Why 2-Per Country Limits in the AA is a Terrible Rule (Part I)

Note: Part II of this article can be found here.

As the title of the article suggests, I’m not a fan of the rule that limits the All-Around (AA) in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) to just two gymnasts per country. In this 2-part series I have come up with seven reasons explaining why I think it is a terrible rule and should be returned to the previous rule limiting nations to three per country.

There is no right or wrong answer here. It is up to gymnastics fans to decide which version of the rule they like more. Some may favor country limits in certain situations such as Event Finals, but not the All-Around. The seven reasons below represent why I personally favor a return to the old rule and aren’t meant to contradict those who have different reasons for supporting the current rule.

1) In event of an injury or a mistake, the best country only gets one medal

Just because a country has three competitive gymnasts doesn’t mean they are likely to sweep the AA. You always have to account for the “something will go wrong” factor. Sometimes it’s a critical injury, other times an error at the worst possible moment. There are plenty of examples of gymnasts with legendary talent who couldn’t put together a clean routine when it mattered most. Or maybe a dark horse candidate comes from out of nowhere and unexpectedly snags an AA medal.

Those factors will usually act as a “check” knocking out at least one of the three gymnasts before they can mount the podium. These events will occur with or without country limits. What country limits does is trim programs even further who are already going to be trimmed once the competition starts and a high profile gymnast doesn’t achieve the success she was expected to have.

It leads to situations such as the United States at the 2017 World Championships where a program that clearly had the talent to place three or maybe even four AA medal contenders in their lineup, ends up with only one gymnast in a position to win a medal after they are limited to only two gymnasts, and then something goes wrong with one of those gymnasts.

At the Olympics and World Championships, there have only been four instances (five if you count Raducan) of a sweep in all of women’s gymnastics history. Officially, 1960 remains the only time it happened at the Olympic level. It simply wasn’t something that was happening with frequency before a rule change was implemented making it impossible.

Unlike Event Finals where gymnasts needs to maintain full composure for just one routine, in the AA a gymnast needs to maintain mental composure across all four routines. That significantly increases the likelihood that something will go wrong. Making it more difficult for a country to sweep the AA as opposed to a single apparatus in Event Finals.

The data supports the notion that Event Finals is easier to sweep than the All-Around. Sweeps in Event Finals were possible only from the years 1952-1972, while AA sweeps were possible from 1952-2000. And yet there were five Olympic sweeps in Event Finals* as opposed to just one official sweep in the All-Around.

*Two on floor, two on vault, & one on the uneven bars.

Gabby Douglas

2) It puts unnecessary pressure on all of the gymnasts

This is something that often gets overlooked, and it is one of the bigger problems I have with country limits. All the attention is paid to the cruelty a 2-per country limit puts on the #3 ranked gymnast, while overlooking what it does to the gymnasts who actually advance to the AA finals. For those two gymnasts, they are often placed under enhanced pressure to meet expectations.

It no longer becomes an issue of an athlete trying to meet her personal expectations, but matching the expectations of the gymnast she eliminated. At the 2012 Olympics Gabby Douglas eliminated Jordyn Wieber, and then silenced any criticisms over her presence in the AA Finals by winning the gold medal. But what if Gabby hadn’t won? Even a silver medal would have provoked commentary about whether Jordyn would have recorded a better result had she been allowed to participate.

Under this scenario Gabby gets blamed for not only losing, but knocking out the American gymnast with the best chance of winning. The Olympic media atmosphere is intense and brutal. No matter how many people will come to Gabby’s defense in this hypothetical situation, there will be those who would have found a way to criticize Gabby Douglas. By her own admission, Gabby Douglas felt she was bullied by fans in both of her Olympic appearances. That was Gabby’s experiences in victory, now imagine what they would have been like in defeat.

The United States has been fortunate to have not found themselves experiencing this scenario on the Olympic stage, but it did happen in rhythmic gymnastics at the 1992 Olympics. Oksana Skaldina was controversially awarded the second and final spot on the Unified Team of ex-Soviet nations even though many felt Oksana Kostina was the more deserving candidate. The controversy soured Skaldina’s Olympic experience having casted a dark shadow over her from the moment she arrived in Barcelona.

