A Moment Of Reckoning For Rhythmic Gymnastics?
Also: A Q&A with Hungarian journalist Gergely Marosi
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Last week, the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation announced that it had suspended Russian rhythmic gymnastics Irina Viner for two years due to her behavior following Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram’s victory at the 2021 Olympic Games over Russian favorite Dina Averina. Ashram’s win snapped a Russian gold medal winning streak that dated back to 2000.
Ashram’s win wasn’t the only black eye for Russian rhythmic gymnastics in 2021. The Russian group also lost the gold medal to the Bulgarian group in the final. Viner, the longtime president of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation, openly criticized the judging at the competition, saying that it was anti-Russian despite the fact that the official in charge of judging at the Tokyo Games was, in fact, Russian. Viner allegedly targeted Natalya Kuzmina, the Russian official in question, and had her candidacy for FIG’s rhythmic technical committee withdrawn. Her ban won’t officially begin until Russia’s suspension from international competition due to its invasion of Ukraine is lifted.
Per the Associated Press:
In comments to Russian media, Viner suggested the judges were motivated by anti-Russian prejudice and called the situation a “disgrace.” Viner also allegedly retaliated against an International Gymnastics Federation official from Russia who oversaw the judging at the Olympics by blocking her from running for re-election, and allegedly failed to cooperate with the inquiry.
A summary of the ruling on the FIG website didn’t specify exactly which of the accusations were upheld but said Viner was found “liable for breach of the FIG rules”. Her comments after the Olympics were “deemed abusive and in violation of FIG rules,” the statement said.
Here’s what Valentina Rodionenko, the head of the Russian artistic gymnastics effort, had to say about Viner and her sanction. (File under: Broken clock right twice a day.)
For those of you who have never heard of Viner, she’s the most successful rhythmic gymnastics coach in history. She has coached or had a role in coaching nearly every Olympic gold medalist in the 21st Century. Viner is also very well-connected politically. She was married to billionaire Alisher Usmanov, one of the richest men in Russia, for 30 years. One of Viner’s star pupils is Alina Kabaeva, the 2004 Olympic champion, who is allegedly Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend and the mother of at least one of his children though both have denied this. (Like fellow Russian Olympic gold medalist Svetlana Khorkina, Kabaeva has served in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.)
Back in 2018, I wrote about Viner and her coaching practices that were depicted in brutal detail in the Marta Prus documentary Over the Limit. The English title of the film is highly suggestive of the content—namely that the way the rhythmic gymnasts are coached goes beyond acceptable standards. In this film, Viner is seen and heard berating and cursing Margarita Mamun, a top gymnast who is training for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. (Mamun goes on to win the gold at those Games.)
Perhaps the worst part came when Viner used Mamun’s father’s illness—he would die of cancer within days of her Olympic victory—to manipulate her into a better performance. Here’s what I wrote over at Deadspin about that:
In one particularly brutal scene, Viner-Usmanova is trying to get Mamun to evoke tragedy in her performance. “Talk about your dad. Talk about everything. Don’t be a coward.” Later, she tells Zaripova that she told Mamun to think of her father to get into character. “I’ve told her, to show a tragedy, that her dad is dying,” Viner-Usmanova says. Zaripova hangs her head.
The thing is—Mamun’s father was dying at the very moment. Abdullah Al Mamun was battling cancer while Prus was shooting the documentary. (Mamun’s father was born in Bangladesh and, for a brief period, she represented her father’s home country in international competition.) Mamun received word of his diagnosis in the film over the phone from her mother. She doesn’t tell Zaripova or Viner-Usmanova; she tells a trainer because she had questions about her father’s chart. But Zaripova found out anyway and while trying to reassure her that her father will be okay, told her not to take anymore phone calls from her mother. “Damn, as if practice sessions were the most important,” Mamun tells her boyfriend after that conversation with Zaripova. (To Zaripova’s credit, she does appear to try to run interference between Viner-Usmanova and Mamun at a competition shortly after the gymnast found out her father had cancer and while Viner-Usmanova was yelling ruthlessly at the girl.)
