I’ve seen a lot of talk recently, both in the comments section on this website as well as all over social media, about how “unfair” it is and that it’s a “waste” when countries aren’t taking advantage of all four WAG spots available to them at world championships this year.
The talk came when Brazil announced they were going to send only two gymnasts to Montreal, 2016 Olympian Rebeca Andrade and first-year senior Thais Fidelis. Two of the country’s other top gymnasts, 2016 Olympians Jade Barbosa and Flavia Saraiva, are both dealing with injuries at the moment, while Daniele Hypolito — who just won the gold on beam at the challenge cup in Varna — will be appearing in a Brazilian reality show and won’t be available to compete.
Without any of these three in the mix, the Brazilian federation decided that since no one else is really internationally competitive, only Andrade and Fidelis met their internal standards despite there being several other senior elite gymnasts on hand and ready to go, including Olympic alternate Carolyne Pedro, sixth all-around at nationals this summer, and veteran Leticia Costa, a member of the 2015 worlds team who finished fourth at nationals.
Neither Pedro nor Costa would be capable of making the all-around final ahead of their two stronger teammates who are capable of multiple points ahead on a bad day, and neither would come close to making an apparatus final. Should the Brazilian federation choose to send them to worlds, it would be for qualifications only, meaning the money spent on flights and hotel rooms for a week would fund just a couple of minutes of competition time apiece.
Isn’t it worth it for the experience, though?
For some countries, yes. Countries whose federations have the cash to send four gymnasts halfway across the world to spend a couple of weeks in an expensive city even if they don’t have a chance in hell of making a single final do it because (a) they can afford it, and (b) the experience of competing at a major international event is invaluable.
This is why Norway will send four female gymnasts to Montreal despite not one all-arounder reaching a score of 50 this year, with the top score so far currently ranked 69th when looking at senior gymnasts ranked two-per-country, and 1269th overall. The Norwegian federation is a wealthy one, and while it’s practically statistically impossible for any of their gymnasts to make a single final this year, they find sending a full roster a worthwhile choice.
Programs like Norway that are small but full of wealth and resources will send full teams to multiple international competitions each year despite having almost no shot at getting past qualifications. Then you have programs like the United States and Russia who wouldn’t think twice about skipping world championships, as they’re in the running for large medal hauls at the most prestigious competition in any non-Olympic year.
But between these two, the majority of programs are in a sort of limbo. They may have a medal contender or two at the top, but the majority of their prospects are gymnasts who might be good enough to maybe make an all-around final on a good day, but wouldn’t actually be threats for a medal or even an event final. Additionally, as small programs, these federations also don’t receive a ton of national funding. This often forces them to make difficult decisions about sending gymnasts to international meets, and worlds — especially in an individual year with no Olympic berths on the line — isn’t always the most worthwhile for them.
Brazil, Australia, Hungary, Belgium, and the Czech Republic are a few examples of these middling programs with tons of talent and maybe even some medal potential at the higher end of the talent pool, but they’re not quite up there with the top dogs. It’s tough for them to justify sending a full squad knowing that a few minutes of competition in qualifications is the best they’ll probably see from some athletes who aren’t yet major contenders. Is it really worth it for them to spend thousands of dollars for them to get to compete once in a ginormous field where they’ll be overshadowed by stronger gymnasts and overlooked by the judges before immediately flying back home?
This is why for many of these countries, the world apparatus cups are more ideal. A federation would rather send multiple gymnasts to multiple world cups where the field is weaker, practically guaranteeing finals spots to even some of the lowest-level competitors, an incredible opportunity considering each athlete who gets a spot in the finals has prize money coming to her.
It’s much more financially feasible for smaller programs to send lower-level gymnasts to competitions like these where they can compete multiple times, make multiple finals, and win multiple medals and thousands of dollars. The Slovenian gymnasts, for example, would be lucky to make a single final at worlds. Even Teja Belak, the 2016 Olympian who excels on vault, isn’t among the best gymnasts in the world on vault due to lower difficulty.
But so far this year the Slovenian women have earned 12 finals spots and five medals at world cups and challenge cups, and more important than the money that they’ve earned from these rankings, they get to go home to their federations and show them quantitative, tangible results from international competitions under the FIG umbrella, leading directly to the opportunity for greater funding. On paper, five world cup medals looks much better than finishing 58th in the all-around and 15th on vault at world championships, as Belak did in 2015, so even while the world cups aren’t as well-attended or as prestigious as world championships, for gymnasts from smaller programs, they’re worth a great deal.
I’ll use the Czech Republic as an example to the contrary. The Czech federation is so financially restricted, they can afford to send gymnasts to European Championships and then to worlds, but nothing else (and for worlds, they only pay up through the all-around final because it’s too expensive to pay for hotels through the end of event finals). The federation can’t afford competitions beyond these two meets, and so it’s up to clubs and sometimes even the gymnasts’ families to get them to the world cups and friendly meets that give them experience along the way.