Oksana Skaldina (L), Oksana Kostina (M), & Alexandra Timoshenko (R)

After failing to win the silver medal, Skaldina infamously refused to shake the hand of the Spanish gymnast who had beaten her. It went down as one of most unsportsmanlike acts in Olympic history. But what gets overlooked is how much pressure Skaldina was under to win the silver medal, and how devastating that 3rd-place finish was for her.

According to Gymnastic Greats, prior to the Olympics Skaldina had suffered a mental breakdown in response to the way she was being covered by the media as they debated whether the final spot should go to her, or Oksana Kostina. Gymnastics Greats would also make the claim that the Soviets had confiscated Skaldina’s money so that she would be unable to leave if she wanted to quit the sport. After the Olympics Skaldina had “entertained thoughts of suicide.”

Even though her actions were disrespectful, Skaldina’s behavior at the 1992 Olympics is shouldn’t be the story of poor sportsmanship. But rather a young 20 year old who had finally had enough and lashed out. What the 2-per country rule had done was to exacerbate the rivalry between Kostina and Skaldina. In doing so, bringing even more pressure and scrutiny on a gymnast who was already past the limits of what she could bear.

My opposition to the 2-per country rule has as much to do with preventing another case like Oksana Skaldina as it does with preventing another case like Jordyn Wieber. Both articles in this two-part series predominantly feature pictures of Olympic gymnasts in distressing moments as they realize they have been eliminated from the AA on country limits.

This was done intentionally to serve as a reminder that the media will fixate on athletes when they are at their most vulnerable. Covering examples of Olympic heartbreak is a popular tactic by the media. As the pictures in this article demonstrate, the 2-per country rule is unquestionably being used by photographers and television cameras as an opportunity to capture gymnasts when they are at the lowest moment of their careers, if not their entire lives.

Aliya Mustafina and Angelina melnikova

3) It eliminates a high profile gymnast

Readers may be wise to point out that if the media covering the #3 gymnast getting eliminated on 2-per country limits is a problem, then why doesn’t the same problem occur when its the #4 gymnast getting eliminated on 3-per country limits? My response to that question is to point out that the bulk of the gymnasts victimized by 3-per country limits from 1976-2000 were those who were minor members of their respective teams. Most of them finished their careers with zero individual medals and the media largely overlooked their stories in favor of their more famous teammates.

High-profile gymnasts getting eliminated from the AA on country limits were the exception not the norm during the 3-per country limit era. But what if that era had operated under 2-per country limits? The following is a list of gymnasts who competed in AA finals in the third qualifying spot for their respective countries.

-Olga Korbut (1976)
-Nellie Kim (1980)
-Aurelia Dobre (1988)
-Tatiana Gutsu (1992)
-Gina Gogean (1992)
-Kim Zmeskal (1992)
-Svetlana Khorkina (1996)
-Simona Amanar (1996)
-Maria Olaru (2000)

It is a staggering list of WAG icons, many of which have considerable clout among four-year fans. Had 2-per country limits been in effect since 1976, Jordyn Wieber wouldn’t have been the first reigning World AA Champion to have been eliminated on country limits at the Olympics, but the fifth (1980, 1988, 1992, & 2000). Had 2-per country limits been in place since 1976, Lilia Podkopayeva would have been the only WAG to have ever won an AA title in a pre-Olympic year, and then go on to participate in Olympic AA finals in the period from 1980-2000.

The #3 spot has frequently gone to gymnasts who were competitive enough to win AA medals. The AA finals was first conceived in 1972 and had either no country limits, or 3-per country limits until the year 2000. You may be surprised to learn that from 1972-2000, on five different occasions a WAG won an Olympic AA medal while occupying the #3 qualifying spot for her respective country.

-Tamara Lazakovich (1972)
-Simona Pauca (1984)
-Tatiana Gutsu (1992)
-Simona Amanar (1996)
-Maria Olaru (2000)

To recap, on five different occasions did the #3 gymnast win a medal. Yet in that same time frame there is only one example (Sydney-2000) of an Olympic podium sweep.* That result isn’t in the official record books. And even if it were, it is a valid question to ask if the sweep only happened because of an equipment malfunction and didn’t occur under legitimate circumstances.

