Reflections On Selection

 

Just when it would have been reasonable to be of the opinion that the most intricate and complex element of elite gymnastics was, (and not without a level of tragic irony given the circumstances), a world medal winning bar routine, this quad, and particularly its final twelve months have thrown unprecedented complexity at the process of qualifying an Olympic team, with heavy and far reaching consequences for so many who have played no part at all in the decision making process that delivered them to their current circumstances. This is a world wide situation, but as this is a British blog, I will of course be focussing on the impact upon the British Team.

As we now know, the British team selected for Tokyo is Jennifer and Jessica Gadirova, Alice Kinsella, and Amelie Morgan, beautiful gymnasts incredible athletes, and very much deserving of their status of Olympians. I have written a piece here, that goes into the team in more detail:

https://britishgymnewstics.com/2021/06/09/celebrating-team-tokyo/nbsp;

Up until this quad (I’m using quad throughout for ease of use, we have of course had an extra year), the process of Olympic selection has been straight forward. Qualify a team from a high enough finishing position at World Championships, then select the number of gymnasts permitted per team. GB first qualified a full team to the 2000 Sydney Games where the allocation was six athletes, it remained six for the 2004 Athens Games, and the 2008 Beijing Games, before reducing to five member teams for both London and Rio. For Tokyo an entirely new system was introduced, four member teams only, and the possibility of qualifying two individuals who would compete separately from the team, via three different routes. I go into detail here:

https://britishgymnewstics.com/2020/02/13/tokyo-2020-talking-individual-qualification/nbsp;

In short, the first two options were only open to gymnasts who had not been a part of the World Championship team which had qualified their country to the Olympic Games, in GB’s case the 2019 Worlds. These options were to finish in first or second place AA in qualifying at the continental championships which would win an extra sport for team GB, or to finish in first place on a piece of apparatus at the end of the Apparatus World Cup Series which would qualify the individual gymnast, not the nation.
The third option was to finish in the top two places at the end of the AA World Cup Series to qualify a spot for the nation, this was open to all gymnasts, regardless of whether they had been a member of the qualifying World Championship team or not. A nation could only qualify two extra athletes, so in the case of qualifying in all three possible events, the next highest individual/nation would receive the spot.

We know of course that unfortunately this did not happen for GB, and we were restricted to four athletes in total for the Games, but I have said before, and maintain that we were a little unlucky to be in this position.

At the Continental European Championships, Jessica Gadirova took a nasty beam fall in qualification on her flick layout layout. She of course lost 1.0 for the fall, but she also in missing her lead foot on her first layout, lost her acro series which is a required element for 0.5, her C+C connection value of 0.1 for the two layouts, and what would have been another 0.1 for three element series bonus. She also then counted a B instead of a C due to losing the layouts, a total of 0.8 from her D score, and 1.8 in total. There are falls, and then there are freak falls that cause this much damage to a score, and are highly unusual. Jessica was 0.999 off the total needed to qualify the spot, even if she’d had fallen with a standard fall, she’d have got it. She was just very unlucky here.

It’s worth mentioning that of course these qualifying Europeans were delayed by a year, this continental spot should have been decided in 2020. The top qualification spot in this event went to a young Russian gymnast who would have still been an ineligible junior had Covid not pushed everything back twelve months, whereas Jessica was a senior in 2020. Whether she was ready at this level in spring 2020 I don’t know, but we do know that twin Jennifer certainly was given her performance in the 2020 American World Cup, and of course neither had been on the 2019 Worlds team.

So a little unlucky with Continentals, and again with the AA Apparatus World Cup. Here it was a points target, and not unachievable. There were four events due to take place between the 8th of March, and the 4th of April 2020, Jennifer Gadirova started superbly at the 2020 American Cup, and was due to head to Stuttgart to continue the challenge, which was when everything ground to halt because of Covid. It’s safe to say that America would likely take the top spot, but that second spot was really up for grabs. We will of course never know, but after the cancellation of the remainder of the events, the places were awarded to the top two finishers from qualifications at the 2019 World Championships instead, the USA, and then Russia who had not yet entered the AA World Cup series, having opted out of the American Cup.

