It’s an image we’ll always remember, and one that will always haunt us.
Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion, distraught because placing fourth in qualifications at the 2012 Olympic Games was not good enough to see her into the all-around final, the chance to compete for the title she’d dreamed of since she was a little girl.
The outrage was immediate. The two-per-country rule was never hugely popular, but a gymnast who was the reigning world champion, the fourth place finisher in qualifications, and could break the 60 barrier would miss out on the biggest competition of her career because two teammates happened to score higher – by mere tenths – put it in sharper, more painful relief.
Limiting the number of athletes that can advance into an all-around final has not always been a harsh reality of elite gymnastics. This precedent began at the 1976 Olympic Games when the powers that be decided to cap each nation’s entrants to three in an all-around final and two into an event final.
This decision was born out of a desire to allow more diversity in top-level gymnastics in international competition, and the measures well served their goal – gymnasts from all over the world were competing in the prestigious all-around final, especially with the budding of the young Chinese and American women’s programs in the 1980s. But after Romania’s sweep of the 2000 all-around podium, the cap was again restricted, this time to 24 gymnasts with only two per country.
Admittedly, diversity is a noble aim – but are the current restrictions on all-around final participants actually creating stronger diversity? And at what point does diversity have to be sacrificed in favor of a high-quality competition? The change back to an all-around final featuring 36 athletes using the three-per-country format would harvest both greater diversity and higher quality competition while providing the best possible future for gymnastics.
Did the Change Actually Bring Diversity?
As mentioned, the official reasoning behind the switch was to create more diversity in elite gymnastics. As such, the question must be raised. Is it really working? In an attempt to answer this question, I found the average number of countries represented in the all-around final at World and Olympic competitions per quad.
Note: the 1993, 1994, and 2001 all-around finals were not included due to their atypical structures.
|1976-1980: 16||1997-2000: 16.66|
|1981-1984: 15||2001-2004: 15.5|
|1985-1988: 15||2005-2008: 15.75|
|1989-1992: 16.66||2009-2012: 16.25|
This data shows a large increase in the number of participating nations in the 1990s, the peak being 18 in 1999. In fact, the highest average of the 1990s is higher than the highest average since the institution of the two-per-country rule, the median average of the 1990s is higher than the median average since the new all-around format, and the lowest average of the 1990s is higher than the lowest two-per-country era average.
Looking at the data from qualifications since 2003 also points to a conclusion that the 36 person three-per-country format is better for creating diverse finals than the current setup.
Every single final since 2003 would have had at least two more countries included, and the finals in 2003, 2005, 2009, 2012, and 2013 would have allowed for at least four more nations to be represented.
Under a 36 person three-per-country format, the all-around finals since 2003 would have seen these numbers of total nations represented:
|2003: 21||2009: 21|
|2004: 18||2010: 18|
|2005: 22||2011: 19|
|2006: 19||2012: 20|
|2007: 18||2013: 21|
As mentioned, the highest number of nations which have participated in an all-around final was 18 in 1999. All finals except for that in 2008 would have had at least as many nations represented, whereas they all had fewer than 24 gymnasts with only two-per-country.
Obviously, the statistics from 2005, 2009, and 2013 are a bit skewed, but the mid-quad Worlds and Olympics still provide enough argument that using the old setup would create opportunity for more gymnasts from underrepresented countries to compete in the marquee event of international competition.
Also, the individual qualifying gymnasts themselves provide an argument that the new qualification restrictions do not create more diversity than that which would have been created under the 36 person three-per-country setup. The gymnast who qualified in the lowest position into the all-around final due to the two-per-country rule was Carlotta Ferlito in 2011, who placed 32nd. Therefore, all gymnasts who have qualified due to the two-per-country rule would have automatically qualified in the old structure.
The Big Four are also far from the only nations which would be able to qualify three gymnasts into an all-around final. At least six countries would have qualified three gymnasts in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2011. 2008 would be the final with the highest density of maxed-out nations with eight: Australia, Brazil, France, and Italy in addition to the Big Four.
From 2003-2013, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ukraine all would have been represented by three gymnasts at least once in addition to the Big Four. In 2010, France and the Netherlands both would have had three gymnasts competing in a 36 person three-per-country format but only had one representative in the 24 person two-per-country final; the same is true for Great Britain in 2011. In fact, only thrice – in 2003, 2006, and 2008 – would all four nations of the Big Four have been able to qualify three gymnasts.
So, if the current format doesn’t create diversity in participants, then the only other option would be diversity in medals.
In the years since the two-per-country final, there have been four all-around finals with medalists from outside the Big Four. In 2005, Monette Russo won bronze, as did Vanessa Ferrari and Jade Barbosa in 2007 and Koko Tsurimi in 2009, and in 2006, Ferrari won the gold.
Admittedly, these are fairly better statistics than those of the three-per-country era, but no one from outside the Big Four has been able to win an all-around medal outside of these five years, which include two Worlds in the first year of the quad, and the first two Worlds to use the open-ended scoring system. In both cases, the gymnastics world was in a state of change. The first year of a quad is always a rebuilding year; in the beginning of the open-ended era, gymnastics federations, judges, coaches, and athletes were all in confusion.
No More Sweeps
One thing that has been consistently assured since 2003 is the lack of sweeps at Worlds or Olympics. Really, it was the Sydney sweep (which technically didn’t even stand, but it doesn’t matter since we all know Andreea Munteanu reigns eternal), which was the catalyst for the two-per-country rule.
