Note: I wrote this article in conjunction with a second article on Swiss gymnastics. I highly recommend reading both articles.
Link To: Swiss Gymnastics: A Long History of Overcoming Adversity
In the last 15 years the women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program of Switzerland has produced a pair of iconic gymnasts, Ariella Kaslin and Giulia Steingruber. Together they have achieved the type of success that eludes most countries. Ariella has won both a gold medal and an All-Around (AA) medal at the European Championships, while also winning a medal at the World Championships. Her contemporary Giulia Steingruber has done all of that and more. Among the five gold medals Giulia has won at the European Championships, one of them is an AA title. Steingruber has also medaled at both the World Championships and the Olympics.
While Switzerland is capable of producing WAGs who can compete with the world’s best, one thing Switzerland has proven incapable of accomplishing, fielding a competitive team. In its entire history Switzerland has never finished in the top-12 in a non-boycotted competition at the World Championships and Olympics.
Think about this from the perspective of your average Swiss gymnast. If she wants to get to the Olympics, doing it as part of a full team is not a viable option as the Swiss program isn’t strong enough to qualify a team. But on the flip side, the Swiss program is just strong enough to have gymnasts like Giulia Steingruber dominate the qualification process which allows gymnasts to attend a major competition without making a team.
This has created what I like to call the Swiss Gymnastics Paradox where a gymnast is trapped in the dilemma where neither the team nor the individual option presents them with a viable path to an Olympic Games. While you are thinking of numerous WAG programs that fit this criteria, you may be surprised to learn just how extreme this phenomenon is in Swiss WAG. It doesn’t just affect the Olympics, but the World Championships as well.
The World Championships immediately following the Olympics does not have a team format. On every occasion that this format (created in 2005) has existed, Switzerland has sent only three gymnasts to a post-Olympic World Championships. Even though three spots sounds like enough availability to give the average Swiss gymnast a chance, it really isn’t.
Because the Swiss program is so top heavy, veteran Swiss gymnasts will usually grab two of these spots. Of the 12 bids that have been awarded to a Swiss gymnast in a post-Olympic World Championships, half of them went to Ariella Kaslin, Giulia Steingruber, and Ilaria Kaslin. The trio of Swiss gymnasts who have appeared in a World Championships/Olympics (Group-1 competition) a combined 22 times.
There are four years in every Olympic cycle, not only are two of these years virtually inaccessible to your average Swiss gymnast, but these two years are consecutive. The worst case scenario is to be the 4th ranked Swiss gymnast while turning senior eligible in an Olympic year. That gymnast will have just four viable options to make a lineup over the next decade.
That’s just two viable options to attend a World Championships and/or Olympics in any given Olympic cycle. And as is often the case, gymnasts get unlucky. They get injured or hit a slump at the wrong time, sometimes they have the results but the selection committee still manages to find a way to leave them off the team. With two “out of reach” competitions combined with an unlucky break, a gymnast can easily find herself having missed three major competitions. This isn’t so much a possibility of something that can happen, but something that occurs in any given year.
-Linda Staempfli represented Switzerland at the 2006 and 2010 World Championships, but missed every Group-1 competition from 2007-2009.
-Yasmin Zimmermann represented Switzerland at the 2007 and 2011 World Championships, but missed every Group-1 competition from 2008-2010.
-Jessica Diacci represented Switzerland at the 2011 and 2015 World Championships, but missed every Group-1 competition from 2012-2014.
-Stefanie Siegenthaler represented Switzerland at the 2014 and 2018 World Championships, but missed every Group-1 competition from 2015-2017.
My data on gymnasts goes all the way back to 1964 and I couldn’t find a single American or Chinese gymnast who missed three consecutive competitions. The Russia program produced one example (Ludmilla Ezhova) while the trend occurred twice in the Romanian program with both occasions being Catalina Ponor. But in both cases, the gymnast in question had taken a hiatus after winning an Olympic medal.
Whereas six different Swiss gymnasts have missed two consecutive Group-1 competitions since 2003, that happened on only three occasions in the American program during the same period. But in two of those occasions (Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman) it featured a gymnast who took a hiatus immediately following a gold medal run at the Olympics.
Since 2003, there have been 28 gymnasts who have competed for Switzerland at the Group-1 level, 14 of 28 have only one career appearance. For comparison, in that same time period the American program has 17 of 43 gymnasts with one career appearance.
Statistically speaking, 71% of Swiss gymnasts will either finish their careers with only a single appearance at the World Championships/Olympics, or experience significant disruption to the point where they have to wait two years in between their Group-1 appearances. Of the remaining 29%, things weren’t exactly easy for them either.
Ilaria Kaslin competed in six consecutive World Championships, only to finish her career without ever attending an Olympic Games. Her contemporary Ariella Kaslin did manage to make it to the Olympics on one occasion, but could Ariella have been a 3x Olympian? She failed to earn a spot at the 2004 Olympics despite being the second best Swiss gymnast at the 2003 World Championships. At the 2010 World Championships Ariella Kaslin finished 8th in the AA, only to make a surprise retirement just a year and a half before the 2012 Olympics.
