The Worst Olympic Qualification Model Ever Devised

Note: Special thanks to Dave (Chocdave), Debbie (MizMamie & Gymn-Forum), and Magda (I Love Romanian Gymnastics) for providing so much help in tracking down information for this article.

While researching the history of Swiss gymnastics in the 1970s, I stumbled upon the story of the 1976 Olympic qualification process. The process was so flawed that national programs realized they could easily cheat their way to an Olympic qualification spot. By the time it was all over, every national program had done precisely that. At first, it sounded like the story of the stupidest Olympic qualification process FIG could ever devise. But the more I look at it, the more comparisons I see to the current 4+2 methodology.

The 4+2 model is so complex that I’m not going to even attempt trying to explain it to the causal gymnastics fans who have found this article via Google and don’t follow the sport in non-Olympic years. But the parallels between Montreal-1976 and Tokyo-2021 are staggering. In both cases a system that looks really stupid, actually wasn’t all that poorly thought out. If anything, many of the ideas sounded good on paper, the issue was FIG trying to solve too many problems at once. And in both cases, FIG ended up taking the blame for a terrible qualification system that FIG never wanted in the first place, but was forced upon them due to demands from the IOC and logistical considerations.

For as terrible as both the 1976 and 2021 models were, when they are thoroughly analyzed it becomes understandable what FIG was trying to accomplish and the various rationales for each component. For all the mockery, their final decisions were neither unintelligent nor misguided, but a good faith attempt to create the best system based on what they had to work with.

So what was so bad about 1976?

The problem started at the 1972 Olympics when a staggering 19 teams competed in Munich. At the time the IOC and FIG were in the middle of a battle, the same battle that has been fought between the two sports organizations in every decade of the past 60 years. The IOC wanted to downsize the competitive field of Olympic gymnastics to make room for other sports, while the FIG worked to do everything in its power to prevent that from happening.

Andrea Bieger: 1976 Olympian for West Germany

But at 19 teams gymnastics had far too many athletes to avoid the crosshairs of the IOC and a concession had to be made. Starting in 1976 the Olympics would be limited to just 12 teams. The FIG didn’t like it, but it had to be done. If the FIG was unhappy with the situation, it paled in comparison to how understandably upset every country who had finished 9th through 19th at the 1972 Olympics was going to be.

But it wasn’t the reduction of teams that was the problem, but selecting the teams that added a fuel to the fire regarding a group of nations who had already been alienated by the reduction in team size. The first major mishap was the World Championships schedule. The 1976 Olympic cycle would be the final time the World Championships were held under the old “once every four years” format. The World Championships were placed directly in the middle of an Olympic quad. This limited the viability of using the World Championships as a qualification competition for all 12 teams.

It wouldn’t have been fair to use the 1974 World Championships as an accurate indicator of who the top teams were for the 1976 Olympics. That two year difference was more than enough time for a team to rise and fall in the standings. The reasonable solution was to give the six highest scoring teams of 1974 an automatic bid to the Olympics, and then find another opportunity later in the quad and closer to the Olympics to sort out the 7-12 teams.

The new dilemma was how to rank the remaining teams. The solution was to have various countries compete against each on in a dual meet, and use the results from those competitions to select teams. At this point the system sounds logical and even intriguing. The idea of team vs team matchups to advance to the Olympics is a concept that is very in-line with other sports.

1976 United States-Romania Dual Meet

The first issue that caused this model to fall apart was the way FIG membership was set up. There were far too many gymnastics programs in the world to complete a round robin format. There were also geographical hiccups as some gymnastics powers were an ocean away from each other. International travel was easy and accessible back then, but the concept of athletes maintaining ambitious travel schedules was still an emerging trend. The early 1970s would prove to be something of a transition era where the Olympic sports requiring its athletes to undergo a rigorous travel schedule was slowly evolving into a norm.

With geographical considerations in mind, national programs were given the flexibility to select their own opponents. Doing this in any situation is simply asking for trouble. Sports administrators are smart enough to figure out how to get creative with the schedule and pick opponents who give them a strategic advantage. As well intentioned as this idea was, it was the beginning of a free-for-all that was going to trigger chaos. But the real chaos was yet to come.

At this point the FIG was using neither a playoff-bracket nor a round robin to eliminate national programs as they contended for the final six spots. This meant there was only one option left, set a particular score threshold and award Olympic qualification spots to the countries who can hit that threshold in a dual meet. Some readers will already begin to see the problem with this.

