Séverine Émeraude Djala Abaka, Rest In Power
I look forward to watching the African continental meets every year. Whether it’s the gymnastics-only championships or the multi-sport African Games, it’s a rare moment in the sport when gymnasts from the region are the sole focus of a competition, especially when for some athletes, these meets are basically the Olympics.
Though the women’s field was small this year, it meant every athlete got significant airtime on the live stream, so in addition to the top three nations in attendance – Egypt, South Africa, and Algeria, all vying for Olympic berths – we also got to see Cameroon, one of the younger federations on the international scene that only just got back into continental competition in 2018 after previously being suspended by the FIG for a period of time due to unpaid license fees.
The team wasn’t at a very high level overall, and there were lots of deductions for poor execution and falls, but each gymnast had standout moments, as Ajara Petsadjui nailed a punch front mount on beam, Celestine Nanga Ntyo’o showed off tremendous potential (and joy!) on floor, and Lisa Mebar hit her handspring vault and demonstrated great fight on beam, where there were a few falls, but she had a really great save on a full turn in front attitude.
I was wondering, though, why we didn’t see one gymnast, Séverine Djala Abaka. At 18, she made her debut at the 2018 African Championships, where she qualified to the vault final by default as one of only six gymnasts competing two vaults, and then a year later she returned at the African Games, where she benefitted from the two-per-country rule to make the finals on both vault and beam, finishing eighth and seventh, respectively.
Sadly, I didn’t have to look long to find out what happened. When I checked the Cameroonian federation’s Facebook page, I saw a number of tributes to Djala Abaka, and upon further googling, learned that she had suffered an injury after falling from the uneven bars on May 17, fracturing her neck. The emergency surgery was initially thought to be a success, with Djala Abaka regaining consciousness and becoming alert enough to visit with her teammates so she could wish them luck before they departed for Cairo to compete at the African Championships, but then she shockingly passed away. She was just 21.
Tragic accidents that result in death are relatively rare in gymnastics, thankfully, especially given how inherently dangerous the sport is. But that danger is increased considerably when athletes don’t have the equipment, facilities, physical rehabilitation and medical care, and other resources they need to both succeed and stay healthy, which unfortunately is something the national program in Cameroon is lacking, as are most of the developing nations throughout the world.
In Cameroon, the gymnasts train in a hall in the capital city of Yaoundé. Their vault is a decades-old horse that belongs in a museum, they train and compete their floor tumbling on a foam puzzle mat over a parquet wood floor, and when it’s time to work on beam, the coaches move an old, shaky piece of equipment out into the middle of the floor exercise space, with the foam floor doubling as a landing surface for beam falls. MAG athlete Samuel Paulson is a wildly talented tumbler who can land a triple full on the hard foam floor, but he trains his double fronts using a mini trampoline positioned near the end of the mat, and adjusting to the sprung floor at international competitions can be a challenge. The gym’s crash mats are thin and torn, providing little protection from the floor beneath, and aside from a bunch of wooden stall bars lining the walls, there’s nothing in the way of equipment for strength training, conditioning, or drills.
With bare-bones equipment and no funding, the Cameroonian gymnasts must rely heavily on their coaches to figure out a balance between learning the more difficult elements while staying safe. Four women lead the national teams for both MAG and WAG, with Annie-Flore Yekel the most experienced thanks to a one-year training course supervised by Swiss experts as well as a six-month internship in Germany. According to Yekel, international competitions are often the only chance the gymnasts get to work on modern apparatuses. At home, they do what they can with what they have, though while their potential is outstanding, the coaches and athletes are desperate for “real” equipment because no matter how hard they work, they’ll never reach a level comparable to the top African nations without it.
