On Not Sending Gymnasts to Worlds

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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 Chusovitinainvaluable 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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34 thoughts on “On Not Sending Gymnasts to Worlds

  1. Which competitions have prize money? And how much money would that be? It always seemed to me that gymnastics was the kind of sport to only reward in brand sponsorships and state funding (depending on the country).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Both Vendula and Adela Merkova retired? At the same time? Do you know the story behind that? (I couldn’t find anything when I searched the site – did try!)

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    • Yeah, Vendula sadly had to retire due to a medical issue that forced her to miss two months of training. Unfortunately it’s best for her to just not be training/competing right now. Adela injured her elbow at Euros and was impatient with coming back from that, but I think also not having her sister around kind of dampened her spirits. 😦 So sad. They were so promising.

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  3. So given this, what’s your thought on the strongest nations versus more minor meets? I know there are a lot of fans of these countries, particularly the US, who think their gymnasts should have the opportunity to compete in more than three or four meets per gymnast per year (including domestic competitions), as they on average work the hardest of any gymnasts in their country, but get the fewest opportunities to show it off. In the US’ case, between the limited schedule, shrinking team sizes, and the overabundance of excellent gymnasts, there are probably several gymnasts who will make the national team this quad but never actually compete in an international assignment. But if these countries start attending World Cups and minor friendlies more heavily, they raise the standard of the field to the point that the kind of athlete you’re describing probably won’t succeed there either.

    I suppose the US could solve this problem somewhat by expanding its domestic schedule – making team selections for Worlds, Jesolo, etc. open, broadcast competitions rather than closed camps, and adding a domestic reranking meet like Winter Cup or having US WAG participate in open elite divisions at JO regular season meets (such as the one at HNI). Having these in place of many of the national team camps would probably help foster some desperately-needed openness in the national team system as well. But what about the other countries?

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    • Bigger countries could take over the world cups, but probably won’t. Big countries also don’t have unlimited funds, which is why they too have to select which meets to attend, and the U.S. focuses on larger meets with team components (Jesolo, Pac Rims, Pan Ams) as well as the occasional all-around meet. The world apparatus cups aren’t super appealing to most big countries because there’s no team aspect, and in the U.S., the gymnasts can’t even take the cash prizes because most are trying to maintain NCAA eligibility. In 2019-2020, there will be a little bit of an upswing in world apparatus cup attendance because they’ll serve as Olympic qualifiers for individuals, but with most already qualifying through worlds in 2019, these spots will mostly be for whoever’s left over. Almost no one will skip out on trying to qualify as an all-arounder at worlds in 2019 when the specs for trying to qualify as a specialist at the world cups is almost impossible (only four spots exist, one per winner of each event in the series). If top countries WERE to fully take over world cups, it’d suck for the lower-level programs, but I mean, they’ve been around for decades and it hasn’t happened yet. You do get the Chinese sending a couple occasionally, or Ponor/Iordache will show up and win tons of medals, but for the most part these meets have always allowed for not as high-performing countries to also get on the podium.

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      • wait don’t the countries who qualify a team in 2018 or 2019 HAVE to go through the world cups or continental championships to qualify individuals? also with the inclusion of the apparatus world cups (not the world challenge cups) having one spot for the winner of each event + continental champs having spots for AA and event winners (or it may even be medalists, I’d have to check) the number of slots available for “+ 1” qualification (specialist isn’t necessarily the best description) is actually most of the individual spots IIRC.

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        • All of the countries with full teams receive invitations to the world all-around cups, which is how most will hope to qualify one individual spot. For the second spot, most will utilize continental championships. Although most countries with full teams will not have enough depth to qualify two individuals outside of the team. The bigger countries like the U.S., Russia, and China will, but countries like France and Italy have a hard enough time filling out the spots on a full team. Even in 2016, most teams would’ve done well with just four, and the fifth athlete was kind of just there ‘for show’. With all of their best athletes going to be needed for the team, there’s no way these countries have the depth to ALSO qualify others on the outside of the team. At most, half of the countries with full teams will also earn two individual spots.

