and concurred so much drama surrounding nude photos and placement at last years World Championships.
Whatever the case it is an awful situation that never should have happened. It is truly a mess that has resulted in Thema’s Olympic dreams being crushed for the second time whilst Dick’s have been realised. Dick has also created quite the stir after a tweet was found reportedly stating that she represented Trinidad and Tobago on the floor but in her heart was always Canadian. UGH. This needs to stop. This storyline has been nothing short of farcical. From the naked pictures to the incriminating tweets to the reportedly ‘joking’ emails that cost a girl a shot at becoming an Olympian, this story belongs in a cheesy gymnastics movie aimed at 12 year olds, not in the realms of real life Olympic competition.
Overall, Dick displayed professionalism in a truly bizarre situation, managing to qualify to the Olympic Games, after performing well under crazy circumstances. Next time though, I suggest Trinidad and Tobago should send a representative to the competition to watch the podium training and decifer for themselves whether the athlete was fit to compete rather than relying on emails from a coach who has been known to….exaggerate to say the least. It was a bizarre situation that should have been avoided but unfortunately wasn’t, but Dick’s qualification should be celebrated nonetheless.
So, thats all the craziness and history that was made over the weekend. Incredibly, the teams that actually qualified have been overshadowed by all of this craziness and history making. In the team competition, Brazil, Germany, Belgium and France qualified full teams to the Olympic Games whilst Australia and Switzerland just missed out.
Host nation Brazil, who just missed out on qualification at last years World Championships, placing 9th really impressed this weekend, going into the competition as hot favourites and most likely to qualify a full team to the Olympic Games.Even stronger than they were last year, Ms. Flavia Saraiva was on fire, receiving rapturous applause from crowd each time she performed/won a medal/moved/did anything/ danced on the sidelines. They loved her so much that she was thrown a bouquet of flowers following her floor routine. OMG. She and the Brazilian team are going to bring the house down this Summer. She is a ray of sunshine and is now strong and steady, having struggled with nerves last year in her first year as a senior. She now looks ready to compete in front of a home crowd. Also strong and back from injury is Rebeca Andrade, the other young hope for Brazil. She is an absolute powerhouse who can also swing bars with the best, showing her prowess by earning a bronze medal in event finals. Daniele Hypolito, the 31 year old former World Champion provides the leadership for this team and it will be amazing to see her, a pioneer for the sport in the country perform in front of a home crowd this Summer. Jade Barbosa, another veteran, visibly disappointed with her fall during the balance beam event final clearly is also living for this experience and will fight hard to put on a good show in front of her home crowd this Summer. 2015 Brazilian National Champion, Lorrane Oliveria, who struggled with nerves at the recent American Cup, seemed to pull it together for this competition and seems ready for the Summer. Brazil is truly a programme on the rise, helped significantly by the addition of the infamous Alexander Alexandrov who’s coaching credentials are as impressive as Svetlana Khorkina’s trophy cabinet, having previously personally coached Olympic and World Champion, Aliya Mustafina, World and Olympic Champion, Dimitry Bilozerchev and in her early days, Olympic Champion, Dominique Moceanu. Everywhere you look his name pops up and he is truly a coaching genius who has clearly significantly affected the Brazilian team and helped them reach a new level in time for the Rio Games.
Elation as the Brazilian team come out on top at the Test Event
Germany, another favourite to earn an Olympic berth at this event displayed a truly strong team effort, helped significantly by huge scores from Elisabeth Seitz and Sophie Scheder on the Uneven Bars, who both scored in the 15’s and earned the gold and silver medals respectively on that event. Impressive new senior, Tabea Alt also impressed as an All-Around gymnast, having struggled slightly with nerves at the recent American Cup, she helped the team significantly here which resulted in a second place finish.
Belgium, helped significantly by impressive new senior, Axelle Klinckaert, who’s floor routine is truly something special, choreographed perfectly and combining this with impressive tumbling, also impressed and qualified even without new senior and Belgian standout, Nina Derwael who is recovering from injury, displaying to Romania that you can qualify despite the loss of a crucial member of the team. Also qualifying without a crucial member of the team were France, who were missing European Championships bronze medalist, Claire Martin. However, despite this had a very strong team which included new senior, Marine Boyer, second year senior, Loan His, who just missed out on a bars medal, placing 4th with an absolutely stunning routine, she is something special on that event.
Interestingly, many top gymnasts expected to medal in event finals, pulled out of competition, namely Axelle Klinckaet of Belgium, Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland and Catalina Ponor of Romania. Frankly, there shouldn’t be event finals. They mean absolutely nothing as medalists do not qualify to the Games based on event finals. The only purpose they serve is to provide gymnasts with more experience and to give the organisers more practice in running the event. However, given the amount of gymnasts that pulled out there’s obviously a lack of interest in holding them.
Aside from the team qualifiers, each team that had a full team at the test event and did not qualify are also allocated one spot that is non-nominative. In this case, Romania’s Larisa Iordache, will likely still go to Rio, given she is healthy. Switzerland are likely to send their standout, Giulia Steingruber, who earned the top spot All-Around at the Test Event. South Korea and Australia will also send one gymnast, still unclear as to whom they will send.
Continental representation spots have also reportedly been allocated to Farah Boufadine of Algeria and Claudia Cummins of South Africa and of course Hong un-Jong of North Korea also keeps her spot as an Olympian due to her individual silver medal at last years World Championships and is now the only female gymnast to earn an Olympic berth this way. Tripartite spots have still yet to be allocated. The four teams qualified here will join the 8 that qualified at last years World Championships, USA, China, Russia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada and Italy. Brazil, of course will not need to utalise their host country allocation spot due to their qualification as a team and Pauline Schafer of Germany lost her guaranteed spot due to her World Championships medal after Germany qualified a full team. It is now up to the German Gymnastics Federation whether she will be a member of the German Olympic Team. However she is fully expected to make that team, unless injury strikes.
Hong Un-jong of North Korea winning gold at the 2014 World Championships
All in all, it was a crazy weekend of gymnastics, filled with all kinds of emotion, pride, happiness, sadness, anger and trepidation as many reported that Rio, in fact was not ready for the absolutely gigantic event that is the Olympic Games. Hopefully they can get it together come August when we will see the green arena in all its glory once again. (which actually grew on me over the weekend, I thought it looked great!). Until then, lets hope for no more injuries, lots of great gymnastics and no more controversy. But who am I kidding, there will be all of that and more as we gear up for the pinnacle of the sport, the Olympic Games.
Full list of qualifiers available here: http://www.intlgymnast.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4535:list-of-2016-womens-olympic-qualifiers&catid=2:news&Itemid=53