A New Era in Gymnastics

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After 20 years as president of the FIG, the international governing body for gymnastics, Bruno Grandi of Italy is retiring and we now know the new name we’ll yell with rage whenever something happens that we don’t like.

Morinari Watanabe of Japan won the FIG presidential election this morning with an overwhelming 100 votes to Georges Guelzec of France’s 19. I chalk this up to Watanabe’s incredible work with the Japanese program in all areas of the sport over the past decade. Just this summer, the men got back on top with team gold in addition to superstar Kohei Uchimura’s back-to-back Olympic all-around gold while the women reached fourth in the team final, their best since 1968.

As he goes into his FIG presidency beginning January 1, Watanabe is finishing up his role as the Secretary General of the Japan Gymnastics Association. With more of a sports business background than one in gymnastics, he came into the Japanese program in 2001 after the teams finished up empty-handed at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. Naturally, the men won team gold in 2004, and Japan has medaled in the sport at every Games since, basically making him the magical Martha Karolyi figure over there.

This revival he was responsible for in Japan is something he wants to carry over to gymnastics as a whole, and his end goal is a lofty one — he hopes to someday make gymnastics a bigger sport than football (aka soccer), which is currently the most popular sport in the world with some 3.5 billion fans. Gymnastics, currently 24th on the Global Sports ranking, probably won’t ever get anywhere close to that, and even the short-term goal of getting gymnastics to 10th place above ice hockey by 2024 is all but impossible (I’m a realist). But hey, you can’t make things happen without big dreams, and that’s what Watanabe is all about.

Watanabe wants to create a family structure for the FIG, with the FIG as the father, strong federations as the “elder brothers,” and developing federations as the young children. It’s kind of a beautiful way to picture it, with countries like the U.S. and Russia using some of their extensive resources to help new programs grow in strength, which at the end of the day will make the sport more competitive at the top which — let’s face it — is way more fun to watch.

His other goals include a world championships for juniors using continental championships as qualifiers (yes please), crazy high-tech computer scoring to “end injustices” and seek fairness in judging (it would be cool if it works, but there are already so many technical issues with the basic technology they have now, I can’t imagine this going smoothly at all), getting old people to do gymnastics (fantastic), creating outdoor gymnastics events including “beach gym” and “out gym” (ummm), lowering the cost of equipment so more developing nations can afford it (you go Watanabe!), sending federation leaders to business school (I have an image in my head of Valentina Rodionenko at Harvard Business School and I can’t breathe I’m laughing so hard), and creating a gymnastics TV channel (the stuff of dreams, make this a priority!!!).

As FIG president slash our new dad, Watanabe’s mission states that “My duty as father of [this] gymnastics family is to think and work together with gymnastics federations to develop our sport. It is just like as your father is for you.” While slightly hilarious, in theory, it’s a good idea; combined with his track record in Japan, I can see why he was elected by a huge margin. He seems to have a ton of passion for the sport, and while I don’t think many of his dreams will come to fruition, it’s nice to have someone thinking beyond what the sport already is.

Some other changes come to the FIG, with the biggest one probably Nellie Kim winning a spot as one of Watanabe’s vice presidents while Donatella Sacchi is now president of the women’s technical committee. Kim will work alongside Vasily Titov and Luo Chaoyi in her new role, and Sacchi, who comes to us from the Italian federation, represented Italy at the Olympic Games in 1976 and has been a judge for women’s gymnastics at five Olympic Games, including in a supervisory role in Rio.

Sacchi ran uncontested after Kim had to give up the role with her own election to vice presidency, and has been building up her resume for the role over the past few years. Most other technical committee presidents remained in position, with Steve Butcher heading men’s, Nataliya Kuzmina heading rhythmic, Horst Kunze heading trampoline, and Rosy Taeymans heading acro, while Sergio Garcia Alcazar will now lead aerobic and Margaret Sikkens Ahlquist will now lead gymnastics for all.

It’ll be an interesting quad with new leaders on top of a brand-new Olympic qualification system, but as someone who enjoys the excitement and drama that comes with change, I can’t wait to see the direction the sport ends up taking with our new dad in charge.

Article by Laurne Hopkins

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17 thoughts on “A New Era in Gymnastics

  1. Oh, I am 100% HERE FOR gymnastics for olds! (I had this thought wistfully last night since for some reason I’ve had it in my head that I want to be able to to a switch leap full, because reasons??? I’m… 34…? This is in no way relevant to me? Why?) I think this would be awesome, both for bush league wannabes like myself and for giving ex-elites/NCAAs something to look forward to other than coaching and whatnot.

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    • LOL. Yes his plan is like “everyone 65+ should be doing gymnastics!” and I’m like YAAAAS, I mean obviously it’ll probably be super basic stuff (NO AMANARS GRANDMA STOP) but still super cool and a great way to keep people fit!

