FIG and new Olympic qualification system in Gymnastics

During its annual meeting over the weekend in Melbourne (AUS), the FIG Council approved a new system of Olympic qualification that will alter how teams and how individuals can qualify to the Games beginning with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (JPN). The proposal, borne of the FIG Executive Committee, passed by a margin of 29 for and 7 against, with 1 abstention. In order to facilitate understanding of some of the finer points of the newly adopted system, here are a few questions and answers about the new system and its implications for the sport:
Q: The FIG has announced that it will be reducing team sizes at the Olympic Games from five gymnasts to four gymnasts. Does the FIG really want fewer gymnasts competing at the Games?
A: Of course not. The new format will actually allow more gymnasts from countries with deep national teams to compete at the Olympic Games, not less. The number of Artistic gymnasts competing in the Olympic Games — 98 men and 98 women — will remain the same, as will the number of routines performed. At present, only five gymnasts per country can compete at the Olympics. Beginning in 2020, up to six gymnasts per country can qualify to compete at the Olympic Games. Since six is greater than five, the new system actually creates opportunity for gymnasts from deep countries who might not be selected for a five-person Olympic team. Yes, the team competition will be limited to four gymnasts per country, and the other gymnasts who qualify will perform in qualifications trying to reach the All-around and/or event finals. But again, more gymnasts from countries with the deepest teams — gymnasts who are very deserving of participating in the Olympic Games — will be able to compete under the new system.
Q: So even if there are six gymnasts at the Olympic Games for the strongest countries, only four will compete in the team competition. That’s not fair to the other two gymnasts from that country, is it?
A: Without a doubt, all gymnasts would like to represent their countries in a team competition at the Olympic Games. However, it is sometimes the case that an Olympic-caliber gymnast with the potential to make finals and win medals is not selected for his or her team, for one reason or another. That gymnast doesn’t get to compete at the Olympics at all. That’s not fair either. Under the new system, those gymnasts will still have a path to qualify to compete at the Olympic Games, to have the wonderful Olympic experience and to proudly represent their countries. It seems unlikely that a gymnast would turn down the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games simply because he or she would not be able to do one part of the competition.
Q: Doesn’t reducing the Olympic team to four people force all four to be strong All-around gymnasts? Isn’t that unfair to the specialists?
A: Historically in Artistic Gymnastics most gymnasts are All-arounders, and it’s only in the past 10 years or so that we’ve seen the rise of the specialist, where some gymnasts stop training all events. Some have even complained about the decline of the All-around gymnast as specialists became more prominent. Because of the evolving format of team competitions, specializing suddenly made sense where it hadn’t before. Also, with the current system, a true specialist, one who cannot even do the All-around at an Olympic Test Event, has only one opportunity to qualify to the Olympic Games – and that’s by winning a medal at the World Championships the year before the Games. If the specialist does not win a medal, he or she does not qualify to the Games. Under the new system, a place at the Olympic Games will be reserved for medallists on all events. If the medallists on an event are from countries that have already qualified a team to the Games, their place at the Olympics will go to the gymnast who finished next on the list on the event, down to eighth place. Even specialists who have a bad day in qualification at the World Championships and don’t make finals will have a second way to qualify for the Games, through the World Challenge Cups in the Olympic year.
Q: Will the new system affect how gymnasts can qualify for the Rio Games in 2016?
A: No. The new system will take effect for qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Q: How will the Olympic qualifying process for Tokyo change, exactly?
A: The top three teams from the 2018 World Championships will be awarded team berths to the Olympic Games. The top nine teams (not including those already qualified) from the 2019 World Championships will also advance, forming the 12 teams who will compete in the team event. Additionally, individuals whose country does not qualify to the Games who win a medal at the 2019 Worlds will also earn a nominative berth to the 2020 Games. They don’t even need to medal: if the medallists on an event are from countries that have already qualified a team to the Games, their place at the Olympics will go to the gymnast who finished next on the list on the event, down to eighth place. So it’s actually possible for a gymnast who finishes eighth in a World final to earn a place at the Olympic Games. Everyone else, including two additional gymnasts from the 12 countries whose teams have already qualified, will have an opportunity to qualify to the Games via the 2020 World Cup events and 2020 Continental Championships.
Q: Are the Olympic places gained at the World Cups nominative?
A: No. The places gained through the World Cups will be gained for the National Federation, who will then be able to nominate a gymnast to take the spot.
Q: So the Olympic Test Event will no longer be an Olympic qualification event?
