Romania's Olympic gymnastics failure: where did it all go wrong?

Olympic Lane Road Marking

On Sunday morning when the Romanians marched into the arena in Rio, they were the defending Olympic team bronze medalists. When they exited two hours later, it was clear that the team that had introduced Nadia Comaneci and the Perfect 10 40 years ago would not be sending a squad to Brazil in the summer.

Related: 50 stunning Olympic moments No5: Nadia Comaneci scores a perfect 10 | Simon Burnton

Everything started going wrong for the Romanians almost from the minute they saluted the judges and stepped out onto the mint green podium. Their first event was the uneven bars, which is a weakness for the team across the board. Though the first competitor hit, the next one up, team veteran Diana Bulimar, fell. But even on hit sets, they were one to two points per routine off the pace of the top programs.

Next came beam, traditionally a strength for the Romanian program, who pioneered the “move quick as a bunny and look great while doing it” style of balance beam. But on Sunday, they had two falls there. They added falls on floor and vault, too. At the end of the first subdivision of four, they were sitting in second behind the Australians, a team whose only world medal came in 2003 on a technicality when the Chinese were harshly penalized for flipping on podium while waiting to compete. With stronger teams to come in the later subdivisions, it was inevitable that they would be bumped out of the top four, which would keep them from Olympic qualification.

At the end of the day all but one team – the South Koreans – surpassed them. Even Switzerland moved ahead of them in the final tally.

“I was surprised,” Rick McCharles, a former Canadian judge and coach, told the Guardian in an email. He was in Rio, blogging about the Test Event for his site, Gymnastics Coaching. He said he thought they had just enough to land in the top four.

To be fair, the Romanians were plagued with unusually bad luck in the run up to Sunday, losing their top two gymnasts – 2015 world bronze medalist Larisa Iordache and Laura Jurca – in the weeks leading up to the test event. The loss of Iordache, in particular, was especially painful. When she’s on, she’s usually the top scorer for the team on every single apparatus. And she’s the only one among them capable of a world class bar routine, boosting their total on that piece by at least two full points.

In the past, losing such prized gymnasts wouldn’t have put Olympic qualification in doubt. Romania would have replaced the injured athletes with other capable gymnasts – perhaps not stars in their own right but able to get the job done. But when that time came, there was almost no one on the bench. Silvia Zarzu was so weak on the bars they didn’t bother putting her in competition on the event even though they had a fall they were looking to drop.

More significantly, in the good ol’ days of Romanian gymnastics, they wouldn’t have been forced to qualify to the Games in April of the Olympic year. They would’ve already taken care of this at the previous world championships by placing in the top eight among all of the teams.

At the 2015 worlds in Glasgow, the Romanians self-destructed on the uneven bars with all but one gymnast falling off. These grievous errors, along with weak performances on their traditional strengths, floor and vault, sent them plummeting down the standings to 13th place. This meant that they would not make the team finals. And more importantly, their Olympic qualification was in doubt for the first time in 40 years – since Nadia Comaneci put Romania on the map for something other than vampires.

But 2015 was not the first indication that something was rotten in the state of Romanian gymnastics. The signs were there for years. At the 2014 world championships, the team almost missed out on team finals but was saved by the weakness of the field and a heroic performance from Iordache, who single-handedly dragged them into the top eight after preliminaries.

Back in 2010 and 2011, the team failed to medal for the first time in, well, ever. These results prompted officials to bring back legendary coaches Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang, who led the team to two Olympic team titles and a streak of world championships wins from 1994-2001. Also, former gymnasts like Catalina Ponor, a triple gold medalist in 2004, came out of retirement to help improve the team’s ranking. Her technical firepower on beam and floor (along with a decent vault) was the main reason the Romanians were able to edge China for the bronze in London. This result, along with individual medals for Ponor and Sandra Izbasa, a veteran of the 2008 Games, papered over the problems that were plaguing the program. As long as you win a medal at the Olympics, things can’t be that bad, can they?

Ponor, who is now 28, came out of retirement yet again to help the Romanians qualify to Rio, was not able to save them though she really, really tried. After an aggressive beam set and a sultry floor performance (where she is the defending Olympic silver medalist), she went to vault, an event she has barely trained in this comeback due to an injury. Rather than going for a simple vault, Ponor went for broke, going for a double twisting Yurchenko. She seemed to have gotten lost in the air and didn’t complete any of the rotations. She crashed badly.

“We have said after the competitions in Sydney [2000] and Athens [2004] that things will not work forever because of the individual brilliance of someone like Andreea Raducan, Simona Amanar, or Catalina Ponor,” Bellu said in an interview following the disastrous result. There needs to be investment and organization at the grassroots level. You can’t keep bringing your old stars out of retirement. And you can’t cram for the Olympics as you would for an exam.

Bellu also cast some of the blame onto the gymnasts themselves. “I have my doubts regarding the girls who are now in the quad. I have the feeling they’re not motivated enough or don’t like the sport,” he said. “I tried during these past months, together with Mariana Bitang, to help out but we couldn’t really do much, as the girls were mostly injured.”

Paul Ziert, however, the publisher of International Gymnast Magazine, laid some of the blame for the team’s poor performance at the feet of Bellu, Bitang, and the Romanian gymnastics federation, which panicked in the face of poor results and changed the team’s coaching situation multiple times in the last few months. He also noted that neither Bellu nor Bitang were in Rio with the team. “What messages does that send to this largely inexperienced team of talented young women?” he asked in an open letter published on the magazine’s Facebook page. “One does not need to be a PhD in Psychology to know that their not going would easily bred thoughts that this team was an embarrassment to them.”

Bitang asserted that Ziert was wrong in his assessment, that it didn’t matter whether or not they, who were volunteers, not staff coaches, were present with the team. And, she noted, that this was also largely a matter of resources, pointing out that countries like Belgium had greatly invested in the sport and had results to show for it. At the test event, Belgium qualified their first full team to the Olympics since 1948.

“Something has to change in the Romanian gymnastics school or things will keep getting worse,” Bellu commented.

McCharles is not optimistic that the Romanians can rejoin the top echelon of teams. “I’m not sure we will ever again see Romania one of the top four nations,” he said. The country is poor, its population is shrinking, and they don’t have nearly as many elite training facilities as their competitors do. “They will have individual stars, but it may be that nations including Great Britain, Canada and France have now surpassed them for the long term.”

As Romania’s star has fallen, new countries have risen to take its place. In 2015, Great Britain won its first ever team medal – a bronze – at the world championships. There are other countries whose programs are also on the rise. Italy has placed as high as fourth in the past. And the Netherlands will be sending its first full team to the Olympics since 1976 by virtue of their eighth place finish in 2015.

McCharles conceded that the 2016 Olympics will probably not be as exciting without Romania. But that doesn’t mean that the future for the sport globally speaking is bleak. “When new nations challenge USA, China, and Russia, we’ll be able to move on to the new normal,” he said.

Forty years after Nadia, the “new normal” has started – an Olympic Games without Romanian gymnastics.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dvora Meyers, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th April 2016 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010