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      • I’m 55; I’ve always been a gymnastics wannabe (I took a gymnastics P.E. elective in high school but was hampered by the twin issues of not liking heights and not liking to go upside down in the air), and I would *love* a basic gymnastics class for people my age! I’m in reasonably good shape but I could definitely use more core strength, and I think gymnastics workouts would be great for that and a lot of fun, too. There is an adult beginner class in my area but I’m afraid to try it because I suspect that I would have 25 – 30 years on the others in the class and even an in-shape 55-year-old is not a 30-year-old. But I could aspire to baby versions of the routines like those done by Johanna Quaas.

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        • Yeah, that would be awesome…there was another video recently of Germans in their 70s-80s doing basic vaults with roll-outs and everything, it’s awesome and should be how people stay in shape! It’s the most fun way. I’m 30 and I’m actually terrified of adult gymnastics classes because none of them seem very structured for beginners, but I do a beginner trampoline class that’s more one-on-one which I LOVE.

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    • I love this too!!! Because older people love gymnastics too … and those of us who did it as kids will ALWAYS love it!! Two kids later, I’m still doing it for fun. It’s like crack … you just can’t give it up!!

      This guy’s passion is what we need! Hurray! Thanks for the great article, Lauren!

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      • They actually already do. It’s called the Youth Olympic Games. It’s held every 4 years in conjunction with the actual winter games. So the next Youth Games are in 2018

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        • What I mean is that it would be in the olympic year for the new seniors. For example, if this existed in 2012 Katelyn Ohashi and Lexie Priessman probably would’ve probably won everything. Also, I think more countries would send their gymnasts. The Youth Olympic Games isn’t used by the USA and normally (in the past two) Russian’s have won. It does shadow some upcoming talent, and I think the reason the US doesn’t send girls is because it’s normally around the time of U.S. Nationals and it wouldn’t really be a competition juding by the 2014 YOG.

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  2. I realize that he’s Japanese and not Chinese, but I hope he can have some influence over the low ball E scores the Chinese women received at the last Olympics. I appreciate that he has ideas and that we’ll have a new era of gymnastics ahead of us!

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  3. Given how sports media is heavily male centric and gymnastics and its fandom is perceived as feminine, it’s hard to gymnastics getting more popular. Hopefully it’s not as bad in other countries as it is in the US, but just the other day game 4 of the WNBA finals (go Lynx!) was on ESPN2 and the second the game finished they ended coverage of the WNBA and switched to talking about the NFL. Women’s sports/sports that have a female fan base just do not get taken seriously.

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    • Ummm, no. The stars of the Summer Olympics are always female gymnasts. The stars of the Winter Olympics are always female figure skaters. This year, out of the top five most searched for athletes of the Olympics, three were female and two were male, with one not even counting due to the Rio scandal (the five being Simone biles, Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte). The poster girl for the US in Sochi was Gracie Gold and if we delve into international sports stars than it was Yulia Lipnitskaya. And it’s like that every olympics. In 1976 the winter/summer pair for sporting stars were Dorothy Hamill and Nadia Comaneci for example. If you’re talking about basketball, baseball, hockey and football (national league sports) than yes they’re highly male centric. But Olympic sports, women are taken extremely seriously. All anyone talked about Rio was Simones Power and ability. The Williams sisters, Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela shiffrin and Allyson Felix have also received similar acclaim in their sports.

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      • That comment was about sports in general, not the Olympics. The new FIG president said he wants to make gymnastics more popular than soccer, but it’s never going to happen unless the media makes female-driven sports as important as male-driven sports. The Olympics are different from mainstream sports. Women get a lot of attention during the Olympics but that happens for about two weeks at a time every two years. You can’t argue that gymnastics and skating are even 5% as popular in a non-Olympic year compared to during the actual Games. In non-Olympic years, most people tune in to nationals or worlds on TV if they’re flipping through channels and happen to see it on, and male sports on at the same time do far better in the ratings. There’s no comparing the two. Almost a billion people watched the FIFA world cup finals; gymnastics pulls in maybe 50 million worldwide at the Olympics. Nearly 20 million people watch every baseball playoff game in the U.S., and fewer than 4 million people in the same country watched the WAG Olympic Trials this summer. There’s literally no comparison. The media is 100% driven by mainstream male sports in the U.S. and worldwide. The only instance I can think of where the tables were turned was the women’s FIFA world cup in 2015, which got more American viewers than NBA finals or the Stanley Cup, doubling viewers from 2011.

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  4. Sorry if I sound pessimistic but the only two goals that I see actually happening is junior worlds (which would for one be amazingly cool and two, why not because almost every single olympic sport has a junior world championship) and lowering cost of equipment for developing gymnastics countries. The latter would need more time than the former, but out of the goals listed I think those two are the only ones that I can see happening over time. If he can make all of his goals happen I would be so happy for him and excited for the direction of the sport.

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