As dumb as this idea sounds, it must be remembered that this wasn’t an unusual concept. This metric is frequently used by other Olympics sports to award Olympic spots. Furthermore, by this point FIG was effectively boxed in with every good option already off the table due to the previously mentioned logistical reasons. And with the decision being made in 1975, the timeline only added to FIG’s constraints.

So what made this option so terrible? Gymnastics is a judging-based sport where the top scores vary depending on the competition. Even if FIG had randomly assigned matchups for these dual meets, the various national programs would have quickly realized that if they mutually agreed to overscore each other, both teams would qualify to the Olympics.

That’s what would have happened under the best case scenario. But this was the 1970s, an era rift with accusations of rigged judging. How does rigged judging occur in the Olympic sports? Two countries get together and mutually agree to have their judges overscore the athletes of both teams. What did FIG do? Create an Olympic qualification system where two national programs could agree to hold a dual meet with each other, under circumstances where it was mutually beneficial to overscore both teams.

In an era where it was widely known various countries had “alliances” with each other to overscore their athletes, the FIG had allowed countries to choose their allies as opponents. Even worse, in an era where national programs were working with each other to taint the integrity of the final results, FIG had created a system where there was no guarantee one team would lose. Effectively ensuring the two sides wouldn’t see each other as opponents, but friends who could work together to get both of their teams to the Olympics.

All occurring under the context of a dual-meet format with just two nations competing. Naturally, this inhibits the ability to bring in neutral judges who lack affiliations with either nation. The FIG mandated the presence of neutral judges, but they didn’t have to constitute a majority of the judging panel.

Karen Kelsall: 1976 Olympian for Canada

The year is 1976 and WAG is about to embark on one of the most blatant and unapologetic streaks of overscoring the sport has ever seen. The rules are simple, schedule two opponents of your choosing, and get through each competition with your team having a collective average of 8.750 points per routine. That’s all a country needs to do in order to qualify for the Olympics.

The 8.750 threshold was effectively meaningless as FIG was going to take the six teams with the highest scores. With that in mind, all anyone wanted to do was get their scores so high, they would reach the top-6 regardless of how good or bad their actual performance was.

The opening salvo was fired by Italy. The country had finished 13th at the 1974 World Championships and on paper, was expected to be the last team eliminated due to the 12-team cut-off rule. In dual meets against Romania and Hungary, Italy scored 373.95 and 378.70 points respectively. These scores would have placed them 2nd and 3rd at the 1974 World Championships.

This meant Italy had surpassed the Netherlands, who was supposed to be the last team packing their bags for Montreal. How did the Dutch respond? They also scheduled a dual meet with Romania and recorded a score that was even higher, their score of 380.2 was more appropriate for the Soviets than a fringe Olympic contender. Not only were countries overscoring themselves in dual meets, they started overscoring their gymnasts in domestic meets such as the national championships in order to make their international scores look more legitimate.

The official magazine for USA Gymnastics wrote “the Olympic qualification system in gymnastics has turned into a farce.” But when push came to shove, the Americans needed some generous scoring of their own if they wanted to send a team to the Olympics, and they found it. In a dual meet against Canada the United States scored 375.2 while also scoring 379.2 against Romania. Once again, these scores were enough to record a silver and bronze medal at the previous World Championships. Although the Americans were somewhat justified in criticizing other countries for their conduct, the Americans had only cheated by about half as much as Western Europe.

The Canadians were also a bit more restrained. Their score of 363 points against the United States bumped them from “only” 11th to 6th using the scores from the 1974 World Championships as a benchmark. Perhaps the West Germans were the most blatant about it. They scored 379.35 points against Switzerland and 382.2 against Romania. Both scores would have handed them the silver medal at the 1974 World Championships.

Susan Cheesebrough: 1976 and 1980 Olympian for Great Britain

Or maybe it was Great Britain? The British scored 367.55 against Romania and 372.8 against East Germany. The first score would have placed them 6th at the 1974 World Championships, while the second score would have given them the bronze medal. Not bad for the country that had actually finished 17th.

Switzerland did virtually the exact same thing, their score of 374.3 against West Germany took them from 15th to bronze in the 1974 standings. France joined in on the trend of everyone scheduling a dual meet with Romania. The French walked away with a cool 369.35, good enough to propel them from 14th to 4th on the now pointless standings from the 1974 World Championships. Even though France had jumped ten spots in the national standings, they ended up being one of the less blatant countries from Europe when it came to over scoring.

As for Romania, they had already qualified a team, yet had still participated in many of these dual meets. The Eastern Bloc as a whole often jumped at the opportunity to compete against Western nations. It provided them with access to profitable markets while giving them a propaganda coup of being able to claim they were so important, the West begged to compete against them.

