When the Gymnastics Resources Disparity Turns Tragic

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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

27 thoughts on “When the Gymnastics Resources Disparity Turns Tragic

  1. My god this is awful…. I can’t help unfortunately because I’m a minor with no money at all, but I hope some clubs or federations notice this and can help them out. Rest in peace, Séverine Djala Abaka, I’m deeply sorry for you.

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    • I’m a grown adult with not enough money to spare for something like this so I feel ya. I know clubs get rid of equipment all the time so hopefully there’s someone out there who knows of anyone capable of making a donation instead of reselling…then there’s the shipping issue to consider, which I’m sure is expensive, but I’m hoping to talk to manufacturers of gym equipment who would know how to do this and know what the costs would be, and then maybe the gym community could fundraise. It’s such a horrifying story and such a preventable death. Even though gymnastics is a dangerous sport, it can be made so much safer and I want her teammates to have the best equipment possible going forward.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If you do end up finding a way to help developing programs get access to more resources, please post about it because I would love to help in any way I can financially, and I’m sure others would too.

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    • Thank you! I have a few coaches in the U.S. and abroad who are interested in helping out, so it’s just a matter of coordinating. As soon as I can figure something out I will post!

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  3. This is honestly probably one of the best articles you’ve ever written. I read the comment about why a gymnast should be allowed to qualify with such a low score and it made me sick, Because there’s more to gymnastics than just big scores and big names. Many of these smaller continental Meets and even smaller world cup events are some of the biggest meets these gymnasts will take part in and that alone is a major accomplishment. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I hope your followers don’t skip this one just because it doesn’t have live scores or big names in the article.

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  4. So you feel qualifications should be individually suited per country depending on programs, or new programs etc? DIfferent rules for different countries?

    ‘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.”

    Does that mean a gymnast who got a 43.850 who had better training environment, therapists, better equipment via training, etc should then have to stand by that score and not qualify? That score doesnt count because that gymnast has more ‘privilege’ but the gymnast who scores that same score, DOES qualify because of all you mentoned?

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    • No, I don’t believe different countries should have different qualification standards based on their privilege or lack thereof – I was explaining WHY the continental championships that qualify a handful of gymnasts to the Olympics sometimes do have these lower scores and why they shouldn’t be limited from getting opportunities like the Olympic Games just because their gymnasts didn’t have access to the same equipment and resources.

      Your question doesn’t even make sense because no gymnast from a ‘privileged’ program will ever qualify an athlete with anywhere near a 43. These larger programs hardly allow senior gymnasts who score this low to compete at national-level competitions, let alone be part of the national team or attend international meets and Olympic qualifiers.

      Of the 75 gymnasts who were eligible to qualify to Tokyo at Euros, the top 65 all earned above a 43.850, while the top two who qualified had scores in the 54-55 range. But at African Championships, the second of the top two scores for eligible athletes happened to be a 43.850, and the argument was that she doesn’t “deserve” to qualify because her scores didn’t match what the top European gymnasts were scoring. My response is that this athlete still deserves to qualify to the Olympics despite her low score because that’s literally why the continental and tripartite berths exist, to give opportunities to gymnasts from smaller programs who may not have the resources to qualify outright. And yet most of the continental berths have gone to more ‘privileged’ athletes anyway!

      Do we really need to attack the 2-3 athletes who will be going to Tokyo and who aren’t as strong as the majority of Olympic athletes for “stealing” these spots from “more deserving” or “more talented” European athletes? The problem isn’t with the athletes who benefit from a super narrow affirmative action initiative, it’s with this sport being inherently elitist to the point where it openly discourages gymnasts of lesser means from even trying. Those who DO try are absolutely deserving of the occasional breaks that come their way.

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    • The likelihood of qualifying is already different for different countries. Let’s take continental championships, for example. It is entirely probable that the third-placed person at Euros 2021 (where basically all eligible countries attended) will have a higher score than the second-placed person at Pan Ams 2021 (where not all eligible countries are going to attend, and there are also fewer gymnastics programs). The third-placed Euros competitor won’t qualify an Olympic berth, and the second-placed Pan Ams one will. That’s how the rules have been written. If you are part of a smaller program, you have a better chance of going to the Olympics at Pan Ams than you do at Euros. If the FIG wanted a minimum score, they could put one in, but in the meantime they haven’t. They are specifically attempting to ensure that all continents have some level of representation.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fantastic article. It’s great that we are reminded about the importance of inclusion and development. If there was a fundraising page set up, I would be happy to contribute. It is a shame that FIG doesn’t organise ex competition equipment going to some of the smaller programmes.

