I’m not typically against change-of-nation requests for gymnasts competing at the international level. Most of the time, it’s gymnasts with legitimate ties to other countries, often countries with bare-bones gymnastics programs or no actively-competing elite-level gymnasts. And in cases where there are already elites, there’s generally a selection process through which everyone is given a fair shot at making a team.
In 2011, Austin Sheppard competed as a member of the Hungarian team at world championships. She had dual citizenship through her parents and her brother Ryan is actually competing in Hungary now as well. As a Hungarian elite, Sheppard competed at European Championships and several world cup events because she was required to go through the same selection process as the other Hungarian gymnasts, and she spent her time leading up to Worlds that year training in Hungary with the team. When it came down to Olympic selection, Hungary had only one spot available and it went to Dorina Böczögö, fair and square.
This year, Ava Verdeflor, who lives and trains in the U.S., will represent the Philippines, and in her case, she approached the program when there was no one else really contending for spots, earning a slot at the Youth Olympic Games last summer and posting the best results for the nation at the Southeast Asian Games this summer. She has citizenship because she was born in the country and lived there until age two, and was selected fairly after representing the country in other tests over the past year.
Then there are the gymnasts bringing life to programs that were all but nonexistent. Danusia Francis of Great Britain, who is half-Jamaican, will compete for Jamaica alongside U.S. gymnast Toni-Ann Williams, who has competed for Jamaica for years. In their cases, Jamaica doesn’t really have a national program, so any representation is good representation. The same goes for U.S.-based gymnasts who have competed for nations like Panama and Trinidad & Tobago in recent years.
Azerbaijan is another similar example, the nation rising to gymnastics fame over this quad after they became the land of misfit toys for the Russians who had been put out to pasture (their national team is currently comprised of seven women, all of whom relocated from Russia). Though injuries in 2014 meant they couldn’t contend for a team spot at this year’s worlds, they’ve had some great success considering the program literally didn’t exist only years ago, and they’ve inspired many young Azeri girls to try the sport, in essence using their status to build the program for the future of the sport so they won’t have to pull from Russia any longer.
But Belarus has a women’s program. They have a team of gymnasts, six of whom have represented their nation internationally in 2015 and two of whom – Sviatlana Lifenka and Valeryia Tsekhmistrenka – were named to the nominative roster for worlds. Natallia Yakubava represented the country at the Youth Olympic Games last summer, making the beam final (and she is excellent there, with a roundoff layout and a big double pike). At worlds, Anastasiya Yekimenka and Anastasiya Miklashevich both competed well, with Yekimenka finishing above gymnasts from much more established programs on her three events and Miklashevich showing beautiful work on bars. And Aliaksandra Koshaleva was a new senior this year, but showed promise at both the European Championships and European Games, increasing her difficulty on all of her events in the short span between the two meets.
These are the names of the young gymnasts – most are 16 and in their first year of senior competition – who are being shoved aside to make room for two Americans who qualified to the U.S. elite level in March of this year and have exactly one domestic elite competition under their belts. Americans who have never stepped foot in Belarus, and who will not visit Belarus prior to representing the country in major international competition.
How does this even happen? From what we’ve gathered, it seems as though All Olympia head coaches Artur Akopyan and Galina Marinova approached Nellie Kim – president of the FIG Women’s Technical Committee and vice president of the Belarusian Gymnastics Federation – about sending Dickson and Kwan to represent Belarus after the two failed to qualify to U.S. nationals (both missed the all-around cutoff of 54.0 by over two points). Kim, who has been trying to build the Belarusian program internally, apparently loved the idea and the three got to work obtaining citizenship for the girls.
In Belarus – as with many under-developed nations – the citizenship and residency requirements are pretty lenient, but they also don’t just hand out passports willy-nilly to people who have never stepped foot in the country. Belarusian citizenship can be obtained by birth (like if one of your parents is a citizen), by naturalization (if you’ve lived there for seven years, know one of the state languages, have legal income, and have no foreign citizenship), or by registration (if you lived in Belarus before the USSR crumbled or were adopted).
The AOGC girls fit none of these, though there are loopholes when it comes to naturalization. According to the Citizenship Act of 2002, the seven year period of residence required for naturalization can be “reduced” for several categories of people, including those “who can make significant contributions to the development of Belarus.” With scores slightly better than any of the Belarusian national gymnasts, Kim could’ve made a great case for Dickson and Kwan, noting the success of the U.S. program, the success of their own gym (which most famously produced 2012 Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney), and the success of Azerbaijan’s program using a similar strategy. It’s a no-brainer for Belarus, especially because the Americans’ parents will be footing the bill. Buying citizenship and potential Olympic spots for your kids? Sounds corrupt to me!