I can’t help but think how Ariella’s career would have been different had her teammates been either less talented or more talented. Ariella hung up her grips right as Switzerland was seeing the rise of Giulia Steingruber. Giulia was younger, more talented, and destined to surpass the very milestones Ariella once achieved. It must have been difficult for Ariella to press forward knowing that the rise of Giulia not only made the path to the Olympics that much more difficult, but was a painful reminder to the events of 2004. Ariella was facing the prospect of missing the Olympics despite being the 2nd ranked Swiss gymnast for the second time in her career.
If her teammates had been less talented, would Ariella have pressed ahead to 2012 knowing there was no Swiss rival to worry about as she embarked on the individual Olympic qualification route? Had her teammates been more talented, would Ariella have decided to press ahead to 2012 knowing she had a viable path to the Olympics as part of a Swiss team? Would Ariella not have had such negative coaching experiences throughout her career if she competed in a system that doesn’t treat the #2 gymnast of a national program as completely expendable? In the Netherlands, their second best gymnast is a key asset to the team and vital to their performance in the team competition. In Switzerland the second best gymnast in the program has only an outside shot to make an Olympic lineup.
The reason I call this the Swiss Paradox even though it occurs in other programs is because the trend is so extreme in the WAG program of Switzerland. The strongest programs in WAG are countries that have either large populations, large concentrations of wealth, or both.
By population, Switzerland is the smallest country to have ever won a medal at the Olympics and World Championships. By GDP per-capita, Switzerland is also the wealthiest country to have ever won a medal at these two competitions. The Swiss Gymnastics Paradox isn’t so much a coincidence, but the natural consequence of a country that simultaneously has both the biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage when it comes to demographics.
In a testament to how well Switzerland outperforms relative to its population, it is effectively smallest* country to have every participated in an Event Finals. Other countries of Switzerland’s size struggle just to be a participant in an apparatus finals. Switzerland is strong enough to produce gymnasts who win medals and contend for the All-Around. Switzerland is the smallest European country to win a medal at the European Championships, and this is a country who has an AA title at that competition.
*The only country smaller than Switzerland to have qualified to an Event Finals was Latvia in 1993 thanks to Ludmilla Prince. But Prince was a longtime member of the Soviet WAG program and it isn’t a fair comparison.
When countries of Switzerland’s size have found success in WAG in the individual events, it is usually due to extenuating circumstances. They benefited from competitions that were sparsely attended, or had success with an athlete of dual nationality who spent most of her career in a different country. It is rare for a small country to do what Switzerland has done, it is even rarer to do it while using exclusively homegrown talent, and it is unprecedented to have so much success in the process.
But that success comes at a cost. The country that can produce dominant gymnasts, can’t build a team strong enough to qualify for the Olympics. And that places Swiss gymnasts in a paradox. This paradox goes all the way back to the late 1970s when Swiss WAG had been around for less than a decade. At the time Switzerland had a gymnast by the name of Romi Kessler. She never won a medal over the course of her career, but Romi was considered a noteworthy gymnast due to her status as the best WAG from Western Europe. The Swiss program that was being out performed by its contemporaries in the team competition was simultaneously producing a gymnast who could beat the best from France and Great Britain in the individual events.
But there is also a secondary reason I’m focusing this article on Switzerland. No other WAG program has such a painful history of misfortune blocking its gymnasts from the Olympics. The reason I said Switzerland’s program was less than a decade old in the late 1970s is because Switzerland didn’t have a viable WAG program until 1971. Prior to then Switzerland had intentionally neglected its WAG program and its track record on sexism and promoting opportunity for female athletes was atrocious.
Then came 1976 and 1980 when Switzerland was caught up in two consecutive boycotts. The events of 1976 including one of the most blatant examples in FIG history of a country that deserved to qualify an Olympic team being robbed of its qualification spot. Switzerland protested by refusing to send any WAGs to the 1976 Olympics, even though it had earned three individual qualifying spots.
Note: I wrote about all of the above in more detail in another article which covers the history of Swiss WAG. Link To: Swiss Gymnastics: A Long History of Overcoming Adversity
The country then found itself poorly positioned to take advantage of the changing political climate as communism fell in Europe. Instead its contemporaries (Great Britain, Spain, and France) reaped the rewards while Switzerland found itself limited to just one WAG appearing just once in an Olympic Games from 1988-2000. The Swiss Paradox is just one more thing on the list of all the things Swiss WAGs have had to overcome in order to get to the Olympics.
And yet they have built a program to be proud of. Ariella Kaslin raised the profile of the program. Giulia Steingruber raised the program even higher. Perhaps the next generation of Swiss gymnasts will raise the profile even higher so that for the first time in its history, the program can qualify a team to the Olympics (without a boycott) and the Swiss Paradox ceases to be a roadblock for the talent that exists within its ranks.