And so to the final qualifying option, the apparatus World Cups, and this is where things start to get complex. As I said, this was a spot for the gymnast, not a nation, and the gymnast may not have competed at the World Championships which qualified their nation to the Olympic Games. This was always going to be tough, and to win it was going to take being one of the best in the world. There were to be eight events held from November 2018 to March 2020, and the highest placing gymnast over a combination of any three of those events would claim the Olympic spot for herself.
In October 2018 at the World Championships, the GB WAG had finished outside the top eight as a team, and missed the team final for the first time in a decade. Whilst it was highly unlikely that a further year would see the team slip out of the top twelve and out of Olympic qualification, it was at this point that important decisions had to be made. Becky Downie had by this point been a stalwart of GB teams for over a decade, and was a multiple international finalist and medalist on both bars and beam, including twice European Champion where she had needed to better the scores of world class gymnasts including double Olympic Champion Aliya Mustafina. A choice had to be made, take the individual World Cup route and try to earn the individual spot, or continue to provide valuable team scores, help towards Tokyo qualification, and aim for team selection. Could Becky have beaten China’s Fan Yilin three times to take the top spot? She’d have needed to score high 14’s and a 15.00, far from impossible for her of course, but we will never know, because that is not the route she took.

Since the publication of the team selection, I have seen claims that Becky was forced to forgo her individual chance to qualify to the team, but I have never seen Becky speak on this herself. I was under the impression that she didn’t wish to follow the intense world cup circuit of travel and competition for a high risk shot, when especially at the point in time when the decision needed to be made, her odds of selection for Tokyo were very high. Becky was a very strong candidate for the team, and there was the high likelihood of at least one individual spot as backup.  My guess here, and it is a guess, is that is that  this part was Becky’s choice, and that she preferred to aim for a team position in Tokyo.

I have already mentioned that the team did qualify to Tokyo from the 2019 World Championships, this event was also the first Olympic trial, and remains listed as an official Olympic trial. Becky was the highest scorer for the British team on bars, and the second highest scorer on beam in both qualification and team finals. She also of course became a world medalist when she took silver on bars, one of only four British gymnasts to ever take an individual world medal.  As far as stating her case for Olympic selection at what at this point would have been six months away from the Games, it couldn’t have been a better start. We also saw Becky show a floor routine in podium training, and were aware that she was also training vault.

So into 2020, what was to be the Olympic year, and four gymnasts only to be selected. The fight was on. The selection policy was set out with very clear criteria as to targets, and qualification events as it always is, you can view the full document which was updated as the process was forced to move into 2021 here:

https://www.british-gymnastics.org/technical-information/selection/womens-artistic/11992-tokyo-2020-selection-policy-wag-final-updated-14-05-2021/file

With the English and British Championships which would have served as official trials cancelled, all home trials would now take place behind closed doors. No World Cups, and three of the Olympic squad only to Europeans to compete in the usual major competition environment of stadium, lights, and podiums, meant that Lilleshall and Cardiff sports centre would make this a trial process like no other which ended up looking like this:

5.

have competed in at least three of the following Designated Selection Events (DSEs), of which at least two should be in 2021:

  1. a)  World Championships – October 2019
  2. b)  FIG Olympic Qualification World Cups – 2018-2021 (Individual & All Around)
  3. c)  FIG World Challenge Cups 2019 & 2020
  4. d)  Senior Squad Competition – March 13th 2021*2
  5. e)  European Championships selection trial – March 2021
  6. f)  Senior Squad Competition – April 2021*2
  7. g)  European Championships – April 2021
  8. h)  Olympic trial – May 2021
  9. i)  Senior Squad Competition – May 2021*3

In total twelve gymnasts took part in the trials, and of course only four could be selected. Full results can be seen here:

https://www.british-gymnastics.org/technical-information/selection/womens-artistic/11973-wag-olympic-trial-results/filenbsp;

The publication of closed trial results was a first, and seemed very much to come off the back of internet attacks on individual gymnasts starting even before the trial process was complete. Attacks such as this should never occur, either before or after selection. Most people are able to express their opinions, their hopes, their reasoning without resorting to personally targeting the gymnasts. The gymnasts have absolutely zero input into team selection, they perform their routines as well as they can on each day, and the rest is out of their hands. British Gymnastics felt that transparency was called for, after all, there would normally have been open events as well as closed, and I imagine the hope was that this way, when the team was announced, it would be clear as to why.