The situation in Cameroon is probably the most dire I’ve seen, but the disparity between the world’s top programs and all of those that are still in foundational or developmental stages even at the higher levels is vast. I know of one international gymnast who seriously injured her leg while training vault because she hit it on the edge of the too-narrow pit when landing. But isn’t she lucky to have any sort of pit? Because most have none at all. Then there’s Dipa Karmakar, who trained front handsprings on vault using a discarded scooter as a springboard and a stack of mats as her table, and Yamilet Peña, who injured her ankle stepping in a hole in one of her landing mats. Visiting gymnasts to a Peruvian gym complained about the equipment getting soggy whenever the humidity rose because of a partial exposure to the outdoors, but the local athletes are simply used to it, and the Slovenians at one point didn’t have enough space for a vault runway in their gym, and had to begin their runs outside.
I can go on and on about the stories you hear from gyms all over the world that are lacking in many ways. Even worse are the stories about athletes and coaches fighting for better circumstances, but finding themselves in a catch-22, where the only way they are able to get more funding is through international success, but international success is nearly impossible when these gymnasts have to compete against athletes who have their pick of a variety of uneven bars brands while they’re swinging on an 80s-era men’s high bar over a mat that might as well be a blanket.
Just two days before I learned of Djala Abaka’s tragic death, Naveen Daries of South Africa qualified to the Olympic Games with an all-around score of 43.850, sparking a debate of whether a gymnast who scores so low “deserves” to compete at the Olympic Games, not when countries like Canada, Italy, France, and Great Britain are “only” allowed to bring four athletes instead of five.
Now to be fair, Daries only scored so low because she had a bad day – she broke a 49 at world championships in 2019, and again at her country’s national trials last month, but then fell on every event at the African Championships, leaving her far behind what she’s capable of reaching. But even if a 43.850 was the best she or any other gymnast in her place could manage, is it really fair to judge that score against the scores 10 points higher that are regularly achieved by gymnasts who have every resource at their fingertips, who train on the most advanced equipment, who have physical therapists and massage therapists waiting for them when they’re done training for the day, who travel around the world to a dozen competitions and training camps every year, and who have a majority of their financial costs covered by their federations, governments, parents, or – for the most elite – endorsements? Not that there still aren’t hardships and sacrifices even for the most well-off in the sport, but you can’t even begin to compare between the strongest programs and those that have gymnasts learning elite-level skills on mats the top athletes wouldn’t even consider for yoga.
South Africa is one of the more “luxurious” of the developing programs right now. The gymnasts who train at the Johannesburg Gymnastics Center – including 2020 Olympic qualifiers Daries and Caitlin Rooskrantz as well as nearly all of their national-level teammates – don’t have access to the newest or most state-of-the-art equipment, and they’re often crowded in with dozens of their young clubmates, limiting their overall time on each apparatus.
Still, it’s a modern and complete enough gym to keep the athletes competitive against other growing programs. The top gymnasts in South Africa also get to train in Europe for a few weeks every year, but while Rooskrantz says it would be tempting to train in these more “pristine” conditions year-round, she still has a lot of work to do in South Africa – not only for herself, but for the sport. According to her coach, Ilse Roets-Pelser, seeing Rooskrantz and now Davies qualify to the Olympic Games has made big gymnastics dreams achievable for the younger generations who are just getting started on their journeys…and not only is it hugely motivational, but the funding that will come pouring in will help the gym get the additional resources they need to keep producing at a high level, which in turn should create more success.
The South African program is a great example of just how much representation at the highest levels of the sport matters, and why quota and tripartite berths are necessary, not an evil plot the FIG has designed to “steal” Olympic spots from countries that already have multiple gymnasts attending.
After a few appearances at the Olympic Games and world championships in the early 1960s, South Africa disappeared from top-level international competition until it returned to worlds in 1993, where the country’s two gymnasts finished 72nd and 89th out of 96 all-around competitors. The team eventually got a gymnast back to the Olympics in 2004, when Zandre Labuschagne qualified through a continental berth, and the talent level continued to grow thanks to her success. The South Africans who watched her as children grew up to become particularly strong over the past decade, especially at continental meets and the Commonwealth Games, and in 2017, Claudia Cummins put up the country’s best world championships finish in history when she placed 34th in all-around qualifications.
