Tokyo 2021: What Comes Next

Now that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to 2021, now comes the difficult process of having to navigate the logistical nightmare that comes with delaying an Olympics. There are four major issues that need to be resolved in gymnastics.

(1) Every Olympic cycle uses a different Code of Points (COP). After the 2020 Olympics a new COP was scheduled to take effect. Which COP should be used in 2021?
(2) How should the Olympic qualification process be restarted?
(3) What happens to the 2021 World Championships?
(4) What should happen to gymnasts born in 2005 who are ineligible for a 2020 Olympics, but would meet the age requirements in 2021?

These are four distinct issues, but they are also intertwined. For example whether to keep the 2021 World Championships as scheduled is vital to the decision of what to do with the current juniors who were slated to make their senior debut in 2021 (the 2005ers). One thing that should be noted, there is no silver lining when it comes to the coronavirus fallout. Every decision will negatively impact gymnasts. The decision essentially comes down to which category of gymnasts get screwed and which get spared.

The Code of Points

This is the only easy and straight forward decision. The 2017-2020 code has been in place for three years. Gymnasts and coaches have spent those three years “learning” the code. Such as what type of deductions the judges will emphasize, how strict various interpretations will be, and what moves can be exploited to achieve maximum difficulty value at the lowest risk. You don’t want to throw all of that out the window right as the sport enters the biggest stage in the amended Olympic cycle.

This will mess with Paris-2024 as they will get only three years with their code. But at this point, it is the lesser of two evils. The three-year COP will almost certainly be put under the microscope as a possible explanation as to why a particular gymnast finished second in the 2024 Olympics.

Olympic Qualifications

The most important thing to note about this issue is that it depends on two critical factors. When in 2021 will the Olympics be scheduled? When will COVID-19 cease to be an issue? Right now the answer to both those questions is unknown. The answer to the COVID-19 question may not be known for months. You can’t build a new qualifications calendar without knowing the new timeline, and as things stand now there isn’t a timeline. The question of what will a revamped qualifications schedule look like simply can not be answered and any discussion on the topic is being made without solid footing.

With that being said, I do not envy FIG right now. What to do with pre-existing 2020 qualification points is going to be its own headache. These are official results which means they can’t really be thrown out. The careers are short in women’s gymnastics and a gymnast can undergo a major decline in the span of a few months. Using competitions from early 2020 for individual berths in a 2021 Olympics is a very misguided approach. Yet these “official” competitions have already been tainted as some of them saw reduced competitive fields due to COVID-19 concerns.

It is a whole bag of bad apples and FIG is going to have to pick which bad apple they want to chew on. Either option of keeping the World Cup results or start from scratch defies common sense. Both options are unfair to the athletes as one doesn’t truly reflect the athletes that are currently the best in the world, the other asks gymnasts to forfeit points they have rightfully earned.

2021 World Championships

Whether to keep or scrap the 2021 World Championships now that it will be an Olympic year is another decision where there is no right answer. If the 2021 World Championships are scrapped, that essentially forces FIG into allowing the 2005ers to attend the Olympics. Otherwise the 2005ers would lose an entire year of their gymnastics career.

Keeping the World Championships in place would cause only one minor problem, but as someone who is always analyzing medal counts, I can’t resist mentioning it. With two major competitions in a single year, a gymnast could theoretically win as many as 11 medals in 2021. To put that in perspective, it is one less than Olga Korbut who has 12 Worlds/Olympic medals. Konnor McClain could theoretically tie Alicia Sacramone’s mark and be the 4th most decorated American gymnast of all-time before she reaches her second year at the senior level.

Now I don’t expect the FIG to give any consideration to record book ramifications as they make this decision. But we could see a situation where a gymnast ends up 30 spots higher on the all-time medal list because she had the benefit of two competitions in a single year. While there were multiple competitions in 1992 and 1996, those competitions didn’t significantly disrupt the medal standings. The lack of World Championships in 1990 and 1998 balanced out the “extra” World Championships in 1992 and 1996. Or in the case of Lavinia Milosovici, the two extra medals she won had a trivial impact on a career in which she won 19 in all.

The more pressing concern is will multiple competitions cause the injury rate to skyrocket? I’m going to say that has a low chance of happening because the gymnasts are currently getting an unprecedented period of rest. Giving the body down time to recuperate and a break from the daily pounding goes a long way to improve athlete-health. The 2021 Olympics may go down as one of the healthiest competitions of all time. But with two major competitions in 2021, will the injury rate skyrocket in 2022?

But the biggest question of all will be the 2021 World Championships. There has already been talk on the Gymternet of this event being canceled, but there has been no official indication of that happening. Speculation on this topic was triggered by a comment made by Scott Russell on Canadian television where he brought that up as a possibility. But as things stand now, there has been no official word on that happening or even a source within FIG indicating it.

When it comes to canceling the 2021 World Championships, the issue comes down to losing money, and whether FIG wants to burn a host city in the process. Neither is an ideal situation. Moving the World Championships will create some logistical issues, specifically with hotels where hotel availability is a critical factor in the planning of a competition of this size. While it is the more problematic option, I do believe the benefits will be worth it.

Other Olympic sports hosts the World Championships right after the Olympics, and I believe this is to their detriment when they do so. Athletes are not just competing for Olympic medals, but marketing and sponsorship opportunities. Injury concerns after putting all their efforts into an Olympic run coupled with a financial incentive to not risk a high profile loss immediately after the Olympics will weaken the competitive fields.

