By Anna Rose Johnson
The FIG recently announced that they are planning to propose a reduction in the number of Olympic team members in artistic gymnastics; reportedly cutting the team size from five to four members. This change would take place starting with the 2020 Olympic Games.
Athletes, coaches, fans, and journalists have mixed views on the subject. “Losing one more member to the team isn’t detrimental to the sport in any way, just to the athletes that have worked their entire life for a chance to compete,” two-time U.S. Olympian Jonathan Horton explained to Full Twist. “Four team members at the Olympics is such a small team, and it is already incredibly difficult to become one of those men or women competing.”
The FIG noted in their official press release that “the new proposal…includes a reduction in the number of team members in artistic gymnastics in the aim of providing additional qualification opportunities for event specialists and all-around gymnasts via Continental Championships, World Cups and World Challenge Cups.” There are few details yet on the criteria of qualifications for additional athletes, which leads to more speculation.
Gymnastics journalist Amanda Wijangco told us that she doesn’t think the proposal is the best decision. “There are pros and cons to everything, and this is no exception,” she noted. “I understand where the FIG is coming from in that they want more gymnasts to be able to qualify to the Olympics as individuals, but in the end, talented gymnasts are going to miss their chance at the Olympics either way. If the team size is reduced to four gymnasts, then someone who would have been that fifth member is going to miss out and more gymnasts will be able to qualify as individuals. If the team size remains, [fewer] gymnasts will be able to qualify as individuals.”
Wijangco added, “Just speaking as a gymnastics fan, I feel that a reduction in team size could make the competition less exciting. It’s just more fun to be able to see more gymnasts compete, even if it is just on one or two events.”
Beatrice Gheorghisor, editor of The Couch Gymnast website, feels that the same way. “As a spectator and fan of the sport I feel saddened by the mere fact that we will see less gymnastics at the Olympics,” she told us.
Not everyone feels the rule change will be negative. Olympic and World medalist Larisa Iordache of Romania thinks that if the new rule is imposed it “will definitely be good.”
Julie Croket, a member of the 2014 Belgian World Championships team, believes that the new rule could be an advantage for smaller countries with fewer gymnasts. “According to this new rule [smaller countries will have a better chance to] compete in the team competition,” she told us. “It will become possible for more countries to reach the Olympic Games with a team. It’s not an advantage for countries with a lot of good gymnasts. Every gymnast will have to fight to get [on] the national team. I think that the teams will need more all-around gymnasts. This makes it easier to replace a gymnast. It’s certain that teams will always be composed of the best gymnasts. Strong countries will always take part in the Olympic Games.”
World-renowned coach Mary Lee Tracy of Cincinnati Gymnastics feels that the rule change is connected to the extreme success of the USA Gymnastics program. “The only purpose in many of the changes that keep occurring is to find ways to bridge the gap between USA and the world,” Tracy told us. “When the Olympics only happen once every four years, it doesn’t make sense to lessen that opportunity for athletes.”
Olympic team sizes have been shrinking for some time now; they’ve decreased since the days of seven-member Olympic teams (i.e. the Magnificent Seven), and in London 2012, the team size was all the way down to five. In 2012, the extra slots at the Olympics were filled by individual athletes who had qualified at the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympic test event.
2004 Olympic All-Around Champion Carly Patterson told us that she is always surprised when the FIG reduces the Olympic team sizes. “I think to reduce it from five to four now just doesn’t make sense,” said Patterson. “After reading the FIG’s proposal I don’t understand how making a team of four is going to help for more opportunities for event specialists because you will need all four to be strong in the all-around, which will take out opportunity for certain people that are amazing specialists on events. Personally I don’t think it’s a good idea and I hope this does not pass for the new rules.”
The gymnastics community is also hypothesizing how the projected rule change will affect the way teams prepare for the Olympic Games.
“The strategy for picking the team changes also as the team will have to be formed of 100% all around gymnasts and no specialist will have any chance,” Horton reflected. “I hope, if anything, that one day the teams can have more members again.”
Wijangco agrees. “With a reduction in team size, gymnasts who can hit all four events reliably are more valuable,” she observed. “Of course, since this change would begin with 2020, it would probably change the way more of the younger elites who aren’t age-eligible for Rio prepare and train.”
Patterson feels that the training of athletes will be directly affected by the implementation of the new rule. “Gymnasts will have to train all four events so they can be strong on all of them instead of being able to focus on just being a specialist anymore,” she commented.
Gheorghisor believes that the outcomes of competitions could be different under the projected rule change. “There are already continental competitions where the teams are composed of four athletes and I think they are good indication of what to expect,” she explained. “[The] top teams’ scores will be much closer, as a team with big D-score advantages on certain events (USA on vault, Russia and China on bars) would not be able to distance themselves as much as they do now. I believe that teams that strongly rely on one gymnast that is great [in the] all around will be at an advantage.”
Croket stated, “As the teams will be composed of four gymnasts and probably three gymnasts will compete on each apparatus [in team finals], it will be a necessity to have good all-around gymnasts in a team. Stability will become a very important factor to get a place [on] a national team. Talent and hard work will be keys for a selection. Preparation will not change, but a gymnast will have to be at her best at the right moment.” She added, “Being good at one apparatus will not be enough to claim a place [on] a national team.”
“I think it will add more pressure and intensity to training and competition due to [fewer] teammates [backing] each other up,” Tracy remarked. “I don’t think that it will change the outcome!”
The FIG will vote on this proposition at a council meeting in Melbourne, Australia on May 12-14, 2015.