I think we can all agree that the new four person team rule sucks. But the arguments about why it sucks kinda suck just as much.
There’s a whole lot of U.S. perspective here, and a great deal of that comes from people who haven’t even read about the changes in detail. They see “five person team cut down to four!” because that’s all most news chooses to focus on, and then they rant and rave against how “unfair” it is that Americans have so many talented gymnasts and now even fewer will get the chance to make their dreams come true.
First of all, that’s not even true. With up to two additional spots for specialists, the Americans will more likely than not get to send six athletes to the Games in 2020, not four. It’s addition by subtraction, in that it does cut at the core of the team, but at the end of the day one gymnast who may have been left at home will now get the chance to represent her country, even if she doesn’t receive a team medal.
Okay, so you’ve grasped this, so now your argument is that these poor specialists have to suffer in agony as their teammates win a team medal while all they’re left with are individual medals, or *gasp* nothing at all.
“How unfair!” once again, and yeah, I get it. It sucks to not win a team medal when the sport is popular in your country for its team component, because people in the U.S. love team sports and watching a team come together to win.
But do you know who this argument applies to? Exactly one country. The United States.
Contrary to popular belief, the world doesn’t revolve around what the U.S. wants or doesn’t want, and frankly, this argument is nothing more than “but I don’t want this gold medal, I want that gold medal!”
Here’s the thing. The Americans have pretty much everything they could ever desire in the sport. They worked really hard to get there, and if anything, this new format favors them more than any other women’s program in the world. Martha Karolyi typically sends teams of all-arounders to major international events anyway, and they could unquestionably produce two specialist gymnasts with the ability to earn medals outside the team.
A big reason for confusion is that fans are looking at the new rule using each nation’s current situation. Yes, if the four member team format were to take effect immediately, there would be crushing problems for a few teams, but even so, it wouldn’t be much. We’ve done the calculations. China most notably will struggle under this format with their current squad, but the rest actually don’t see much of a change and many (Canada and Japan especially) actually would see a jump in their performance as a team.
But the rule doesn’t take effect now. There are five years until Tokyo 2020, which means five years for programs to adjust their training plans and to strategize how to best take advantage of the situation in order to maximize medal potential. And programs will adjust. For the U.S. it’s as simple as sending four all-arounders and two vault specialists. Blammo. The girls currently training with the hopes of making it in 2020 are currently only in the 10-13 age range. They’re not specialists yet. 90% of them aren’t even elite yet. Programs have more than enough time to recognize potential all-arounders vs potential specialists so they can plan accordingly when it comes time to send gymnasts to World Cup qualifiers.
But, okay, let’s go back to the whining about it being super “unfair” that these potential specialists won’t be able to join their teammates on the podium, or it being “unfair” that Americans really like team sports and so your wins are somehow diminished if you achieve them individually.*
Do you know what’s truly “unfair” though? Risking serious injury attempting a Produnova vault because your gym’s mats are full of holes and the international attention that comes with winning vault medals could get you better training facilities. Your country’s program not having enough funding to send a full team to World Championships so every member of the team has to pay her own way. Competing for a nation so afraid of athletes defecting, they choose to keep you at home rather than giving you a chance at becoming an Olympian. Your team narrowly missing qualifying to the Olympics cutting your nation’s spot to just one athlete when there are several who deserve to be there.
The U.S. gymnastics program has more resources – money, coaches, training facilities, doctors – at its fingertips than any other country in the world. Its depth is owed to those who use these resources to the best of their abilities, which is why they can field teams of ten athletes on which the weakest link would be the strongest contender for almost any other nation. And that’s great for them. They work hard and deserve every bit of their success.
But what makes them more “deserving” of going to the Olympics than girls who were born in countries without these resources? The Olympics are about the best athletes in the world competing at the highest level possible, but they’re also about international community and inclusiveness. It’s tough to find a balance between the “best of the best” and those who aren’t quite at that level but who work just as hard despite this (and probably could be at that level had they been born into different circumstances).
The FIG is always testing the boundaries of this balance. With 98 spots allotted to them in 2020, they had to decide if it was “fair” that they still give 60 of these spots to 12 countries with the remaining 38 set for one individual per non-team nation. Instead, they will now set aside 48 all-around spots for teams, while the remaining 50 will go to individuals who prove they are most able to contend for a final.
