This is a tale of how hubris felled the sporting powerhouse of Romanian gymnastics.
It’s also a story of how a need to show who’s in charge led to exposing current leadership isn’t fit to lead in its present condition; a story of how political wrangling can leave those who the system governs in a diminished state of power, even when they are the ones most effected.
It’s already difficult to comprehend the fact Romania didn’t qualify a full team to the Rio Olympics. It’s even harder to comprehend the disarray the program has fallen into.
A mass number of serious injuries. Conflicting public statements. Numerous coaching changes. Competitors finding out their standing via social media instead of official channels. As a gym fan, it’s been hard to watch what’s happened to the Romanian team in the past year or so.
This isn’t the first elite gymnastics program with a long and storied history to fall from the top tier, but it’s the speed in which the fall took place that is surprising.
Watching the fall has been like watching a tower in Jenga crash to the table after someone removed the wrong tile. After all, this is the team that won the European Championship two short years ago.
But upon closer look, many of the pieces had already been removed over the course of several years.
The attrition rate in the talent pool, whether by disinterest or injury, has been substantial. Not to mention, a noticeable lack of evolution in the routines to keep up with the changing times in elite gymnastics.
For the past couple of years, the team’s lack of depth and scoring potential has started to show. It showed when its performance in World Championship prelims, which features 5 gymnasts competing and 4 scores counting, was noticeably worse than its performance in situations like World Championship team finals, which use 3 scores.
But even after not qualifying a team to Rio at last year’s World Championships because of not having enough competitive scores, the team was still expected to make it. Then, Larisa Iordache — the country’s #1 gymnast for the past several years — got injured and was unable to compete at the Olympic Test Event, the last chance qualifier for the Olympics.
It was a big blow, but there was still hope. The team still had a number of its top gymnasts in Diana Bulimar, Laura Jurca, and Ana Maria Ocolisan. Plus, the team had a returning multi-time champion in Catalina Ponor. It was going to be tight, but the team was still in a good position to qualify.
Then the injury bug hit took a bigger bite out of the team. Laura suffered a leg injury that eventually needed surgery. And Ana Maria and Catalina, both nursing injuries from the end of 2015, weren’t going to get back to 100% before the Test Event.
Questions about the administration and training practices of the team that were whispers before became full fledged talking points. Injuries happen in gymnastics, but why was Romania suffering so many losses? Why weren’t the newer members of the team performing up to the level of the veterans? What happened to the promising upstarts such as Andreea Munteanu, Stefania Stanila, and others?
The team went to the Test Event, and despite a valiant effort didn’t qualify a full team to the Olympics for the first time since 1968. The team however did secure one individual berth to Rio.
In the aftermath, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation (RGF) publicly stated in a press conference with both in attendance that the spot would go to either Catalina or Larisa following a series of four competitions.
The first competition they both were supposed to compete in was the European Championships in early June. Unfortunately, Larisa suffered a setback with her hand that caused her to skip the meet. Catalina went on to win bronze medals on beam and floor.
They both competed in Romanian Nationals at the beginning of July. The competition essentially was a draw. Both weren’t at their best. Catalina had an illness that required hospital visits, and Larisa suffered a possible concussion and sore back after a tumbling fall in practice. Day 1 was better for Larisa as she won the all around title with comparable scores to Catalina. Day 2 was better for Catalina as she posted higher scores on beam and floor.
In the interim between the Test Event and Romanian Nationals, there was chatter that suggested the Romanian Olympic and Sports Committee (COSR) wanted Catalina over Larisa. Conflict between the head of the RFG, Adrian Stoica, and Alin Petrache, the head of COSR, is well documented and goes back years.
Following Romanian Nationals, with two competitions to go before the expected decision, the RGF sent in a update report to COSR stating Catalina was the best choice as of that time. COSR moved on the information, releasing a statement naming Catalina as the flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony, essentially naming her the country’s representative for the Games.
Reportedly, the move was meant to pressure the RGF into choosing Catalina as the Rio representative, which officially happened shortly thereafter. Catalina said she found out about the decision via social media.
What I wrote above is just a summary of the many twists and turns this story took in less than a year. There are no winners here. I’m simultaneously heartbroken for Larisa, who has been the backbone and undisputed leader of this team for the past 4 years, and happy for Catalina, who will become her country’s first three-time Olympian since the 1960s. Yet, I can’t help but feel a drawback in how the RGF handled things publicly and, likely, behind closed doors.
The situation the federation created fractured a team, and forced people to choose sides. The updates and progress reports released were often vague and confusing. As a result, there’s more heartbreak than was necessary, and many feel that the competition was never fair. Unfortunately, Catalina unfairly bears part of the backlash for things that are not of her doing as the one many view the game was “rigged” for.
To be honest, I don’t think it matters who competes in Rio next month. I don’t believe the RGF and COSR can be placated. I don’t think a medal will be enough to soothe the hurt from not qualifying a full team to the Olympics, particularly an Olympics in the 40th anniversary year of Nadia’s perfect 10.
If its expectations aren’t met. I hope there isn’t talk of the gymnast, presumably Catalina, failing to do her duty and “embarrassing” the federation as was the case for the team after returning home from the Test Event.
My main hope is that the pressure cooker Larisa and Catalina were thrust into didn’t irrevocably incinerate the seemingly good relationship they had before being pitted against one another for something they both have given years of blood, sweat and tears for. Maybe one day they’ll be able to laugh at the memories of an absurd chapter of their lives.
I hope that the RGF and the COSR can find common ground again, and work together to inspire a new generation of champions.
There are others factors to the challenges the Romanian gymnastics faces going forward, of course. Major ones, things grander than sport. Romania is a relatively small country, one of about 20 million — significantly smaller than the other gymnastics “Big 4” nations of China, Russia, and the United States. It’s a nation that’s been hit hard by recent economic times and seen its population take a hit via emigration.
Nevertheless, Romania still possesses the talent and capability to remain one of the big dogs in elite gymnastics, but poor planning and decision-making has eroded Romanian gymnastics’ once unshakable foundation.
Photo Credit: International Gymnast Magazine