Bring Back the Three-Per-Country Format

jordyn-wieber-1b

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
1993-1996: 16

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
2008: 17

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.

Compromising Quality

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

24 thoughts on “Bring Back the Three-Per-Country Format

  1. By any chance do any of these data include MAG or are we talking strictly WAG? I just want to be clear on that.

    If not, it would be interesting to do the same with MAG because I feel diversity in MAG is absolutely outstanding these days. There’s no Big 4 in MAG (though China and Japan are in a league of their own in team events), so everything is pretty spread out. If you look over various individual results (all-around and event finals) through the years, you’d be amazed at the number of countries represented compared to WAG.

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  2. This is so great! And I totally agree with you. I think the rule was proposed to benefit lower tier nations at the expense of the Big 4 athletes, but it ends up not benefiting anyone. I think also in finals, it makes me sad that instead of having the top 8 in a beam final, we have to go down to like the top 15, because of all those who got left out due to the rule. Like if Kyla Ross had been in the London Beam final!? Who knows, she could’ve gotten a medal, bc outside of the top 2 no one really performed their best.

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  3. I just remembered that at the 2008 Olympics, Russia had Semyonova, Pavlova, Afanasyeva, and Kramarenko all in the top 10 AA after qualification. But of course only Semy and Pavs went through. How interesting it could’ve been to see Afan and Kram in the mix. Maybe Russia could’ve had better medal chances.

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  4. I heard that one of the reasons for decreasing the number of athletes from 24 to 36 is because it’s more convenient for broadcasting of competitions on tv. It makes sense because there are 6 gymnasts in every rotation right now whereas there would be 9 if 36 athletes competed and that would take a lot more time and so fewer broadcasters would be interested in covering the meet, which would mean fewer sponsers and that’s a problem.
    I think 2 per country is fine as long as the top 6 (or 7 or 8?) automatically qualify regardless. That makes for an interesting final and possible medal sweeps while keeping the diversity relatively high.

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      • While I completely agree with this statement, I get the impression that FIG gets some revenue from TV contracts that help support the sport financially. If that is the case, it might be necessary for FIG to make less than ideal decisions to encourage broadcasters, as annoying as it is for the fans. I’d love a 3 per country 36 AA competition. (Of course, NBC would still cover only 5 gymnasts,)

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  5. I agree with all of this. Wonderfully researched and presented article as usual). It still bothers me ,however, that if Aly hadn’t beat Jordyn that night that the uproar wouldn’t have been nearly as strong.

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  6. As sad as it is that gymnasts like Jordyn didn’t make the all around, the 2 per country rule really is the fairest solution. It’s not fair for a country to sweep all medals, and it does in fact bring in gymnasts from other countries. Especially nowadays with America’s recent dominance, it is extremely probable the America could, and would’ve swept something. I know the rule isn’t the greatest thing, but it really is the only thing in place that is the fairest.

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    • I think you are confusing the word “fair” with “equitable.” What would be fair is for the best gymnasts, whol have trained their whole lives to reach the level of competition that they have, to win the medals they deserve based on performance. What would be equitable is to give every athlete a medal for participation and do away with the podium altogether.

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    • Why do you think it is unfair for one country to have a medal sweep? And all the gymnasts who have been included due to the two-per-country rule would have been included under the three-per-country thirty-six person format, so it doesn’t really bring anyone in.

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    • Why isn’t it fair if one country sweeps? As Lauren says above, no one had a problem when Romania swept in Sydney. This isn’t peewee soccer where everyone gets a trophy, it’s the very highest level of competition, and these amazing athletes have trained their entire lives for this opportunity. As a fan, I want to see the very best compete.

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  7. I honestly believe that diversity is not the FIG’s main goal. Think about it. Let’s pretend for a minute that only the Big 4 gymnasts had a chance at medalling, nobody else. If each Big 4 country qualified gymnasts in today’s AA format, that means there would be 8 gymnasts who have a chance at medalling (again, this is hypothetical). In terms of proportion, that would mean 1/3 of the gymnasts in the AA will be fighting for the podium while the other 16 gymnasts are from other nations. If we calculate this for the 3 per country rule in the AA with 36 gymnasts, then that would still mean 1/3 of the gymnasts will be fighting for medals (12 gymnasts total from the Big 4/36 total). However, this time there would be 24 gymnasts from other nations competing.

    So basically, the FIG just created a shorter AA competition while making sweeps impossible.

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    • The 2000 medal standings without the vault debacle- oh gosh, that’s a hard one. The vault controversy is especially devastating when you consider it could have been an epic final otherwise!
      Khorkina’s the obvious choice for gold, but she did fall on the Ricna in team finals too… So I guess she would have been the gold medalist.
      The silver would have gone to Andreea, I believe, and the gold if Khorkina fell on the Ricna anyway.
      The bronze I think- maybe Zamo?
      Ahhh, it just makes me even angrier about the whole thing to consider HOW EPIC this final should have been!