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    • Thank you! I’m hoping that the FIG will respond and do something, because they do handle some work with donations to developing programs, but they don’t generally make this public so it’s hard to say where their resources are going or how they decide who needs what. But clearly nothing has gone to Cameroon…and they even hosted a conference there a couple of years ago! I don’t want to start a fundraising page or anything because I truly don’t know what I’m doing, but if I can find someone who has experience trying to get equipment or monetary donations, I’d let them handle that part. I’ve heard that New Zealand has been doing a lot to get equipment to some of the developing programs in Oceania, so I may reach out to them and see if they can point me in the right direction.

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  6. The situation in Cameroon is probably the most dire I’ve seen…

    Um you do realize that Cameroon has quite a few other issues than gymnastics equipment? Like it should be the last thing on the list of priorities tbh. Tone deaf.

    Great I hope you get donations, and help the few gymnasts in Cameroon. But uh… yeah.

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    • This is a gymnastics blog, which is why I am addressing the situation with Cameroon’s national program and not all of the inequities that plague this country as well as a majority of people around the world. Shockingly, as humans we can care about and donate to efforts that address larger systemic issues like food insecurity and educational disparities and government corruption while also caring about protecting athletes.

      This article is about a gymnast who literally died because the equipment she trained on isn’t safe enough, and about wanting to help prevent this in the future. Yes, there are greater priorities in the world than giving gymnasts proper equipment, but the gymnastics community consistently donates to rich white American gymnasts all the time, so why not try to direct some of these efforts to people in the sport who are truly desperate? A GoFundMe for Riley and Jade’s nationals and trials travel has thousands of dollars in donations, the University of Alaska fundraised over $500,000 to keep their program running for just one year…it’s fine for me and others to share these links, no complaints there, yet it’s somehow “tone deaf” for me to ask gymnastics clubs and manufacturers to help donate a handful of used pieces of equipment to the training center in Cameroon so that their national team gymnasts don’t die? What a hot take.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I literally said after reading comments on another gymnastics blog that an article would be written here about why that gymnast “deserves” to go to the Olympics.

    Meanwhile, 2 U.S. gymnasts died while training in 2019. Been to any major U.S. city in the ‘bad parts’? Tragedy is everywhere and it’s VERY close to home.

    I understand your point of view, but it is a competition. Comparing a gymnast training 40 hours a week on fancy equipment vs 4 hours a week on trash is comparing biographies, not gymnastics.

    I am not interested in biographies when watching competitions. NBC clearly feels differently, as do you, but I will not be ashamed for my point of view. I appreciate your blog and perspective, but disagree.

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      • No stop calling racism stuff that is not racism. Stay with mez I’m going to try to make a difficult point in my second language pls. The concept of racism looses significance every time it’s applied when it’s actually not there. This person is not being racist, this person is being selfish and classist. This person doesn’t care about the starting point of people and equality. This person doesn’t understand privilege. This person is probably a liberal and considered their logic probably even racist, but this specific comment is not racist and if you accuse them of racism here, they will probably start thinking against anti racism. I understand where you are coming from, but you should discern people’s faults. This person is equally wrong as a racist one, but it’s a different thing and it’s important.

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  8. First and foremost: you’ll have plenty of “gymnastics” to watch at the Olympics. “Gymnastics” that will come from gymnasts who can score well over 50 points in the all-around. I’m sure you’ll love it.

    Now, second, remember that this sport is for everyone, not just for you. Gymnasts are not robots or computer programs. They live in places with wildly different cultures, ways of living and, yes, opportunities. I love biographies as much as I love results. So, I’m really, really glad that gymnasts who can make a difference with their BIOGRAPHIES will compete at the Olympics because this is a big chunk of what I’m looking for. I know this sport is not just for me, either, but am I glad that it’s also just not for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I actually really like the angle that this article sheds light on. There’s a huge pool of gymnasts who are essentially ignored by the global community in a sense that they don’t come from the more built-up programs. It’s almost very “Marie Antoinette” if you will; let the royals continue to flourish and the peasants fight for what’s left. That being said, there is a part of me that really feels for the gymnasts don’t make it to the Olympics but are fundamentally better than some that do.

    The point is this: gymnastics has been and always will be an extremely subjective sport. There’s not going to be a perfect answer for every gymnast or even every federation for that matter. I’m hoping as a gymnastics community we can at least fight for inclusiveness and safety if nothing else! 🤝

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  10. I think people often forget that the olympics is about countries not individuals. In EVERY sport there are limits per country. Tennis is one per country for example. In all sports we’re going to find limits. This idea that the olympics is about a competition among the best in the world is a bit false. It’s a competition among the best of each country.

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  11. I think there should be a scholarship fund to train the top gymnasts from the bottom countries in top nationals programs. Then the real mark of how good a national training program would be measured by how much improvement to the guest gymnast 🙂

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