It is interesting that Viner is being rebuked for an offense, not against a gymnast, but an official. It’s not wrong, to be sure. She had a temper tantrum about the judging in Tokyo and allegedly tried to use her immense power and influence within Russian rhythmic gymnastics to penalize the person she decided was responsible for Russia’s defeat. It’s good that the ethics foundation did something about it. But it’s also a bit disappointing that it’s this, not Viner’s very well-documented coaching behavior, that has resulted in sanction. Feels a bit like when mobsters get arrested for tax evasion rather than for their more serious crimes.
Gymnastics is in the middle of a reckoning with its own past and the present, too: many of the coaches who have behaved monstrously towards athletes are still working in the sport. It’s a painstakingly slow process that will take years, probably another generation or two. And when we look back on this chapter of gymnastics history—if we get far enough into the process that we can eventually get enough distance to look back—I don't think we're going to view Viner’s behavior against Kuzmina in the aftermath of the 2021 Olympics as her chief offense.
Here’s a link to the GEF’s decision.
I’m not what you’d call super well-versed in rhythmic gymnastics. When asked about the sport during the discussion portion of my book launch, I essentially punted. But I am fortunate to be in touch with people who do know a lot about rhythmic gymnastics so I’m not forced to rely solely on my paltry knowledge. About halfway through writing the above, I thought, what the hell am I doing here and so I reached out to Gergely Marosi, a Hungarian freelance sports journalist who is the news editor of Rhythmic Gymnastics, a Facebook page for the sport with a massive following. (He also writes about football at Sports24.) I figured you’d all much prefer to hear from someone with actual rhythmic gymnastics knowledge about Viner and what just happened with the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation sanction against the influential coach. I sent him a few questions via email and he replied with thoughtful answers.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dvora Meyers: Can you explain for those who may not be familiar with rhythmic gymnastics—I expect that this applies to most of the readers of this newsletter—Irina Viner's significance to the sport?
Gergely Marosi: I'd describe her as the only really larger than life person in rhythmic gymnastics [RG], who shaped and influenced RG more than anyone else in the last two and a half decades.
She emerged from the 1990s as the most influential, most powerful, most ruthless person in the sport, who built a rhythmic gymnastics empire in Russia and pulled the strings behind the scenes. Depending on who you talk to, she was (is?) equally hailed, revered, hated, and feared. She came from a relatively modest gymnastics background (she hailed from the Uzbek SSR and was never a top gymnast herself), and started working in Moscow in the early 1990s, after a spell in Britain. Her first breakthroughs, as a coach, came with Yana Batyrshina and Alina Kabaeva (both of Uzbek heritage, just like Viner), who were both revolutionary in RG. Their style was divisive but fresh, and their success brought increased influence to Viner—especially Kabaeva's, who became one of the biggest stars the sport has ever seen.
Based upon the late 1990s successes, she built an RG juggernaut: between 2000 and 2016 Russia was dominant in the sport, winning each and every Olympic gold medal and the vast majority of big titles. Her influence spread to everything: rulemaking, sports diplomacy, behind the scenes maneuvers, networking with other countries (collectively known as "Vinerstan"). In short: she was running the show for a good 25 years. And of course, she had very good ties to the world of politics, and the fact that she was married to billionaire Alisher Usmanov, himself a high-ranking sports officer and sports team owner, also paved the way.
She's a flamboyant and very controversial figure, but she also seems to possess very good organizing, networking and management skills. She was key to Russian RG domination.
DM: In artistic gymnastics, the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist states created space and opportunity for Western countries to start climbing onto the medal podiums in the sport but when it comes to rhythmic gymnastics, the center of power hasn't shifted all that much. What do you think accounts for that?
GM: I'd say RG was never that interesting from a sports power point of view, especially that it was a non-Olympic sport until 1984 (though groups competed at earlier Olympics). AG [artistic gymnastics] is a top sport at the Olympics with a worldwide following and the potential to fight for a high number of medals, plus there is specialization. This makes it worthwhile for countries to channel resources into AG, as there is a realistic chance to get good results. In RG, there is an individual and a group all-around at the Olympics, and that's it. The other big events are only interesting for the followers of the sport.