Without any discussion of statistics, it was clearly stupid to change the rules due to the results of Sydney in the first place, considering how the competition was sabotaged. Now using statistics, in the 24 years of the three-per-country rule, there were four sweeps, in 1978, 1981, 1989, and 2000. All but that of 2000 were by the Soviet Union. Of the nations competing today, none can compare to the depth and talent of the Soviet team, yet the Soviets were only able to capture all three medals three times.
The sweeps also became more spread out over time as other programs developed, with three years between 1978 and 1981, eight between 1981 and 1989, and eleven between 1989 and 2000. Even with the most talented gymnasts and most dominant teams, sweeps are not common at the World or Olympic level with a three-per-country limit.
If it was to abolish medal sweeps that the two-per-country rule was instated, the question must be raised: what is inherently wrong with a medal sweep? Plenty of other sports allow for one nation to receive all medals – for example, medal sweeps occurred in both athletics and fencing at the 2012 Olympics.
Additionally, most fans have nothing against medal sweeps, and actually celebrate them when they occur. Everyone was excited when the England swept the Commonwealth Games this year. No one felt it was an outrageous circumstance – everyone was just happy the three English gymnast competed well enough to take all three medals.
There is another question we must ask: at what point does the quality of the competition have to be prioritized above letting those who might not otherwise receive medals?
One common complaint in gymnastics in its recent years is the lack of serious competition at the top; often, an all-around final comes down to only two or three gymnasts, whereas in 1996 and 2000 at least ten gymnasts were fighting for medals.
Two of the main reasons for this? The inclusion of a difficulty score means certain gymnasts come in with an automatic advantage, and the breakup of the Soviet Union meant several nations were able to capitalize on the runoff of the old Soviet system for several years. But the institution of the two-per-country rule can also be considered responsible.
Bringing back the example of Jordyn Wieber in 2012, imagine how much more interesting that final could have been had Jordyn competed. Under the two-per-country rule, the all-around came down to a fight between Viktoria Komova and Gabby Douglas for the gold, and Aly Raisman and Aliya Mustafina for bronze. Had Wieber been competing, the final would have included a fifth gymnast who could have really spiced up the medal podium. Also, had Wieber competed, we likely would not have seen a medalist with a fall, and wouldn’t we all like to see podiums with gymnasts who hit every routine?
In 2011, Douglas was left out of the all-around final after qualifying in fifth. The all-around final ended up a bit tepid despite the potential of the gymnasts who competed, as there were falls and major errors from all top competitors other than Komova, and even she put up far from her best performances. Had Douglas competed in the final, it certainly could have created a much more interesting competition. Her preliminary score would have been enough to put her in fourth in the final.
Also, simply because a gymnast qualifies in a lower position does not mean she has no chance at a good placement. Ana Porgras qualified 22nd into the all-around final in Tokyo, but placed sixth on the night of the final. Ksenia Afanasyeva qualified 17th after a disastrous bars rotation in which she came off the apparatus twice in 2010, but missed the chance to compete in the final because Mustafina and Tatiana Nabieva qualified ahead of her. Had the two points she lost for coming off the bars been added back, her score would have been enough to place sixth, ahead of Nabieva in the all-around final.
What It All Comes Down To
While we, the gymternet, all like seeing a gymnast from outside the Big Four come out on top, it is also a harsh reality that the Big Four simply does create larger numbers of top competitive gymnasts. It may be lovely to see gymnasts from Italy or Brazil or Japan on the podium, but most fans also want to see the most competitive final possible.
The 2009-2012 quad especially illustrated the decreased competitiveness. However, even in this lower competitive state, only gymnasts from the Big Four were able to medal, with the exception of Koko Tsurimi winning bronze in 2009. Again, the questions must be raised as to whether the two-per-country format really works in creating diversity and whether that little diversity that is created is enough to make up for the lack of competitiveness at the most competitive level of gymnastics.
The answer to both questions is no.
Plenty of countries would benefit from representation in the all-around final under the 36 person three-per-country final, and more than once, a country would achieve full three-person representation when that country was not able to achieve full two-person representation in the current qualifying standard.
The quality of all-around competition has also decreased to a much lower standard than what was seen when three gymnasts from the same country were able to compete. In truth, four medals from non-Big Four countries during post-Olympic years in which the sport was in transitional states is not enough to justify the decreased quality of international competition.
We are lucky to be experiencing a period of gymnastics with immense growth in many former second-tier gymnastics nations, many of which have several exciting all-around prospects in the junior ranks. These gymnasts are well capable of reaching the podium, and I believe they would be even if Russia and the USA were allowed an extra competitor.
Three gymnasts in a field of 36 gymnasts would allow for diversity of representation throughout the rankings and knock-down, drag-out battles at the top. Imagine a 2016 final in which the current biggest all-around prospects – Simone Biles, Bailie Key, Nia Dennis, Aliya Mustafina, Seda Tutkhalyan, Angelina Melnikova, Ellie Downie, Amy Tinkler, Catherine Lyons, Yao Jinnan, Shang Chunsong, Wang Yan, Larisa Iordache, Laura Jurca, Rebeca Andrade, and Flavia Saraiva – were all competing. This could be one of our sport’s best finals, and I highly doubt it would end in a medal sweep.
With the current developing gymnastics landscape and in light of the data above, a three-per-country final would provide the brightest future for international gymnastics.
Article by Mary Flynn