But will Dickson and Kwan actually bolster the program that much more than Lifenka or Tsekhmistrenka would have? Their classics scores from this summer would’ve put them around 60th place in last year’s Worlds all-around whereas the Belarusian all-arounders would’ve been closer to 100th. Aren’t 60th place and 100th place about the same when neither results in more than the other? There are no finals, all-around or otherwise, in store for the Americans, just as there would have been no finals for the Belarusians and the majority of those not in top programs. So why give spots to gymnasts with no relation to your program instead of building the confidence and performance ability of the girls who have spent their entire lives training in Belarus when neither outcome is going to result in anything different?
In their interview with International Gymnast, both Dickson and Kwan express a desire to help the struggling programs of Eastern Europe. “They are losing gymnasts because they think the U.S. is always going to win and they can never meet that expectation,” Kwan hypothesized. “But with us going it’s showing…that you can still do it, but we just need more of you to come out.” Dickson agreed and “wants to show them that their dreams can come true.” She continues by saying if they want to be elite, all they have to do is “give it a lot of dedication and time and patience.”
But they have given it dedication and time and patience. In this situation, Dickson and Kwan could learn a thing or two from Lifenka, Tsekhmistrenka, Yakubava, Yekimenka, Miklashevich, and Koshaleva, all of whom have extensive international experience that absolutely trumps Dickson and Kwan’s single U.S. Classic meet. These six have come up in a struggling program with nowhere near the training facilities and opportunities available to Dickson and Kwan and have still managed to have an international presence. It’s a weak one, yes, but event finals aren’t going to happen overnight. Their dedication has gotten them this far, and could’ve taken them even further if given the chance. You can show them that their dreams can come true? Their dreams were about to come true until you showed up! How’s that for irony?
The attitude of these teenage Americans is ethnocentrism and the “white savior complex” at its finest, in that well-intentioned notion people from the developed west have where they think they can fix everything in “poor” countries even when nothing is actually truly broken. I hate brushing off teenage girls as uneducated or clueless because teenage girls are awesome and smart and usually know better. But with their ignorance, these two 16-year-old almost-adults manage to disrespect the Belarusian program in their interview, where they fully admit that they haven’t even had association with the Belarusian team themselves and don’t really know anything about it. And yet they’re somehow experts on Eastern Europe’s decline in the sport and confidently express their ability to single-handedly fix it?
Despite their lack of knowledge about the program or about the girls whose spots they’re taking, I don’t blame the gymnasts and don’t think anyone should (though I do wish someone would’ve coached them through that interview, because they’re taking a brunt of the negativity instead of the adult decision-makers). I’m sure they’re very sweet girls and I wish them the best of luck. It wasn’t their idea, and they should be excited about getting an opportunity like this when far superior gymnasts in the U.S. attending the worlds selection camp this week won’t get to go. It’s a chance of a lifetime and I’m sure any other gymnast training in a program with depth would kill for a similar circumstance. They have the right to be happy and excited, and likely don’t know the hurt they’re actually causing in accepting their coaches’ and Kim’s offer, so their off-putting comments stem from a place of ignorance, not intentional disrespect.
But they should know that their attending worlds is going to make things worse in Belarus, not better. Since this has happened, two of Belarus’ most promising new seniors – Yakubava and Koshaleva, best friends and both members of this summer’s European Games squad who had the time of their lives in the team competition, always with huge smiles for the camera – have withdrawn their FIG licenses meaning they can no longer compete internationally. That’s one-third of their senior team, so clearly the American invasion is already having devastating effects.
Instead of inspiring gymnasts in Belarus, all this decision does is teach young Belarusian gymnasts that it doesn’t matter how good they are or how much they improve. Girls from the U.S. with money and power and connections will just wind up stealing their spots. It’s the opposite of the work being done in Azerbaijan and other formerly nonexistent programs. Nothing is building. Instead, a young but blossoming program is going to crumble, and I’m furious at the Belarusian Federation for letting it happen.
In the Belarusian Federation’s announcement today, they specifically say that the decision to send Dickson and Kwan should not be viewed with hostility. It seems that their plan, according to deputy chairman Antonina Pouch, is to earn an Olympic spot using the talents of the American girls, which will boost their international presence considerably. But if they earn that spot and then send one of the Americans to the Olympic Games in lieu of one of their own gymnasts, it’s doing absolutely nothing for their program.
Article by Lauren Hopkins