We can see that really as expected after a year away from competition, the gymnasts were in various stages of preparation. Some were still returning from injury and not at full difficulty or performance level, but believed they had time to peak when they needed, and for the most experienced members of the squad they have timed these injury to competition peak trajectories on more than one occasion throughout their careers. There were clearly many falls from many gymnasts across the trials, I think nearly everyone had at least one fall at one point looking at the E scores, gymnasts a year out of competition looking to peak in July not peaking in March is nothing to be shocked about.

As well as listing the trials, the policy also sets out the performance factors which will be taken into account, again fairly standard for major championships, although with Paris 2024 only three years away instead of four, an eye on those who are looking to continue over the remainder of the quad is also prioritised here which is interesting, as Olympic medals are Olympic medals (and equal funding) whether you retire the day after, or carry on.

It is worth adding here that the Men’s and Women’s team selection are completely different, and unrelated to each other.  The potential for medals remain the focus, but should it be decided that the most likely medal chance for MAG lies in a specialist approach (as it has this time round), this does not then run across the board, and the WAG selection will be made looking at the WAG athletes only.

1. The panel will consider the following Performance Factors (PF), viewed in a cumulative nature, when nominating gymnasts:
a) Major Championship and Olympic Qualification World Cup performance pedigree within the during the period 2019-2021;

b) Current performance form in the build-up to nomination including the 2021 Olympic trials, whereby all gymnasts who want to be considered for 2020 Olympic Games selection need to attend and compete, unless otherwise agreed by the Head National Coach based upon competition plans/injury/illness/rehabilitation or other factors considered as extenuating circumstances;

c) Gymnasts scoring potential to win a medal at the 2020 Olympic Games;

d) Performances at Designated Selection Events (see section 6)

e) Engagement with the World Class Programme including adherence to agreed Individual
Athlete Plan (IAP);

f) Current medical and injury status

g) Potential to medal at the Paris 2024 Olympic Gamesnbsp;

The policy states that a target of one medal was set, and that:

At the time of nomination, British Gymnastics will make a strategic decision regarding the best option to maximise medal opportunities to best deliver the performance targets. This decision will consider the likelihood of achieving a team medal and the opportunities available for other medals from All-Around and Individual Apparatus.”

This small paragraph has probably been the most contentious in terms of the furore that has erupted, and it comes down to the prioritising of the team medal over sending the reigning World bars silver medalist.

There are those who are adamant that a team medal with the team selected is an impossibility, and those equally adamant that taking Becky as a one piece gymnast who had to hit was too big a risk.

There is also the question of how aware were the athletes that the team, and therefore AA gymnasts were to be prioritised, when were these decisions made, and were they communicated effectively in time, so that when the most tragic of circumstances hit the Downie family, both sisters were able to make their decisions with full transparency.

In the eighteen months since GB qualified from the 2019 world championships, the landscape of British gymnastics at the elite level has shifted immensely. If you’d have asked me at the end of 2019, I’d have said the most likely team of four would be Ellie and Becky Downie, Alice Kinsella and then one more from a pool of three established seniors Kelly Simm, Georgia-Mae Fenton, and Amelie Morgan. After trials, I thought it was going to be Becky Downie, Jessica Gadirova, then two of Alice, Jennifer Gadirova, and Amelie.