A: Correct. Part of the reasoning behind this is that the Olympic Test Event is a one-shot qualifier to the Games. If a gymnast has a bad competition at the Test Event, they don’t qualify to go to the Olympic Games, period. By spreading this qualification out over the World Cup events and the Continental Championships, this makes it fairer to the athletes trying to qualify, and less pressure-filled. If they do poorly at one World Cup, it won’t be the end of their Olympic dream. Additionally, the present system forces specialists to train the All-around, because you have to compete All-around at the Test Event in order to qualify for the Olympic Games if your country doesn’t qualify a team and you don’t win a medal at the World Championships the year before the Games. The new system does away with this and will allow specialists to train their specialties and qualify for the Games based on their specialties.
Q: What are the benefits of tying the Olympic qualifying process to the World Cups and Continental Championships?
A: The buzz generated by what’s at stake will also increase the prestige of the World Cups and Continential Championships, and the prestige of the sport in general. More Olympic qualification events will likely to translate to more TV coverage and more buzz surrounding deserving gymnasts on their road to the Olympics. Additionally, spreading Olympic qualification out over several competitions makes it more likely that if a worthy gymnast has one bad day at a competition, it’s not the end of his or her Olympic dream, which is currently the case when it comes to qualifying through the Test Event. Not to mention that under this qualification system, specialists will not be forced to train the All-around if they don’t want to.
Q: Only the World Cups and Continental Championships during the Olympic year will be Olympic qualifiers, right?
A: Correct.
Q: But some gymnasts from smaller countries can’t afford to travel to all the World Cup events. Isn’t this system therefore unfair to them?
A: National Olympic Committees take Olympic qualification competitions seriously. Funding for travel and expenses will be made available for a gymnast who is going to compete at an Olympic qualifier, whereas that might not be the case for a gymnast who is just competing at a World Cup.
Q: Gymnasts who qualify through the World Cups will be competing all the time during the spring of the Olympic year, while gymnasts who will be selected for the team competition won’t have to compete as much. Isn’t that unfair?
A: These gymnasts will also be spared from having to endure their country’s rigorous team selection process, which usually takes place in early summer several weeks before the Games begin and can lead to injury or burnout or both. The individual qualifiers won’t have to deal with this stress right before the Games and will be able to profit from a longer preparation time. It’s a trade-off.
Q: How many gymnasts get to compete at the Olympic Games?
A: The International Olympic Committee has set the number of Artistic gymnasts who can compete at the Games to 98 men and 98 women.
Q: Shouldn’t more gymnasts have the right to compete at the Games, given that Gymnastics is one of three top-tier sports (along with Swimming and Track and Field) at the Olympics?
A: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sets the number of participants for each sport at the Olympic Games. It has allocated 98 spots for Men’s Gymnastics and 98 Spots for Women’s Gymnastics, in addition to 60 spots for Rhythmic Gymnastics and 24 spots for Trampoline Gymnastics.
While the FIG would love to have more gymnasts competing at the Olympic Games (in all disciplines, including Acrobatic and Aerobic Gymnastics!), the IOC is the organization that decides how many gymnasts get to compete, and from which disciplines.
Q: What does a gymnast need to do to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016?
A: A gymnast whose national team does not earn a team berth to the 2016 Olympics can earn an individual berth to compete at the Games if he or she:
– Wins an individual medals at the World Championships immediately preceding the Games
– Qualify as All-around gymnasts at the Olympic Test Event
– Are awarded a spot based on being from an underrepresented continent
– Are awarded “wildcard” spots
Remember, as the rules are right now, only five gymnasts maximum per country are able to compete.
Q: Doesn’t this new format favor teams of All-around gymnasts? What about the specialists?
A: The new format makes room for All-arounders and specialists. The competition format at the Olympic Games will be 4-4-3, meaning that in qualifications, all four gymnasts will compete on each event, while the top three scores will count toward the team qualification. Team finals will remain three-up, three-count. But the specialists will get their moment in individual event finals.
It’s not certain either that countries will overlook their specialists completely when selecting for a team. With team finals being three-up, three-count, it may be to a country’s advantage to take a gymnast who is fantastic on one or two events but less so on the other two, have that gymnast compete All-around in qualifications, and swallow slightly lower scores on the gymnast’s weaker events in order to have those stronger scores in team finals on the gymnast’s best events. It’s a question of strategy and will depend on the country.
Q: Does this new system benefit smaller countries?
A: In theory, it does make the team competition tighter. Many countries who have difficulty coming up with five Olympic gymnasts for a five-person team competition have a much better shot at making a team final under the new system. If you’re a nation that has been on the bubble of Olympic team qualification, you have reasons to like this system. The tradeoff for the stronger countries is that they get to have up to two extra gymnasts competing for medals at the Olympic Games. With more gymnasts competing, the likelihood that the country will walk out with medals is bigger. The likelihood that high-caliber gymnasts who deserve to compete at the Olympic Games will get there is also bigger.
Q: What was the vote in the FIG Council?
A: 29 for, 7 against, 1 abstention. The proposal passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.

FIG / 2015-05-21