“If gymnastics were easy, it would be called football.” National coach Gerben Wiersma recently quoted the popular gymnastics saying when it came to the question of whether he should use the remaining training time until the upcoming World Cup to perfect the exercise elements he has already mastered or to increase the difficulty grade , i.e. practicing new elements, I intend to use.
A current example: Emma Malewski qualified with her beam exercise, for which she received 8.3 points in execution from the judges with a difficulty of 5.2 points, as second place for the final on the balance beam at the European Championships in Munich. The Italian Angela Andreoli performed a very difficult exercise (6.1), but failed: execution score 6.566, final result ranked 21. Her teammates also performed difficult gymnastics and did not fail, which is why Italy is the favorite in the team final, which takes place this Saturday Germany qualified fourth.
Why all this?
There are only ten weeks between the European Championships and the World Championships in Liverpool, and for the first time in gymnastics history the former event is the qualifier for the latter. The background is as follows: The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) would like to make its World Championships, which receive little attention in the media, more attractive. It is assumed that it is the length of the competitions that makes gymnastics less attractive to spectators.
When asked how long an ideal competition should be, FIG President Morinari Watanabe answered after taking office in 2017: “less than two hours”. The marketing commission takes care of new competition formats, he explained at the time. Apparently she did. The result: there will never again be World Championships in which any country with the athletes and the necessary financial resources can participate.
So far, world title fights in the middle of the Olympic cycle have been open to everyone. The innovation was decided by the FIG Council in May 2019 and now – well hidden in section 5.1.1. of the Technical Regulations 2022 – published and is therefore in force. There it says that “based on the results of the continental qualifications, a maximum of 24 men’s and women’s teams” are entitled to start.
In comparison: At the last World Cup of this kind in 2018, 46 women’s and 42 men’s teams started, including the individual starters there were 490 active participants. In Liverpool this year there will be a maximum of 409 athletes. Halving the number of teams to “save” a full 81 actives. However, this only shortens the qualification, but not the final competition, and only these are of any interest to the media. The question remains: Why all this?
The qualifying round on Thursday took on a whole new meaning for many nations because only the best thirteen European teams are allowed to go to the World Cup. The Swiss gymnasts, for example, had a pitch-black day on beam, 18th place – farewell to the world championships. The same applies to a number of northern European nations with a long tradition of gymnastics, which have sent respectable teams worth seeing to almost every World Championship so far. Austria, on the other hand, achieved a historic eleventh place and thus one of the quota places, which is why the planned vacation here is now being postponed.
For Robert Labner, the general secretary of the Austrian association, it is clear that this regulation will “reduce our chances” in the future. His association did not formulate a protest because, from his point of view, the decision “was taken in accordance with the rules”. But he also knows: “There is an informal discussion among the “emerging countries”, but in his perception there is still no resistance movement.
This is hardly to be expected, especially not from the influential top nations, after all, the rule change will not affect them. This is ensured by the continental quotation, about the formation of which there is no information. The African continent with its 25 gymnastics federations has exactly one team quota place, as does Oceania, which means that Australia is effectively seeded. In America, on the other hand, a number of associations will give up before the competition for the quota places has even begun, simply because they cannot afford the travel and accommodation costs for a delegation of the size of their team in their association, which is huge in terms of area.
Hardy Fink, who for decades was responsible for the FIG program for the worldwide development of gymnastics, aptly called the innovation “Eurocentric”. The long-term effects are hard to predict: what federation will invest money in a sport when the theoretical possibility of sending a team to a World Cup is zero? Where is the next generation supposed to come from if there are no role models?
By the way: The world association has just set up a new commission with the euphonious title “New and Developing Countries Support Commission”. For Germany, the European Championship is just an intermediate step on the long road towards Paris 2024. Gerben Wiersma will continue to work on the balance between difficulty and execution in the coming weeks, Emma Malewski will perhaps increase her practice.