Of these 50 spots, 31 will include all-arounders from non-team countries (23 qualify at Worlds in 2019, 3 at World Cups in 2020, and 9 at continental championships in 2020). One spot will go to the host country, one will be a “tripartite commission invitation” spot, and then 16 will be set aside for specialists (12 of whom will qualify from Worlds in 2019 and then 4 of whom qualify from World Challenge Cups in the Olympic year).
These changes mean that countries once given just one Olympic qualification spot now have as many as three spots between the all-around and event specialists. Look at Mexico in 2012. They had two strong all-arounders (Elsa Garcia and Ana Lago) and one strong specialist (Alexa Moreno on vault). Garcia got the spot, but was injured by the time she got to London and under-performed while Lago and Moreno sat at home watching, despite being perfectly capable (and deserving) of competing. In 2020, all three would be given the shot at becoming Olympians if they reach qualification specifications.
Countries in this position – going from one qualification spot to potentially three spots – are more than happy about the changes. The Croatian federation took to the press to praise the FIG for the decision, with gymnasts weighing in on the decision with their thoughts.
“I am thrilled,” Marijo Moznik was quoted as saying. “It’s great news. Too bad it’s not applying for these Games in Rio already. I am 28 years old. I have planned on training until 2020, but with this we’ve all gained an extra motive and we will definitely not be considering retirement yet.”
His teammate Filip Ude added that “for those of us who don’t have a team at the Olympics, this is a much better qualification system. I hope it lives. I will definitely consider stop doing the all-around then, and dedicate myself only to the pommel horse.”
For gymnasts from countries who for whatever reason can’t qualify full teams to the Games – some because they only have one or two high-caliber athletes on their teams, others because they only have one or two elite gymnasts period – the change means their hard work can finally pay off.
Many U.S. fans are countering, however, that these lower-ranked gymnasts from smaller programs “don’t deserve” to be there as much as U.S. gymnasts, though, because “they’re not as good.”
Are you kidding me? I’ve entertained the whining about “only” getting to go to the Olympics as an individual, and the uninformed “fewer gymnasts will see their dreams come true” opinions, but this nonsense is about as ignorant as it gets. Not everyone is born into a country with parents who can afford to spend $30k a year on their child’s sport, where corporate sponsors make national training facilities top-notch resorts, where the lack of oppression and promise of a better life opened doors for some of the world’s best coaches from Russia, Romania, and China to emigrate and then come together to build an unstoppable force in international gymnastics.
No gymnasts have the advantages U.S. gymnasts have. And yet no one in the world is complaining in the way that the U.S. is complaining about a system that ultimately will benefit the U.S. program more than any other program in the world. It all but caters to the U.S. gymnasts, allowing them the best of both worlds – a team final that favors all-arounders, and the option to also bring specialists, not a bad deal considering they left a would-be medalist at home in 2012 and could potentially leave several medalists at home next year.
Yes, there are problems with the system. It’s not perfect. It never has been. It probably never will be. There are plenty of valid arguments against it, namely the problem of telling specialists they aren’t worthy of performing in team events.
But the arguments about how “unfair” it is that two U.S. gymnasts will get to go to the Olympics but not stand on the podium and accept medals with the four named to the actual team? They’re the most privileged, selfish, whiny, egocentric #FirstWorldProblems arguments I’ve ever heard.
The U.S. program has had more success in the past four years than most programs could expect in a lifetime, and are heading on a path that guarantees bigger and better things. Many Olympic dreams came true in 2012, five more girls will be able to make theirs come true next year, and then six more get that opportunity in 2020.
No extra dreams will be “crushed” that year, drama queens. The only thing the U.S. loses in this new deal is the chance for two gymnasts to compete with the team in team finals. THAT’S IT. In the grand scheme of things, this is a teeny tiny non-problem. It’s not “unfair.” It’s a minor concession that comes with huge benefits for non-team gymnasts. Even if they don’t have a shot in hell at winning a medal, these gymnasts work just as hard, are just as deserving, and are just as entitled to the opportunity to make their own dreams come true.
*Tennis and golf pros and even gymnastics’ own individual champions like Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas may disagree. And actually, the ratings in the U.S. were similar between the team and all-around finals in 2012; the team final took in just 1.9 million more viewers (38.7 to 36.8), while Douglas’ all-around win was the most DVR’d event of the Games.
Article by Lauren Hopkins