There have been easily a dozen different ways FIG has shot itself in the foot in recent years, but its latest misstep involves the decision to not award a Longines Prize for Elegance at the 2021 World Championships.
Conventional sports wisdom dictates that a heavy emphasis on corporate sponsors cheapens the atmosphere of any given sporting event and serves no real purpose other than a cheap money grab. But the Longines Prize for Elegance was without question, a rare exception to that philosophy.
The Longines Prize for Elegance as a concept was something gymnastics fans had strongly embraced and the award itself was a net benefit to the sport. Gymnastics fans had grown accustomed to treating it as an unofficial 7th medal in women’s gymnastics, with similar treatment being extended to men’s gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics as well. Even before the 2021 World Championships there was a Reddit thread where fans speculated on who the potential winners would be.
Because that is the level the Longines Prize for Elegance was on. Where fans felt so passionately about it, felt it was such a legitimate honor, that they rooted for their sentimental favorites to win it. For most sports administrators, getting their upstart corporate sponsorship awards on the same level as the Longines Prize for Elegance would be considered a daunting task with only a small chance of succeeding.
But in gymnastics, the Longines Prize for Elegance managed to be taken seriously in an industry where these types of awards are so frequently met with an eyeroll. The award has its own Wikipedia page, and during any given World Championships one of the more anticipated moments of the competition was when the winner of the Longines Prize for Elegance would finally be announced.
But the Longines Prize for Elegance’s greatest accomplishment was how unique it was. It evolved to become the closest thing gymnastics had to an MVP trophy which is a staple of so many major sports leagues from European soccer to the NFL. But the Longines Prize for Elegance was by no means an MVP trophy. The award frequently went to the most popular gymnast who didn’t have success in an individual event. Or on other occasions, a heavy medal favorite who didn’t win as she was expected to.
This setup had two major and positive influences for gymnastics. First, the Longines Prize for Elegance’s unique structure where it mixed elements of being an MVP award and a fan popularity poll made it something that was unique relative to major trophies in other sports. This uniqueness enhanced its marketing power and gave the Longines Prize for Elegance a distinct advantage in promoting the athletes who actually won it in a way that wouldn’t be possible if it were a more traditional award.
Secondly, the winners of the Longines Prize for Elegance was disproportionately awarded to rising stars and surging programs. Helping get the name out on gymnasts who would have a major impact in the sport in the years to come. In 2018 Angelina Melnikova won the Longines Prize for Elegance at a time when her career where had been plagued with three consecutive years of disappointment. Today she is one of the biggest superstars in the sport.
Gymnastics is not the only sport where the Longines Prize for Elegance is awarded. But it was by far the most high-profile sport that has it, and the only sport where it is so embraced that it can dominate the online discourse. One reason to be upset that there was no Longines Prize for Elegance at the 2021 World Championships, it kills all the momentum this award had.
If given the proper support, this award could one day become more than something that is known only to the hardcore gymnastics fandom. It could one day have possibly risen to the level where the wave of non-gymnastics media who only cover gymnastics when the Olympics and World Championships comes around, catches on to how prestigious Longines Prize for Elegance is considered inside the gymnastics fanbase.
What made the Longines Prize for Elegance so cherished within the gymnastics fandom, it always seemed to select the gymnasts who were loved by the fans. It was almost as if the Longines Prize for Elegance via proxy, gave fans a direct choice in the matter. Its emphasis on selecting fan favorites, the lovable underdogs, the gymnast who had an unfortunate day and was in badly need of a hug, ensured it never had an unpopular selection.
The Longines Prize for Elegance gave gymnastics programs something to celebrate, even while not winning as many medals as they would have liked. It allowed them to write press releases, and media/fan messages that framed disappointing competitions as wins. Or even make successful competitions appear even more so. It helped these programs stimulate their base, and helped bloggers like myself promote the sport.
Earlier in the year I profiled American rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng in an article. But Zeng didn’t have any medals in Olympic and/or World Championships competition for me to point to. To demonstrate why Zeng is a highly celebrated, respected gymnast in her sport, and a leader of the American program, I used her Longines Prize for Elegance award instead.
This is why I’m particularly frustrated with the sudden omission of the Longines Prize for Elegance. It is taking away a tool that gymnastics media and even governing bodies have used to promote the sport and promote various athletes to great effect. If this was a one-off event, I’d take a more forgiving tone. But FIG does this time and time again where its rhetoric describes a vision where it strives to grow the sport by improving outreach with fans, but does little to actually fulfill that goal.
But on nearly every occasion it’s as if making the sport easier to promote and easier for fans to engage in, is a strategy neglected by FIG at best. At worst FIG inexplicably takes steps in the opposite for no real benefit. In some cases, the logic behind these decisions are so incompetent, it is confusing how these ideas ever made it to the drawing board.
Most notably, FIG’s bizarre policies of resorting to extreme time-saving measures that often undercut the integrity of the final scores in the name of saving time, only to countermand all the time saved by rotating between men’s events and women’s events. Or doing that and then adding in awards ceremonies after each event. If you wanted to watch the second day of apparatus finals in women’s gymnastics at the 2021 World Championships, it would have required you to wait for over an hour between two separate events.
The world of corporate sponsorships can be messy, and we don’t know whether it is Longines or FIG who should be blamed. But one thing that is clear, FIG should never have been put in a position where an award that has grown to be so valuable can just disappear after a falling out with a corporate sponsor. At the very least there should have been some way to establish continuality by coming up with its own prize that directly mirrored the award that has since disappeared.
But most importantly, this all occurred without any communication as to whether the Longines Prize for Elegance is simply gone for one year, or whether this change is permanent. It’s the lack of communication coupled with the longstanding trend where FIG always seems to be conducting itself in ways where “how does this help our sport” feels like it was the last thing considered before any decision is ever made.
Below: I had leftover pictures that I couldn’t fit in above, so consider them some additional bonus content.