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