This happened to gymnastics in 1980 when the World Cup was held shortly after the Olympics. Gymnasts who finished 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th in the Olympic AA did not appear at the 1980 World Cup.

Elena Davydova: Didn’t attend
Nadia Comaneci: Didn’t attend
Maxi Gnauck: Competed
Natalia Shaposhnikova: Withdrew a few days prior
Nellie Kim: Retired

The 1980 World Cup was the first time in FIG history that a high profile event was held immediately after the Olympics, the media blasted the event for its terrible participation rates, and the FIG never did something like that again. Moving the 2021 World Championships ahead of the 2021 Olympics would protect the competitive field. It is exactly what FIG did with the 1992 and 1996 World Championships. It would also provide an ideal “tune-up” competition to get gymnasts back in the groove of things after a hiatus. They not only need competitions to get themselves back into top physical condition, but peak mental condition as well. These athletes will benefit from an opportunity to re-familiarize themselves with competing in front of massive crowds.

With this in mind, I hope FIG moves the 2021 World Championships and I believe that is their preferred option. If it doesn’t happen it will be because there is too much set in stone regarding its current date.

Gymnasts Born in 2005

An article from The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Joshua Robinson and Louise Radnofsky cited an FIG source calling it “extremely unlikely” gymnasts born in 2005 will be included in the 2021 Olympics. But less than 24 hours later a new article from Joshua Robinson revealed FIG was already evolving its stance with references to the possibility of changing a 2004 cutoff to a 2005 cutoff. Thereby making Konnor McClain, Skye Blakely, and Viktoria Listunova eligible for the 2021 Olympics.

That is where the FIG is right now, nothing is set in stone, and it could go either way. As for the arguments for and against their inclusion:

Someone is going to get the short end of the stick. Either it will be a couple of 2020 seniors who will lose their spots to a 2005er, or the 2005ers who may lose 2021 events they were slated to compete in. This is the ultimate consequence for both the NCAA and the IOC when sporting events are pushed back a year. You have created an athlete bottleneck.

Everyone is going to deal with a stronger competitive field due to COVID-19 because of that bottleneck. The 2005ers will have to compete against seniors who otherwise would have been retired by 2021, the current seniors will have to deal with juniors who are suddenly Olympic eligible. There is also a wave of veteran gymnasts who have had their Tokyo dreams rejuvenated because of COVID-19.

Asuka Teramoto, Jade Barbosa, Aliya Mustafina, and Laurie Hernandez were all long shots to make the 2020 Olympics, but now have a viable timeline to work with in 2021. It is simply impossible to replicate the 2020 Olympic field for 2021. So to ban 2005ers in an attempt to do precisely that, will be in vain.

But on the flip side the Gymternet clearly feels the 2020 Olympics belongs to the 2020 seniors and things should stay that way. And there is nothing illogical or immoral about such a position. It is simply a matter of personal opinion. There is no wrong answer here. The prospect of Listunova missing her 2021 season is gut wrenching. But it is gut wrenching thinking about the possibility of a Russian gymnast who would have gone to Tokyo in 2020 will have to watch the 2021 Olympics from home because a pandemic allowed Listunova to take her spot.

You have to feel for Viktoria Listunova and the other gymnasts of her birth year. Whereas Simone Biles and 2020 eligible gymnasts can now breath a sigh of relief knowing what their new timeline is, Viktoria has no idea what 2021 holds for her. One option being the best case scenario (a premature Olympics) another option is the worst case scenario (she loses all of 2021). And Viktoria may not know the final answer for a while as FIG and IOC may want to decide the 2021 World Championships and Olympic qualification process first and then come up with a decision regarding the 2005ers.

If the 2005ers were to be excluded from only the Olympics, it would raise questions about the 2021 Continental Championships and other competitions that are part of the World Cup system. Before COVID-19 they were slated to be held in a non-Olympic year and wouldn’t have Olympic qualification implications. Because of COVID-19 they now will. The 2005ers were initially slated to be eligible for these competitions. Gymnasts born in 2005 could theoretically be eligible for an Olympic qualifying competition but not the Olympics themselves if FIG rules they will be excluded from only the Olympics.

How is that supposed to work? Can they participate but not have their scores count towards Olympic qualification standings? Would this even be fair to the other gymnasts in these competitions? Will nations even bother sending a gymnast born in 2005 to any of these competitions?

Before COVID-19 nations had a heavy incentive to send a 2005er to these competitions to give them some experience before the 2021 World Championships. But that logic may change based on FIG’s ruling. If FIG excludes 2005ers from the 2021 Olympics, nations are now incentivized to bench a 2005er and send a veteran who can win an Olympic berth instead. The 2005 class may possibly lose all their assignments in the first half of the year. And that is without broaching the possibility of moving or canceling the 2021 World Championships. It becomes significantly harder to justify altering that competition if gymnasts born in 2005 aren’t eligible for the 2021 Olympics.

Conclusion

There is no ideal outcome to most of these problems. Every solution works to the benefit of one gymnast, but is to the detriment of another. Every solution resolves the current problem, but triggers some other problem elsewhere. If it were my decision, I’d give every sport a 10% increase in its allotment of athletes. This will offset athletes whose route to qualifying for an Olympic berth was made more difficult as a result of coronavirus by making an Olympic berth a little bit easier for everyone to obtain. That will create problems elsewhere such as overcrowding in the Olympic Village, but like every problem stemming from coronavirus, there is no ideal answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s