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    • (note that by “open, broadcast competition” I don’t necessarily mean a full televised arena meet like Nationals. I know those get expensive fast. It could be held at the Ranch or any other training site, it would just need to meet two criteria. 1. members of the public, including at minimum gymnasts’ families and journalists, are allowed to come watch and 2. video of the competition with scores is made available to the public in some manner, whether that’s a live webcast, a TV broadcast, individual routine videos uploaded to Youtube, or what have you.)

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    • No, I didn’t see that, but Jess and I did have a private convo about it and were like LETS DEBATE EACH OTHER ON THE WORLDS PREVIEW SHOW!!! 😂 I didn’t know they already said something about it though…I’m assuming Jess did? She was so mad when only two were announced! But I personally saw tons of comments on this site, on social media, and in Tumblr posts and I felt instead of responding to everyone, this was the best way to go about it.

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  4. Thank you, that is a very well put together perspective. Do you think it becomes more important the year before the olympics (to qualify spots) for countries to elect to send full teams?

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    • Definetly, the year after Olympics isnt as important for any federation in general, the year before Olympics is when you want to have the best team. Sometimes in the year after Olympics you get suprise winners that you never thought they will win gold on an apparatus;-) like Mustafina on beam and many others;-)

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    • Yup, of course. That’s why countries will save funding to send full teams to these meets, and why they consider a year like this one with no relation to the Olympics kind of a waste.

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  5. Lauren, just chiming in to say that this was a helpful perspective; I didn’t fully understand the cost and logistical factors driving these decisions to hold back some spots.

    As an American sorely irked by four-per-country/two-per-country rules, I’d like to see some of these unused spots redistributed to countries who can fill them, however. Given how many gymnasts need more international experience (99.5% of them), it’d be great to have more attendees from ANY country – whether the unused spots go to up-and-coming programs like Norway, who can fund them, or to the U.S./Russia/China/etc., who can send extra people who are or will soon be world-class.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I wish there was more of a way the FIG or some of the top countries could help out with the development/funding of rising countries. The FIG has wanted to implement some programs to help out, but aside from the occasional training session with a big-time coach, nothing ever really happens.

      And yes, it would be great to see the unused spots go to other countries who would like to send more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry for the massive reply.

        1. Qualification Procedures
        It is totally nonsensical to hold what is dubbed an “individual World Championships” and still pigeonhole qualifying procedures to the standards used for full, team-oriented Championships. Likewise, with New Life and the new opportunities for non-team representatives to compete at the Olympics, the preliminary round has fallen into this same category. Why should Maggie Nichols sit out UB in prelims when team medals are awarded regardless of whatever total is amassed by American gymnasts in prelims? Under 2015/2016 rules, prelims should have always been 6-6-4 with the 6th slot on every event open for the sake of individual qualification and unable to be used toward TF qualification. Under the new rules, my feeling is that a ranking system needs to be implemented and that for a hypothetical 2017 Worlds, the top X in AA and each event with a score of X+ qualifies, irrespective of the country she is from, with all federations at least 1 spot. For the Olympics, the top 8 countries from the qualifying meets should compete 4-3-3 in one round of competition, the Team Final. Prior to that, the preliminary round will consist of all qualified gymnasts (4-6 per country under the existing rules), any of which can be designated by those 8 countries for their 4-member TF lineups. Again, having to consider the convoluted rules for individual vs. team qualification for the sole purpose of a preliminary round that will serve only to cut 4 teams from competing in a 2nd, New Life round, is unnecessary.