The Czech federation sacrifices the smaller world cup meets for the experience and prestige of the larger meets, though the reason the gymnasts and their clubs are willing to self-fund world cup meets throughout the season is because they need those smaller meets to feel prepared for the big ones. This spring, the super promising Adela and Vendula Merkova — who sadly had to retire this summer — went to the Doha world cup with their club, and while their difficulty was weak in comparison to some of the other gymnasts, both made the floor final where they hit fantastic routines to place ahead of seven-time Olympian Oksana Chusovitina, invaluable experience that helped Vendula tremendously as she went into Euros.
So when you have a girl like Brazil’s Pedro who won’t come near a single final in Montreal, is it really worth sending her to an individual worlds “for the experience” when they could send her and several other athletes to Europe for a few weeks to knock off two or three world cups at once? Not only would they get experience in front of international brevet judges at an official FIG meet, but they’d also basically be stars there, getting full and undivided attention in smaller, weaker fields, which is incredibly beneficial as these athletes move forward in their careers. They get a moment in the spotlight, gaining international experience in both qualifications and finals, competing in a high-pressure situation with medals and money on the line, giving them far more experience than being one of 200+ gymnasts in the qualifications field at worlds would.
For countries that don’t have endless resources available to send gymnasts to every competition out there, there has to be a trade-off. Either they sacrifice all of the world cups and medals and prizes to get to say “I placed a solid 58th in all-around qualifications at worlds, the most prestigious gymnastics competition of the year!” or they sacrifice the prestige of worlds for things that can actually make a difference in the program’s funding. Some countries do value the prestige of worlds more than the medals and prizes from world cups, and that’s great! If that’s what they find more beneficial to them, then it’s absolutely worth it, whether they’re in the mix for medals or not. But most of these middling countries value the world cups and other similar competitions where they get more bang for their buck, especially in a year where they’re not required to send a full team to fight for an Olympic spot.
Next year and in 2019, it’ll be totally different. Brazil, Belgium, Hungary, and other nations will want to send as many athletes to worlds as they’re allowed, and that’s where weaker gymnasts who wouldn’t make waves in an individual year could come in to fill in spots where teams need help. But this year, many countries have absolutely valued the smaller meets more than they value worlds.
You have to remember that not every program has a realistic goal of world medals or finals like the United States, Russia, and other top countries do. Often, federations are making difficult decisions about what’s best for their gymnasts and the overall health of the program, and sometimes skipping the post-Olympic worlds is the best option when they have other goals and opportunities on the line.
Take Thailand, for example. Thailand will send zero female gymnasts to worlds this year, and they’ve never had a gymnast qualify for the Olympic Games. Sending a gymnast to the Olympics in the near future is almost certainly not going to happen, and yet the program has been ramping up resources in the hopes of getting stronger because they’re hosting the Southeast Asian Games in 2025 and desperately want to win a team medal.
Part of Thailand realizing its goal in the next decade will be getting more international experience, but that may or may not include competing at world championships, and that makes total sense. Most other countries have much stronger programs than Thailand, so you’re probably thinking “but a gymnast from Thailand with a maximum of 45 all-around isn’t the same as Pedro, who could be a big help to Brazil in the future at the world and Olympic level” and you’re right.
The point is that like Thailand, Brazil and these other middling countries have different goals compared to top countries like the United States or Russia, and like Thailand, sending gymnasts with no chance of making it past qualifications at an individual world championships has few benefits in terms of reaching these goals. With limited funding, the Brazilian federation would rather approach these goals in a way that’s more financially efficient and that makes sense for the long-term health of the program, and sending gymnasts like Pedro or Costa to worlds this year is not going to do that.
For top programs and for most fans of the sport, worlds is the be-all, end-all of elite competition. But for a majority of countries within the sport, it’s literally not even close. I know people will probably come back and say “but it’s not fair to the girls who work so hard!” and you’re right. It’s really not. It sucks, and in a perfect world, every gymnast who works hard — which is literally every elite gymnast in existence, and so the four-gymnast maximum this year in itself sucks and is unfair — would get the chance to compete at worlds.
But life isn’t fair, and sometimes people have to make difficult decisions that don’t result in an ideal situation for everyone. Disappointment and unfairness is a part of life, something we’ll experience time and again as humans, and something gymnasts will experience time and again in their sport. Just know that no one is actively trying to hurt these gymnasts by not sending them to worlds.
There are so many things going on that lead to these tough decisions, and if Brazil could justify spending thousands of dollars to send gymnasts for experience, they would. What’s unfair in a larger sense of international sport is that they can’t justify it because despite success at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, national funding for sports and other social programs in Brazil has decreased significantly since the Games. The wealthy countries will stay at the top, programs in developing countries like Brazil will fight to stay competitive without equal access to resources, and talented gymnasts from programs across the globe will continue getting left behind.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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