What makes this rule so enraging is that FIG/IOC saw the threat of a podium sweep as a problem that needed to be addressed. The solution was to prevent something that statistically, was 5x more likely to happen. In other words, it isn’t likely that a sweep will happen. But it is likely that the #3 American will come out strong in AA Finals, while the #2 American has a bad day.

*The reason I didn’t include 1960: It isn’t applicable because there wasn’t an AA Finals back then. Results were taken directly from the team competition and thus, there weren’t any qualification standings.

Aliya Mustafina and Angelina melnikova

4) Two vs Two doesn’t tell the full story.

The historic trend in WAG is that it is exponentially harder for a national program to develop three strong AAers than it is is develop only two strong AAers. What this means is that when you compare two programs based on the results of their two best gymnasts, it provides a skewed perspective of how the programs truly match up. The first time country limits were introduced in Olympic WAG was the 1976 Olympics. The AA qualification standings were as follows:

1st: Romania (Nadia Comaneci)
2nd: Soviet Union (Nellie Kim)
2nd: Soviet Union (Ludmilla Turischeva)
4th: Romania (Teodora Ungureanu)
5th: Soviet Union (Olga Korbut)
7th: Soviet Union (Elvira Saadi)
9th: Soviet Union (Svetlana Grozdova)
9th: Soviet Union (Maria Filatova)
14th: Romania (Mariana Constantin)

The programs appear to be evenly matched when looking at only the top two WAGs from each program. But when you examine the full results, the scores present a very different perspective. Teodora Ungureanu and Nadia Comaneci are not the first example of the second strongest WAG power producing a powerful 1-2 punch, while their third gymnast was unable to produce similar results.

Hungary was the top rival of the Soviets in the 1950s. Their best gymnast was Agnes Keleti who accumulated 19 points in my data while their second best gymnast was Margit Korondi who has “only” 6 points, but eight Olympic medals. Their third best gymnast of the era accumulated only 1-point.

Next came Czechoslovakia whose two best gymnasts produced staggering point totals, Vera Caslavska (39 points) and Eva Bosakova (23 points). But the third best Czechoslovakian of the time scored zero points. In the late 1960s/early 1970s the Soviet foe was East Germany. Their two best gymnasts were Erika Zuchold (16 points) and Karin Janz (also 16 points) while none of their teammates ever exceeded 3-points. What Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova did in recent times by being a strong 1-2 combination as they challenged the United States for AA medals, was continuing a trend that has existed for as long as the AA has been contested.

Martha Karolyi, Bela Karolyi, Nadia Comaneci, & Teodora Ungureanu

Country limits in the AA has the effect of nailing the top country while leaving the second best country generally unscathed. Perhaps many readers feel that this is exactly what country limits should be accomplishing, equalizing the playing field between the first and second best countries. But country limits are often promoted as giving smaller countries a chance, when their real impact is redrawing the power dynamic between the top programs. And the burden is not shared collectively between each of the major gymnastics powers, but rather it comes to the detriment of just one country.

This trend has only become more extreme in recent times and the burden has been placed exclusively on the United States. The results of the last two Olympics speak for themselves. The following lists the three highest ranking gymnasts to be eliminated from the AA on country limits.

2012 Olympics
4th: Jordyn Wieber (United States)
12th: Anastasia Grishina (Russia)
21st: Jennifer Pinches (United Kingdom)

2016 Olympics
3rd: Gabby Douglas (United States)
16th: Aiko Sugihara (Japan)
22nd: Angelina Melnikova (Russia)

Readers can debate whether they think country-limits should be about creating an equalizer between Russia and the United States, or creating more opportunity for low level programs. But one of the more overlooked aspects of the debate, under 3-per country limits the AA was an accurate indicator of overall program success. Under 2-per country limits, AA results often present skewed perceptions due to the stark contrasts between Russia’s third best gymnast, and the third best gymnast in the American program.

Link to Part II of this article.

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