The trajectory of the Gadoriva twins has been incredible, they are such huge and exciting talents. High difficulty with more to come, clean work which is well rewarded by the judges leading to high E scores, and a competitive steel that any team would want.  After her superb showing at at Europeans, and topping the AA standings in each trial she contested, Jessica was a given for the team. Jennifer we know has every bit the same amount of potential, but has been fighting injury, and wasn’t able to compete at her peak level throughout the trial process. It must be assumed that the assessment of her injury is that by the time Tokyo comes round she will be healthy and ready to compete at her very best. We know what Jennifer’s very best looks like, and I believe at that level, she could potentially make any nation’s Olympic team. This is what I mean by the changing landscape from 2019, four spots available, and suddenly half are taken by these exciting, dynamic young seniors.

I saw Becky on the team for two reasons, firstly she is of course a genuine medal contender. The bars final in Tokyo is likely to be stacked, and hitting is never guaranteed for any of the top bar workers due to the sheer level of risk in trying to hit these routines at full difficulty. There is not a bars medal contender out there who hasn’t fallen/missed connections in their pursuit of victory, but there are also three medals up for grabs as opposed to Simone takes gold, and then there are two more to fight for. AA, vault and floor it is fair to say that Simone Biles will have to make enormous errors not to win, she is also the reigning beam world champion, and always a medal threat on this piece. Bars she has made great strides on, but is not at all as much of a shoo in for a medal or even a final. In addition, the Gadirova twins are still working hard to bring their bars up to the level of their other events. With both on the team, I imagined this was going to strengthen Becky’s case, as her bars would be a valuable addition to the team total. It’s fair to say that in the March trials she did not score in her normal range on her favoured piece, although she still placed 5th, 3rd, then 1st, but she kept up a steady stream of training footage, and it was clear to see that as the weeks progressed she was getting stronger, sharper, and more consistent. In April Becky posted a 6.8D routine, presently the second most difficult in the world by just 0.1, and not only that, it was beautifully clean. This wasn’t just a final/medal threat, this was a clear shot at Olympic gold.
I’d also like to talk about Becky’s beam. There has been much ‘one piece gymnast’ talk online as justification for her lack of selection, well her trial placings on beam were 1st, 5th, 3rd, 2nd, so she also placed well here, and made a strong case for herself.

The publication of the trials placings looked good for Becky, as did the trajectory she was on. As I say, I really was expecting to see her named. Not only was she not named, she was not named as one of the three reserve gymnasts, meaning that of the eight gymnasts to compete in the final trial, Becky was considered the eighth most suitable for a place on the team.

If that were that case, then this team was decided to be a team of AA gymnasts only, and Becky had not trialed either vault or floor throughout the process. The logic here I imagine being that in the very unlikely event of a gymnast getting injured once competition had started, and being unable to continue, there would be no-one to step in on floor or vault, as reserves cannot be used at this point. Whilst not an impossible scenario, this is incredibly rare.

If this was the decision, the question that stands out is when was this decision made? There has been rumour and speculation, but nothing concrete, and in the name of human decency, you have to hope that it wasn’t until the very last minute.

The final trail was set for the 7th and 8th of May. Both Downie sisters were due to compete, with Ellie posting just a few days beforehand that she was ready to go. On Thursday the sixth of May, their brother Josh Downie at just 24 years old suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away. Of course neither Ellie nor Becky attended the trial. British Gymnastics tweeted their support for the entire family, and said that they would be providing support and space for the sisters. British Gymnastics then extended the trail process offering both Becky and Ellie the opportunity to take part in a final trail on the 22nd and 23rd of May, two weeks after their brother’s passing.

Becky decided that she would take part in the trial, Ellie decided that the better choice for her was to end her trial process, and take a break from gymnastics.  At the beginning of 2020 when the trials process should have happened, she was looking incredible, The Cheng vault which took her to world bronze now had the more highly valued Amanar to replace the double twisting Yurchenko in her quest for an Olympic medal, she had added four beam upgrades including her double Arabian beam dismount, and was at full bar and floor difficulty. At that point she was looking like a potential contender for an AA and vault medal. Shortly after returning to training after the first lockdown in the summer, Ellie suffered a back injury which required a very lengthy period of slow rehabilitation to return to top form, she was still on that rehabilitation journey when trials came round, but just before the final trials were due, she did post a video showing she now had her Cheng vault back. I personally very much hope we see her back when she is ready, and that she decides that there is more she would like to give to the sport as a competitor.

