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Say Goodbye to the Iron Curtain
by Jana Beck

Romanian women’s gymnastics is all that is left of Iron Curtain athletic glory--and it's on its way down...

(See this article for more about the scandalous side of Romanian gymnastics: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/news/2002/04/18/romania_ap/)

Okay, so I have some explaining to do, because the Romanian women’s gymnastics team just captured their second in a row gold medal in the team competition, but their success was not due to their “sheer gymnastic superiority” (as stated by ESPN.com) but rather due to two factors:

1) The new team format for Olympic gymnastics. The preliminary round of the gymnastics competition was conducted as it always has been--six gymnasts compete for each country on each event and the five highest scores count. The team totals from the preliminary round only serve to determine which teams will advance to the final round. When the final round begins, every team starts with a clean slate. In the new format for the final round, only three gymnasts were allowed to compete on each event, and every score counted. The problem with this system is that it rewards teams (like Russia) who are good enough to get into the finals but don’t have a lot of depth. It rewards teams for having a few stars, not for having a strong all-around team. (Not one team present at this year’s Olympics was as deep as the American team.) Because no scores are dropped in the final round, this system also rewards teams that play it safe instead of throwing their best--but riskiest--skills. And if there’s anything the Romanian team has become known for in the post-Nadia era, it’s playing it safe. After Bela Karolyi (the father of Romanian gymnastics, now the self-cannonized patron saint of American gymnastics) defected from Romania, Octavian Belu took over coaching the Romanian team and attacked their routines with his scalpel, deftly removing the flash, the risk, and the style.

2) The subjective (read: STRESSFUL) selection process for the U.S. Olympic team, which taxed all the gymnasts to the edge of sanity before the Olympic games even began. The selection process used to be objective. Back in 1996, those who qualified for the Olympic trials (by placing high enough at the U.S. Championships or petitioning into the trials with scores from another major competition) competed against each other in an Olympic-format all-around competition, and the top seven scorers made the team. In 2000, Bela Karolyi was given complete veto power. The trials were run the same way, except that it didn’t matter who scored what--Bela got the final say, and he picked the top six gymnastics and the eighth (skipping over number seven, Vanessa Atler, whom he personally didn’t like). In Sydney, the U.S. women’s team didn't act like a team and didn’t score a single medal, team or individual. This year, the Olympic trials format and the selection process changed dramatically--but not for the better. As always, gymnasts qualified for the Olympic trials through the U.S. Championships, but then they had to compete in an exhausting two-day Olympic-format all-around meet. The top TWO performers at the Olympic trials were the only ones “guaranteed” (and still Marta Karolyi retained a limited veto power based on whether or not she judged the gymnasts to be “healthy”) spots on the Olympic team (those two were Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool, for those who are interested). THEN, the top sixteen gymnasts were “invited” to a “camp” at Marta (and Bela) Karolyi’s ranch, where every second of their lives and training were observed for a week before Marta and the rest of the selection committee decided who would travel to Athens.

Now, what I really want to celebrate is what happened in the individual all-around competition in women’s gymnastics: Carly Patterson, the American, won by nearly two-tenths of a point over Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian whose quest for an individual all-around gold medal was interupted in Sydney by other people’s mistakes (the vaulting horse was set too low). (Don’t feel too sorry for Khorkina, she’s a poor sport. At a press conference after the competition she said that Carly Patterson is only as good as she is because she has a Russian coach.) China’s Zhang Nan took the bronze medal. Not a SINGLE Romanian was on the medal podium, unlike in 2000 when three Romanians were gold, silver, and bronze.

The Point: Romanians just can’t stand alone, not anymore. Their only strengths are in numbers and consistency, not in difficulty, style, grace--or individuality. You can say goodbye to the Iron Curtain, once and for all. Finally.
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