There is no specialization (all gymnasts are all-arounders), and this means that only the top powers—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, lately Israel, sometimes Japan and Germany—get near the top spots. They have a huge advantage in infrastructure, funding, talent identification and talent pool over any other country. And the possible upside (1-1 Olympic gold in individual and group) is simply not good enough for other countries to start pouring resources into rhythmic. Given that RG has roots in the Soviet Union, it was always a kind of Eastern bloc playground – and after the collapse of the USSR, they were simply so much better than most rivals that they kept their competitive advantage.
If anything, the break-up of the USSR was negative for the rivals: until then there were a couple of Soviet gymnasts at a given event. That changed to a couple of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, sometimes a few more ex-Soviet gymnasts, all of whom were world class. I also think that the networking worked in favor of the big RG countries: many of their coaches moved abroad, but they were still in contact (and often, in sports diplomatic alliances) with their peers back in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. Rhythmic gymnastics is also a sport in which mainly the ex-Soviet diaspora is interested in many Western countries. I think everything—power, influence, size of talent pool, prestige of the sport, knowledge about the sport—was mostly concentrated in the former Eastern bloc. And this is quite different from how AG developed, even though the 1952-1990 period was a huge Eastern bloc success story. Compared to the pre-1990 era though, Italy, Israel and Spain definitely showed that they are legit contenders, though often they could challenge only in group. But lately that is changing as well (for Israel and Italy). Bulgaria has enjoyed a resurgence. I feel the power lines are shifting.
DM: Of course, despite Russia's dominance, other countries have managed to sneak into the medals. This brings us to the controversy at hand—Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram's victory over favorite Dina Averina in Tokyo. Can you explain what exactly the Russian rhythmic delegation considered to be controversial about Linoy Ashram's win in Tokyo?
GM: Linoy Ashram winning was probably considered a major offense by itself. I believe that even if she had won by a bigger gap, there would've been some kind of storm. But the fact that Linoy had a drop, the most easily recognizable mistake in RG, provided the optics and an "angle of attack" they could easily go to. I believe Dina Averina was not at her peak, having been held back by injuries. Linoy Ashram was on the upswing, the Israelis optimized the routines perfectly for Linoy to get closer and closer to Dina, and it just all clicked in Tokyo. I am not qualified to comment on the judging aspect. Hardly any of us without an international Brevet are, because scoring in RG is so very complicated. But those who are qualified seemed to have thought the result was right. I also felt the result was right. One drop does not necessarily decide an AA [all-around] competition, and Dina Averina herself won AA golds with a drop before as well. People medaled at the Olympics with a drop before. That's not a trump card.
I think raising the level of controversy might have been an attempt to save face and to play for their own crowd. Saving face was needed: Russia had by far the most money, by far the best infrastructure, by far the best talent pool, the best roster depth, the biggest, [most] specialized coaching staff, the strongest sports diplomatic power and they still lost the Olympic gold in both individual and group. With all those resources available, the only non-failure outcome would be winning both golds. They were in a must-win gold medals [situation]. If that does not happen, blame can fall on the gymnasts or on the circumstances. Given that RG has a bad reputation for behind the scenes manipulation, corruption and power games—sometimes one feels that in this sport playing power games is more important than playing fair—this was obviously the route they would go down. To sum up the Russian take in short: "Linoy dropped, the Russians are better anyway, we were cheated out of a gold medal.” Well, the technical experts did not think so, and the TC [technical committee] had a Russian president…
DM: FIG's Rhythmic Technical Committee, which was headed by Russian Natalya Kuzmina, looked into the judging at the Games and found no impropriety in the judging, but of course, this was rejected by Viner, who allegedly attempted to retaliate by withdrawing Kuzmina's name for electoral consideration for the Technical Committee. This, and her repeated comments about the results, seemed to be what led the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to investigate and sanction Viner. What does it mean for the Ethic Foundation to sanction someone of Viner's stature? What sort of message does that send?