But the Eastern Bloc had athletic considerations as well, and this was more true for Romania than any other country. At the time Romania was a new power in WAG and they took advantage of these dual meets to raise the profile of the overall program. Romania also had an abnormally young national team and these dual meets provided the perfect opportunity to give their gymnasts some badly needed competitive experience.

They also wanted their gymnasts competing in blatantly overscored competitions as a “reputation boost” for their young and upcoming stars. Most notably, Nadia Comaneci. Whereas Western Europe and North America seemed to understand the unspoken rule was don’t rig the scores to the point where you are outscoring the Soviets, the Romanians went right past that. The score Romania produced against the Netherlands of 390.55 was the highest anyone had ever seen at the time.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s that such scoring would become the norm in non-Olympic competition. As for Nadia Comaneci, she performed eight routines and scored five Perfect-10s. International Gymnast reported that she had appeared in 14 contests over the course of “a few weeks” and speculation was beginning to mount that Nadia was being overworked to the point of injury.

1976 France-Romania Dual Meet

Then there was the dual meet between Romania and North Korea. The Romanians scored 389.25 in this competition, which didn’t sound as bad as their previous 390.55, until it was realized that both Nadia and Teodora Ungureanu were absent from the Romanian lineup. As for the North Koreans, their score of 385.4 would have given them the gold medal at the 1974 World Championships.

In a testament to how out of control the scoring had become, the East German B-team recorded a dual meet score of 379.5 that surpassed the score of 376.55 that the East German A-team had achieved at the 1974 World Championships. This from a country that had already qualified a team to the Olympics and with gymnasts who weren’t even going to appear in a starting lineup. There was absolutely no motivation for East Germany to inflate the scores like this. Yet it had happened anyway and the country that had benefited was Great Britain, a strong contender for one of the final Olympic qualification spots.

Eventually FIG had had enough and implemented a massive overhaul to the qualification process. The scores of the dual meets would remain, but would count for only 60% of the total ranking. The other 40% would be earned at a qualifier in Hamburg, West Germany. International Gymnast featured quotes to the news including “the nightmare is over” and “common sense has got the best.”

For as bad as this system was, I fret at the thought of FIG setting up these dual meets to be an elimination style bracket. Western Europe probably would have low-balled Nadia Comaneci if they needed to beat the Romanians in order to qualify for the Olympics. Or at the very least, everyone would have scheduled programs like Malta and Luxembourg to get their two wins.

For those in FIG who had orchestrated the original qualification model, their decisions did make sense when logistical factors are considered. They had attempted to create a qualification model that limited the load that was placed on gymnasts and avoid adding a second major competition to the schedule on short notice. That concern was validated in the following Olympic quad when a second World Championships was rapidly added to the schedule, and an atrocious injury rate to go with it.

In the 1970s teams frequently found themselves canceling major trips because they lacked either the funding or the paperwork that was necessary. It was a valid concern that adding a “can’t miss” qualifying competition to the schedule would cause problems for teams who were unable to attend. That concern was validated at the 1975 World Cup which featured the absence of the East German team in what was supposed to be one of the most high profile competitions of the year. It was purported to have been related to weather preventing their flight from arriving.

The United States was quick to complain about the massive costs associated with the Hamburg meet, but under the original model, the United States could have qualified to the Olympics without making a trip to a competition in Europe. While these dual meets presented WAG with some of the most notorious judging the sport had ever seen, it had occurred in spite of strong FIG oversight not due to the absence of it.

Section 8.0 of the qualification rules was titled “Nullity of the Competition Because of Irregularities.” In section 8.1 it stated:

“If the judges or the organizer are unobjective, bias, or irregularities exist, then the presidents of the TC/FIG can declare the competition void, and declare the two Federations to set forth a new competition or in some cases not to permit further competition at all.”

These countries effectively dared FIG to invoke that rule and rigged these competitions knowing full well they were risking having the results thrown out and potentially, denied the opportunity to participate in a replacement event. But when you are the 13th team and only 12 teams get to go to the Olympics, what do you have to lose?

In both Tokyo-2021 and Montreal-1976, these are qualification models that are rather infamous. In each case it looks like FIG acted recklessly and without thought. But when the needs and concerns of FIG are analyzed it reveals a thought process where the organization was forced to choose between athletic considerations and logistical considerations. All while dealing with quota cuts from the IOC while simultaneously being tasked with promoting more opportunity for underdeveloped countries. The FIG is put in the literal situation of being told to do more with less. All while finding themselves forced to choose between various bad options without an ideal solution to work with.

So it comes as no surprise when the whole thing falls apart.

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