Unfortunately, South Africa’s Olympic Committee stopped allowing athletes to attend the Olympics based on the continental representation quota, which is why gymnasts who technically should have made it to the Games in 2012 and 2016 ended up staying home. But this quad, Rooskrantz made history when she qualified outright through world championships, and with the continental berth the result of an actual competition instead of being what the Olympic Committee would consider a “pity spot,” Daries is also allowed to compete in Tokyo.
Just 28 years after its return to international competition, South Africa has risen steadily from the bottom 25% of the rankings at worlds to placing two gymnasts at a single Olympics. It wasn’t an overnight journey, but rather a bit of a building blocks process thanks to each success along the way giving them the impetus to open more gyms, get better equipment, train more coaches, and gain additional funding and resources to keep the program growing, which they’ll keep doing until they’ll hopefully one day be in a place to get a full team and medal contenders to the Games.
This is why continental representation is vital to the sport, and why lower-scoring gymnasts are “deserving” of things like continental quota spots and the opportunity to compete at world championships, despite not being competitive. The top gymnasts in these programs may not be performing at an elite or high-performance level, but look at what they’re working with. Would Simone Biles be landing triple doubles on a foam puzzle floor or trying a Yurchenko double pike off of an ancient horse with no foam pit? Strike that, it’s Simone – so maybe. But the point remains that some of the most talented gymnasts in the world could be laboring away in gyms with equipment so terrible that it hurts more than helps, and we’ll never know what they’re truly capable of. Cameroon’s Samuel Paulson, for example, trains this routine on an inch-thick foam mat over a wooden surface. Imagine what he could do with consistent access to a real floor?
And that’s unfair – not a country that has already qualified a full four-person team being unable to qualify a fifth spot, but gymnasts in programs around the world that can’t even imagine half of the resources the top teams consider essential, gymnasts who have to build their own apparatuses out of discarded trash because their gyms can’t afford actual equipment, and gymnasts who die during a routine training session because despite their talent and athleticism, an incredibly dangerous sport can become lethal when gymnasts don’t have even the most basic necessities available to them.
We didn’t need the death of a gymnast from a developing program to put things in perspective, but one point I think this tragedy drives home following the “does Africa really deserve quota spots” discourse is that the small programs, especially those still in the foundational stages, are operating at such a horribly disparate level compared to those that regularly make finals and win medals at major international competitions. So despite the overall lower scores, and despite only sending 12 eligible contenders for two continental berths compared to Europe’s 75 for the same amount, what African and other developmental programs around the world “deserve” when compared to what the wealthy, established programs “deserve” is moot. You truly cannot compare a gymnast trying to learn a double back on a hard surface to one who has been throwing them off of a tumble track into a pit since she was a small child and say that the latter is “more deserving” of opportunities simply because she was born into circumstances that make her a better-scoring athlete today.
It’s hardly a sacrifice for a thriving program to only have four gymnasts competing instead of five, especially when the balance between the strongest athletes and the representative/quota athletes at the Olympic Games is heavily in favor of “the best.” Continental and tripartite berths account for 10 of the 98 total spots available for WAG athletes at the Olympic Games, and of the seven spots unofficially confirmed thus far, five are going to gymnasts who consistently have scores that match the gymnasts who qualified via the world championships in 2019.
The Olympic Games are supposed to represent unity, solidarity, and hope just as much as they exist as a high-level competition, and the literal reason the continental berths exist is to honor these values by making room for a few athletes who may finish at the bottom of the rankings, but will otherwise gain an opportunity and experience that could change the course of history for that athlete, her federation, her country, and her continent.
My heart is broken for Séverine Djala Abaka, for her family and loved ones, and for her teammates who all made their international debuts just days after learning of their friend’s death. All gymnasts deserve safe and modern facilities and equipment, and shouldn’t have to decide between training in a potentially dangerous environment or not training at all in the sport they love.
Article by Lauren Hopkins