GM: I think it's not showing so much the power of the Ethics Foundation [GEF], but rather the gradual waning of Viner's massive influence. She was not present in Tokyo (she was not in Rio either), and things did not go her way, which was, so to say, very unusual in the last 25 years. The TC [technical committee] and the FIG also publicly backed the judges, and then came the GEF investigation and ruling against Viner; it definitely shows intent to do something. Also, Viner already had an official warning from 2007 in another famous case of things not going her way with Anna Bessonova winning the all-around gold at the World Championships, followed by some Viner comments, that triggered disciplinary action. Maybe the fact that GEF is—at least, nominally—an independent disciplinary body played a part in how things went down. The message is probably "Listen up, things are changing".
DM: You first reached out to me back in 2018 after I published a piece about Marta Prus' documentary Over the Limit. I just reread the lovely email you sent and one of the things you mentioned to me in it was how the documentary was being watched by many in the rhythmic gymnastics community and it was prompting deep discussion about what is acceptable in terms of coaching practice since what was shown on screen, especially Viner's language that was directed at Margarita Mamun, appeared to be quite brutal and dehumanizing. Has the conversation that the film prompted continued over the last few years? And what sort of actions have resulted from this ongoing reckoning?
GM: Yes, I think it did prompt a discussion. It still does. Athlete A, the [Netflix documentary about the] Nassar case led to a worldwide debate about coaching practices, gymnastics culture, and abuse. RG is part of the reckoning, but perhaps it's the most conservative branch of gymnastics. I believe I wrote back then: I fear that people in the sport would look at Over the Limit and draw the wrong conclusions, thinking "this is the way.” This isn't the way. This might be the way if someone is in the position Viner is in, overseeing the best funded RG national team with the most depth. She could afford this. Every gymnast knew they were replaceable. There would be enough world class gymnasts [left] standing, even though many fall out.
[Ed. note: If you’re interested in reading more about the grassroots gymnast activism that was, in part, inspired by Athlete A, check out this piece I wrote about it in VICE.]
If we are looking at the independent reviews, gymnast testimonies and cases ending in front of a court, we can say that there is something sinister in RG's culture. Over the Limit is just an example of the abusive practices in the sport and the normalization of that. This would be considered normal in many places. This is how things work. This is how the sport works.
There are hundreds of physically or mentally broken gymnasts behind the word "works" worldwide.
And that's a reality RG needs to face. Over the Limit triggered discussions and debate, which is a testament to the power of the documentary. The fact that gymnasts—RG, AG or other disciplines—found their voice and started speaking up about the deeply-rooted cultural problems of the sport in the last years, added to this effect. I feel that abusive practices, lack of funding, and lack of proper education run deep in the sport, creating a vicious cycle going back for generations. Also, this sport is so all-consuming that most people involved do not have an outside perspective. But maybe it's changing for the better. Maybe there will be a different RG. If everything stays the same, the sport might move towards insignificance.
Behind the glitter, there is a lot of darkness, and that's not exactly marketable. What would be the pitch? “Come, take your daughter to a sport that requires more training than almost any other sport! Very few people reach the highest level, many gymnasts fall out with serious physical and psychological problems, the judging can be controversial, the sport has historic problems with corruption and normalized abuse is a real possibility"? I don't think that sounds very good.
RG demands insane levels of work and sacrifice. Even with the best practices, it is one of the most training-intensive, all-consuming and difficult sports I know of, in which the athletes have exceptional mastery. It's just bloody difficult and it is a fantastic sport. But the environment often makes it more difficult and more toxic. I have read many eloquently worded, intelligent posts from rhythmic gymnasts from all around the world about their experiences and thoughts on how this sport should progress. I hope they will be heard. Having these voices is already a step forward. The next one should be a reckoning that reform is needed, and then having an actual, proper dialogue with the establishment comes after that. Things will only change in earnest if the [number of] people willing to reform the sport reach a critical mass. RG could definitely do better, and I hope it will.