So Becky attended the trial, and posted her routines. It was in all honesty a little hard to watch. I have experienced the sudden shocking death of an immediate family member who was in full health, and I cannot even begin to describe the effect it has upon you to anyone who has not been through the same. The trial replicated the conditions of the final trial for the rest of the squad two weeks previously. Logically you can see why, everything must been seen to be equal, every gymnast given exactly the same set of circumstances and opportunity in the name of parity, but how could this really be equal, there wasn’t a way to make it truly equal. A different leisure centre, but the set up was the same, the same equipment, the same competition format, but this time one athlete. One athlete two weeks after tragedy had struck the heart of her close knit family, on her own in a sports hall performing two bar routines and one beam routine over two days. No one to warm up with, no team mates cheering her on, no one to sit with, no team mates to talk to while the full competition format ran requiring her to wait the full periods of time that would be the case at a major completion. Not so equal, because it could never be equal, you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by how she managed to not only be there in the first place, but to compete in the way that she did.

Becky decided to compete her safer 6.4 routine, I think completely understandable under the circumstances. To give an idea of the difficulty level of her ‘easier’ routine, only Kelly Simm (6.2) also competes over a 6.0 D of the GB squad at present. You can see the routines on Becky’s instagram if you wish to view them, she looked very strong despite on day one having over rotated her dismount, which is not something I can recall her doing previously, and she still scored 13.925 placing her second by 0.75 to Georgia-Mae Fenton when her scores were added to the final trial list. What would have been 14.925 for her ‘easy’ routine is a monster score considering she had another 0.4 in difficulty to add. Day two she scored 14.450, the highest UB score of the trial process. Her beam score was only second to Alice Kinsella’s, and as in her own worlds she was ‘fighting back the tears’ for the entire process, and every routine, whatever you think of the outcome of team selection this was a heart wrenching display of determination from a phemonenal athlete, and incredible woman who deserves all of our respect.

I do not know when it was decided that a team of AA gymnasts were thought to be the best option for Olympic selection, but I do know that had Becky known this, it is unimaginable that she would taken herself away from her family, travel to Cannock leisure centre, and put herself through the most gruelling of circumstances whilst at the very beginning of the tsunami of grief that losing a loved one is such circumstances brings. If after the final trial for the rest of the gymnasts two weeks previously, Becky was still a genuine contender for the team, it was a fast turn around to decide that actually the entire team and three reserves needed to be AA gymnasts based on what was a very strong performance. If it had already been decided, I wouldn’t even have the words for that level of callousness. Whatever happened, there is a lack of clarification that casts a dark cloud, and has whipped up a so far unrelenting storm.

The team was announced at 14:00 on the 7th of June, hours beforehand news broke that Becky had not been selected. She had also appealed, and been rejected. When the team announcement came, it included a request that people be fair and kind to all the gymnasts involved. I have never seen this from BG before, and it was clearly in anticipation of an expected backlash, absolutely none of which should have been aimed at any single one of the athletes involved. Becky maintained her class and dignity congratulating those selected, Jennifer, Jessica, Alice and Amelie were rightly thrilled to share their news.

