5) It treats the All Around and Event Finals as similar events when they are anything but
The concept of introducing county limits to (Event Finals) EF is not without logic. With four different events being contested, a superpower program such as the United States can easily run the table and rack up a high medal tally. Theoretically winning as many as 12 medals just in EF alone. To put that in perspective, most countries win between 0 to 20 medals in an entire Summer Olympics. With that in mind, it makes sense to limit the United States by one third of its capacity. If the United States botches the vault finals, that still leaves three remaining apparatuses for American gymnasts to earn redemption.
None of this is applicable to the All-Around (AA). The AA is treated as its own-stand alone event and is considered the most prestigious individual event in gymnastics. If a gymnast is eliminated on country limits, there is no other event that is considered equal in prestige. Whereas preventing the United States from running the tables and winning 12 medals in EF is a very logical rationale, in the AA country limits comes down to preventing one country from winning one additional medal.
The 2-per country rule is identical in both the EF and the AA. But in the All-Around it places a higher burden on the gymnasts while having a lower payout as opposed to Event Finals. The original rule was to have 2-per country limits in Event Finals while the AA remained at 3-per country limits. This difference in rules served as an acknowledgment that EF and the AA are two very different things and should be treated as such.
6) The rule is political and arbitrary
Jordyn Wieber did not miss the 2012 All-Around because of her performance, but because she just so happened to be in a sport where it was possible for someone to be the 4th best in the world and not advance to AA finals on 2-per country limits. Not every Olympic sport has the 2-per country rule. It exists in swimming, but not athletics (Track & Field). When these rules are introduced, it often isn’t because there was an expert panel that examined the data and decided to write a rule based on logic and fairness.
What it often comes down to is politicking between sports administrators. The nations who are going to benefit from the introduction of country limits have enough votes to overrule the countries that will be harmed by it. Jamaican and American administrators in Track & Field prevented this from happening. In gymnastics the administrators representing the strongest programs failed to accomplish the same feat.
That is what makes the experiences of Jordyn in 2012 and Gabby Douglas in 2016 so stomach churning. They weren’t collateral damage done in the name of making WAG better, but the final consequence of what happens when sports administrators are more focused on protecting their political interests than thinking about all the athletes in the competitive field.
If the rule wasn’t political and arbitrary, then country limits would be loosened as parity increases, and tightened when parity decreases. But that rarely happens in the Olympic sports. Once passed, country limits are rarely expanded because that would require a majority of national programs to vote against their personal interests.
The 2000 Olympics was the last time the AA had 3-per country limits. The 2000 AA finals featured 18 WAGs from countries that did not participate in Team Finals. It is important to note that Team Finals at the 2000 Olympics featured only six teams. At the following Olympics when the AA had 2-per country limits, only 12 WAGs from outside the six strongest programs participated in AA Finals.
In the current era, it is actually harder for a gymnast from a small program to make AA Finals than it was prior to the 3-per vs 2-per rule change. The reason being the number of entrants in the AA field was decreased from 36 gymnasts to only 24 gymnast. In the process taking away 12 spots that would have gone to lower ranking gymnasts. In 2012 and 2016, only four WAGs were eliminated from the AA on country limits at each Olympics. At the 2018 and 2019 World Championships, on each occasion only three WAGs were eliminated from the AA on country limits.
The 2-per country rule change opens up roughly four spots to other nations per each Olympics. Those four additional spots could easily have been obtained by placing the AA field at 28 entrants. Focusing on the size of the AA field would have been a far more effective way to open up opportunity to lower ranking nations. Which raises questions as to what was the true motive for the emergence of the 2-per country rule change in the first place.
It is also important to note that FIG and the IOC have valid reasons for decreasing the size of the AA field. Namely cost savings, shorter competition times to accommodate the television schedule, and reducing judging fatigue. But the 3-per country rule could have been saved by expanding the AA to 28 participants, which would have been just one extra WAG in each apparatus rotation. It was a negligible price for the monumental benefit of keeping gymnasts like Olga Korbut (1976), Nellie Kim (1980), and Gabby Douglas (2016) in AA Finals. Greatly enhancing the television product for four-year fans who would recognize those names from the previous Olympics.
As previously discussed, the 2-per country rule change has served primarily as an equalizer between Russia and the United States in the All-Around. It is a matter of personal opinion as to whether country limits should serve to benefit the bottom countries, or bring the top-two countries to an even draw. But that even draw allowing a closer AA race between the Americans and the Russians has eliminated WAGs from mid-level programs such as Aiko Sugihara of Japan (16th in Rio), Jade Barbosa of Brazil (23rd in Rio), and Jennifer Pinches of the United Kingdom (21st in London).
This article is not to present an opinion as to whether Russia or low ranking WAG programs should be the main beneficiary of country limits. Only that readers should have an informed opinion as to who benefits and who pays the highest price. And whether the public perception as to what country limits are thought to be accomplishing is what is actually occurring when the data is analyzed.
Note: In the case of Russia-2016, “Russia benefits” can be more accurately described as Angelina Melnikova getting eliminated on the same rule that grants her teammate an easier path to a bronze AA medal.
When country limits were first introduced at the 1976 Olympics, it was for largely amicable reasons. Had they been in place at the previous World Championships in 1974, a staggering 14 additional spots would have been opened up to WAGs from lower-ranking national programs. The AA at the 1974 World Championships featured 36 gymnasts from only eight nations. At the 1976 Olympics the number of nations participating in AA Finals nearly doubled. The 36 participants represented 15 different nations.
That is what a rule change done for amicable reasons looks like. While I don’t think it was particularly fair to the Soviets, the 1976 rule change actually accomplished the goal of opening the field up to more nations. Something that didn’t didn’t occur when alterations were made to the AA field after the 2000 Olympics. Which reeks of political motives and arbitrary decisions rather than judgments made based on how it affects the athletes. Or even worse, a decision based on finances as a smaller AA field represented cost and time savings.
7) Gymnastics has achieved parity
I don’t intend to paint a broad brush and classify country limits as being bad in every situation. The 2-per country rule is more justifiable in EF than it is in the AA. It is also more justified in some sports, but not others. In rhythmic gymnastics Russia would sweep the AA on nearly every occasion if not for the 2-per country rule.
Rhythmic gymnast Alexandra Soldatova and Jordyn Wieber each deserved a shot at participating in an Olympic AA finals. But in the case of Soldatova, her sacrifice wasn’t in vain and gave an opportunity for a country that wouldn’t have won a medal in an individual event had she been present. In the case of Wieber, it mainly benefited a country that was likely to win medals even without 2-per country limits.
In the last decade 17 different countries have won a medal in WAG at the World Championships and/or Olympics. The 2017 World Championships provides an insight as to what WAG currently looks like without Simone Biles skewing the data. There were five gold medals available and all of them went to a different country. The 15 available medals were won by nine different countries. The parity seen in today’s competitions is the result of decades of progress in expanding the popularity of WAG, making it more accessible, and encouraging more nations to strongly invest in their programs.
If country limits have a place in the Olympics, it should be as a goal to encourage sports to work towards achieving parity so that country limits may one day no longer be necessary. Their removal being the reward after a sport has resolved corrupt judging, and grown its base so that a wide variety of nations can achieve success. The United States may be the dominant power, but the history of the sport dictates that even when a superpower program is granted three entrants, they are far from a guarantee to sweep the All-Around.
Which is why it makes little sense to have a rule that guarantees gymnasts will be sacrificed at every Olympics in the name of preventing that statistical anomaly.