        2. Developmental Programs
        As far as the spread of knowledge amongst Federations, this should be the #1 goal of the FIG right now. The solution to crippled programs is not to cut team sizes to fit the lowest common denominator. It’s to admit why these programs have been obliterated and look for ways to mitigate those factors. Sport should not be influenced to this high of a degree by economics. Forcing (for examples of how far orgs go to force the top countries and athletes into their agendas, see figure skating) top Federations to participate in both a developmental and elite World Cup circuit, to ‘tax’ them for the development of host-nation supplemental funds that give each Federation free accommodations for 2 gymnasts and 1 coach to all World Cups, Championships, and Continental Games, and hosting a multi-nation “Friendship Tour” stop each year based on prior year’s results (for example, teams 1, 3, 10, and 12 go to one, teams 2, 4, 9, and 11 the next) where both the host and FIG/WTC hold sessions on Technique, Artistry, and Health/Wellness would be some ideas, with philanthropic efforts used to fund scholarships, grants, and regional seminars. For instance, ROU should have had the opportunity to bring their coach and 1-2 gymnasts to learn ‘shoulder flexibility in senior-level athletes,’ been awarded grants used for grips and to fly [insert a top UB coach entered into an FIG pool of diplomatic experts] to work at their regional center 1 week each quarter, and been able to find out in ‘maximizing your E score’ how to create the most efficient UB lineup.

        3. Equity in Scoring
        Lastly, when you can’t contend for a team medal or AA birth without a DTY one quad and then it gets devalued so that you now need in-bar stalder work, you create major barriers and discouragement. The COP needs to become much more of an evergreen set of values, with close attention paid to opening routes for gymnasts of various strengths to score well. This means finalizing the value structure of vault, as the difficulty between a DTY and DTT has not changed since the 1st of each was executed. Somehow, a Front Layout was as difficult to learn as a 1.5TY and one minor mistake away from a DTY in 2000, but became as easy as an FTY and a fall away from a DTY by 2006. That is inexcusable. Komrskova should have the opportunity to be *given* points for her above-the-requirements’ execution of an FTY that brings her score near a Khorkina-esque DTY that is properly *penalized*.

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  6. There’s been a few times when Australia hasn’t sent a women’s team to Worlds eg 1993 and 2013 – note these were also the year after the Olympics when retirements depleted the national team, yet there were still girls who were capable of competing at the highest level. Even in 2005, when the Worlds were in Melbourne, we only sent 3 girls. Apparently that decision was more about who was capable of making finals rather than $ though. Personally I thought it was a shame that someone else wasn’t chosen for a home Worlds, but there you go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, this year could be similar. Their internal qualification is pretty high for individual years. They’d rather get medals or finals and success but if no one is able to do that they don’t see it as worth it to send someone. 😐

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  7. How does a federation earn revenue? Does that money come from the government? Club membership fees? Private investors? Forgive my ignorance, but how did Norway get to be a wealthy federation?

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    • In the U.S. it’s literally ALL from professional memberships…like athletes, coaches, and judges all pay huge fees to be members, and then clubs also have financial obligations to be USAG clubs. So the U.S. federation is essentially privately funded, but most other federations in the world are nationally funded. Norway has a crap ton of money as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and a good amount of that money is funneled into sports programs, including those that aren’t top performers, so despite them not having a strong gym program, they still have a great amount of resources compared to other programs, like Brazil, which has an incredible program, but one that lacks so much, and could be even better with more help from the government.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a great article! As a Brazilian, I can only say that Pedro not making the worlds team is the best for her. She competed at the Pan American Championships in early August, but her performance was extremely weak (even though she walked away with a bronze medal on the Balance Beam). Going to worlds would only make her feel bad about her scores. She’s underprepared and staying home is the best thing that could happen to her, though. Besides, we have a new head coach and he set some goals for the gymnasts to be named to the worlds team. Apparently, only Flávia Saraiva, Rebeca Andrade and Thais Fidelis managed to reach the desired scores. Daniele Hypólito didn’t have a great weekend at the selection camp, and then she knew she was out and signed the contract with the TV show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! I agree about Pedro. And yes, for an individual worlds, lots of countries set internal standards and then hold gymnasts at home if they don’t meet them, even if it means they won’t send a full team. So far for the Netherlands, only Eythora has met the criteria for worlds, and for Australia, no one has met it so far!

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  9. Ireland has a huge gymnastics following & the sport is growing rapidly. We now have a national sports centre with world class faciliities, is the future bright for Ireland? We also have many Russian, Ukranian & Romanian coaches in the clubs. Do you know if Ireland are sending a WAG team? Thanks

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