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  8. Two points: I think if we want more diversity in gymnastics we should find a way to fund athletes who cannot afford to even get to the Olympics. The Big four are the Big four because their countries make a huge investment. I think you make a compelling argument, but my personal preference is to have the 2 per country rule only because I get tired of seeing the same old. All the Chinese look the same, Romanians all known for their “cookie cutter” gymnastics, Americans with their big skills but lack of artistry (generally speaking, not all). When I watch other countries they all seem to bring their own flare (note that Cuban woman at Pan Ams who will not go to worlds even though she’s good enough). She probably would not win AA, but at least she’s something different and exciting to look at. Besides, if there are 3 Americans in the AA, you know that will just give NBC even more incentive to focus almost exclusively on Americans.

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    • However, I would argue that the 3-per 36 format would actually provide for more that isn’t “the same old”. The stats show number of countries competing would be increased under that format, so there would be more from outside the Big Four. And as long as NBC syndicates its programming, that’s something we’ll have to deal with. While I’d like to more from other countries, in a way it makes sense at the Olympics because your average American viewer will be most interested in the Americans, and they are generally at the top so they’re still showing the major contenders, and they have to split prime time coverage between all the major sports. So while I’d like more, it makes sense from a business standpoint.

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  9. I think 2 per country would have been fine in creating diversity if they kept the size of the field at 36. 2 per country in a field of 36 would mean 18 countries at a minimum would be represented – so the minimum number of represented countries per final would be the maximum (18) seen in the older systems as reported in this article. However, I would bet that the same countries would continue to be represented, just in more even numbers:

    Another way to look at how the 2 per country measure may have failed to create diversity is that it has not increased representation of new countries. Since 2003, the top gymnastics nations have qualified the highest number of gymnasts to AA finals and the same group of countries are consistently represented. USA 22, RUS 22, CHN 20, ROU 19, AUS 17, ITA 17, JPN 16, FRA 16, GBR 16, BRA 13, GER 12, SUI 11, CAN 10, ESP 9, NED 8, and UKR 8. In the last 10 years, these countries have been featured in finals 5 or less times: PRK 5, BEL 5, POL 4, VEN 3, HUN 3, CZE 2 and CUB 2. GUA, HUN, GRE, SWE and MEX have only ever qualified a gymnast once to the AA final at worlds or the Olympics. It seems to me the same nations are competing in finals each year. But is this the fault of the 2 per country measure alone?

    In the past 11 years, 28 countries have qualified a gymnast to the AA final – this is out of a pool of 40-50 or so countries. Another challenge to qualifying an athlete to the final is how teams qualify to the Olympics. In the open year/second year of the quad, any nation can send a full team to the competition. This year, I believe there are 39 countries who registered complete WAG teams. The third year of the quad has only 24 full teams competing at worlds, limiting the chances for countries to qualify multiple athletes. At the Olympic games, only 12 countries compete. In London only van Gerner (NED), Steingruber (SUI), Lopez (VEN), Pihan-Kulesza (POL) and Gomez (GUA) made it into the AA final from the mixed groups. The other 19 athletes were part of full teams (USA, RUS, ROU, CHN, JPN, AUS, GER, GBR, FRA, ITA, CAN). It is incredibly difficult for lower ranked gymnastics nations to qualify an athlete to the Olympics as that athlete either needs her team to qualify her to the Olympics (top 24 2 years out, then top 8 one year out or if 9-16 one year out, top four from test event) or she needs to continuously peak from 3rd year worlds to Olympic Year Test Event and then the games to challenge for entrance to the finals against top tier nations that have established and up coming new seniors. I’m not sure how such a gymnast doesn’t burn out.

    You could argue to increase the size of the teams at the Olympics, in order to create diversity in the finals, but that would mean reducing athlete numbers in other sports – so this is unlikely to change. It’s outside of the control of the sport and in the hands of IOC. The other challenge, as others alluded to, is the cost of developing a gymnasts and a team. I am not sure how motivated other Countries are to make and support full teams to give gymnasts a chance to make it to finals, but money does allow for greater sports programs – this is always well discussed on almost every gymnastics forum.

    In terms of the other focus of this article, I also do think that the quality of the AA final has diminished from a competition where most gymnasts could win to one where one to two gymnasts are expected to contend for the top. Some sports are just like that (Tennis is most prominent in my mind). I agree that going back to the 3 per country rule would be fine – since it didn’t affect overall diversity anyway and the competitions would definitely have been more interesting to watch. I would support a number of changes, including going to 3 per country in a field of 36. I would also be ok with setting a score standard in qualifications, so gymnasts gain entry into the final if they surpass the mark – but only if the mark is high enough that they could actually challenge for a medal (59+? 58.5+? WAG, 88.5, 89+ MAG?). Or they could take anyone who would score higher than the sixth qualified gymnast by the 2 per country limit (since only the top group is contending for medals anyway). Obviously, this would reduce the number of nations represented, so a decision would have to be made to improve diversity or improve the quality of the final. If they want to eliminate a sweep, any third gymnast or so on who were to make podium would just receive an exhibition placement and the medal goes to the 4th gymnast and so on. I’m sure larger media would be upset (for instance, if Wieber, Douglas and Raisman finished 1-3 in the finals, but one of them did not get to have Bronze – there would be a similar or greater uproar), but I believe most gym fans would be happy with this, assuming the competition becomes more interesting to watch.

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    • Wow! Lots of great points!
      I’ve always been annoyed at how the team qualification system works because I’ve felt it diminishes the World Championships to merely a waiting event before the Olympics, and I’d like to see it change at least a little bit.

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