This is a very strong team, the format is 4,3,3, so in a team final situation which we hope to see, three of the four will go up on each piece and all scores count. I have talked about the Gadirova twins, Alice may not have had the Europeans she hoped for, but she had no major errors, and then at trials, she competed seventeen routines, only placing outside the top three on three occasions, the most successful trialist behind Jessica. Amelie had an incredible Europeans, showing once again that she is the most reliable of competitors, taking 4th AA, the bars bronze, and just missing bronze on beam by a whisker, I would trust her to lead off any team on any piece, and you cannot underestimate the value of that competitive steel in such an environment.
I believe that this is the strongest beam team we have ever fielded, vault wise it can match the hugely successful Claudia-Amy-Ellie trio score wise, especially as I suspect we are going to see at least one higher value vault that we have so far, maybe two. Both Jennifer and Jessica have scored over 14 on floor throughout the trial process, Jessica of course being the newest crowned European Champion, and Alice a mid 13. Bars of course is where the team isn’t quite as strong compared to their competitors, but at their best, Alice, Amelie, and Jennifer can all hit 14.000.
As far as a team medal goes, it will naturally be very tough. America will likely win, Russia with their two brilliant new first year seniors added to their ranks are going to challenge for silver, and China always beautiful, but often inconsistent have been training under Liang Chow who coached Gabby Douglas and Shawn Johnson to the stability required for Olympic gold,  leading up to these Games. Rarely off the podium anyway, if he has found their consistency, they’re my pick for silver.
Outside the big four (Romanina have since sadly fallen by the wayside) Only Australia, Great Britain, and Italy have made the podium at world level team competition this century, Italy being the most recent at the 2019 World Championships. Japan is also a threat. Anything can and often does happen at the Olympic Games under such a high pressure situation, the team final is particularly testing. If this young team can hit to the best of their ability, who knows? There is also the possibility for vault, beam, and floor finals, get to a final, produce your best, and anything can happen. Just ask Amy Tinkler.

So let’s talk about respect…….

People are going to have opinions, the world would be a very boring place if we all thought and felt the same way. For me and I’m sure most people, it is perfectly possibly to see both sides of selection, and to see valid arguments for the AA v’s specialist route. We can be thrilled for the athletes that were selected, and gutted for those that weren’t. We can scratch our heads at the in’s and outs, the potentials and possibilities, we can feel uneasy and uncomfortable at Becky’s situation and how it played out, wondering whether it really was done with full honesty and transparency, but accept that at present we don’t know. We as fans, parents, coaches, judges, gymnasts, lovers of this beautiful sport,  can let this myriad of thoughts, feelings and emotions run round and round in our heads, and most of us thankfully can do this without feeling that the only way to respond is to take to facebook, twitter, and Instagram and attack children and young adults.
I’m not a person that is easily shocked, but when I see grown adults on the personal social media of gymnasts telling them that they should never have been selected, are going to fail, and let their country down its just ugly. The same goes generally on public social media, where all the athletes read. You don’t like the decisions and the behaviour of the governing body, or the selection committee, fine, you know you’re far from alone out there, but every one of these gymnasts is at least a World or European medalist at junior or senior level, and in some cases both, they have worked for years, every single one of them to get to where they are, and you sit there with your keyboard spitefully stating your opinions as facts in deciding their career is over, deciding they’re only good for one piece, and not good enough on that one when they’re topping trials, and putting the hardest routines in the world out there, or that they are incapable of hitting in competition and are going to fail at the Olympic Games when they’re a multiple European medalist, and repeatedly hitting at trials when they’re asked. Every single one of these athletes shows courage beyond what most of us will ever be able to comprehend every single time they step up on the podium to compete in front of thousands of people, with the eyes of the world upon them, the cowardice it takes to attack them from behind a keyboard is only a reflection on the mindset of those pressing the keys.

This has been the longest, most difficult, dramatic, and stressful trials process in history, It has been emotive and completely exhausting. Imagine how it would have felt to actually be taking part in it.

I would like to extend my congratulations once again to those selected, and wish them every success in their training period leading up to Tokyo. Again I would like to congratulate all of the athletes that took part in the process, and I really do hope we get to see you all out there again. And to Becky Downie, you are a true queen, you are graceful, dignified, courageous beyond measure, and still undoubtedly one of the best bar workers in the world. I hope you decide that we get to see you at the top of that podium again.

One thought on “Reflections On Selection

  1. Lovely post. And after the year we all have had, just getting out there and getting to trials is a real achievement, so congratulations to all who took part.

    Liked by 1 person

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