Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Celebrating Underage Superstars

There's something so impressive about watching a thrilling routine from the past and absorbing the fact that the gymnast wasn't even of age at the time. Personally, while I don't condone breaking the rules, I don't allow it to taint or spoil the enjoyment of the routine in any way as political decisions were and are nothing to do with the gymnast themselves. The below either admitted themselves or were categorically found through investigation to fall below the age limit at the time.

Lavinia Agache - Romania

Copyright - Tom Theobald

Lavinia competed at the age of 13 at worlds 1981, with her date of birth altered from 1968 to 1967. Interestingly, she also competed at the junior gymnastics championships in Japan the same year. She came into her own when she was actually a senior later that quad, but still managed to shine at such a young age, with super strong beam and floor routines in typical Romanian fashion. Not elegant, but very energetic and fun to watch with some nice original elements thrown in. Lavinia was somewhat overshadowed by teammate Ecaterina Szabo but was a great gymnast in her own right and was a solid contributor at worlds 1983 and the Olympics the following year.

Olga Bicherova - USSR


Olga is one of the better known underage gymnasts, having won the 1981 worlds AA with an altered date of birth. She had an abundance of the qualities that made Soviet gymnastics great, displaying fabulous extension, form and elegance - with a mature ease far beyond her years. A true all-arounder. Her win drew criticism thanks to her baby face, especially from the US who also mention Lavinia and others (unproven), but reserve the focus for the winner, of course. Olga competed through the rest of the quad and beyond successfully despite the killer depth, but was a victim of the Olympics boycott like so many others.

Kim Gwang Suk - North Korea

Kim is without doubt the youngest gymnast ever to compete at worlds. Her exact age when she emerged as a senior at 1989 worlds is not known, but she may have been as young as 9 or 10. 4'4, she unleashed the counter-Kim or Marinich, a ridiculously hard release and in combination that only a handful have competed. Her bar routine is one of my all-time favourites and she also had some quite nice work on beam. She competed through to 1992 Olympics as the reigning bars world champion and Detective FIG only managed to nab her when her federation submitted her as being 15 for 3 years in a row in the early 90's. Which is still mind boggling, at least put some effort into the swindle! Kim fell off the radar after a ban was imposed, which is tragic as she would definitely have had a good few years left had she hypothetically remained healthy.

Yang Yun - China

Copyright- AP/Amy Sancetta

Yang Yun, the beautifully classic performer, was a complete surprise when she admitted on state TV that she was 14 in Sydney as she always looked very mature and older than 16, certainly older than teammate and fellow underager Dong Fangxiao. Yang was a beauty to watch on all 4 events, even vault (watch this immediately) and was particularly stunning on beam also where she displayed fabulous originality with gorgeous lines and extension. Sadly she fell in the Sydney AA which she would have won otherwise (after Raducan's score was officially wiped) - although her admission of her age though dismissed by the FIG on investigation would have rendered that a controversial win also. Yang did manage to pick up bronze on bars but sadly disappeared off the scene nearly as quickly as she arrived onto it, the Olympics was her sole competition of note.

Olga Mostepanova - USSR

Copyright - Tom Theobald

Olga is IT as far as the personification of Soviet gymnastics is concerned - although sadly majorly lacking in the medals to prove it. One of the greats, who would have won all around her in LA 1984 Olympics (instead racking up perfect 10's at Olomouc), Olga was underage during the competitive season of 1983. An accomplished all-arounder, she was best known for her stunning beam, complete with that press handstand mount. Her extension stood out even amongst her teammates which is saying a lot. Of all of the gymnasts and other athletes screwed by the 1984 Olympics boycott, it seems like a particularly heinous crime in her case, especially as she peaked that year and wasn't quite the same at worlds the following year.

Gina Gogean - Romania

Gina is remembered for a few things- somewhat safe routines (although she was not always boring) and collecting quite the stack of medals during deep quads, but competing underage in 1992 is not one of them. Her super lengthy career started off on murky terms, being officially too young during the Barcelona Olympics. At this point of her career she was far from the star of her team.  Despite competing strongly at Euros that year, she failed to make much of an impact at the games. Not that she was long developing into a strong all-arounder with multiple titles under her belt with the sole exception of, big surprise, uneven bars. A big help in her super consistency during her senior career was the unfortunate killing off of more difficult and unusual elements she had as a junior. Being boring really paid off for her!

Alexandra Marinescu - Romania

Alexandra, after huge success as a junior, had the great misfortune to a) be hyped as the next Nadia Comaneci and b) to be pulled from the AA at Olympics and worlds, the only two big competitions she competed at, in favour of teammate Simona Amanar. To be individually picked out for hype when she had such giants of accomplished teammates as Gina Gogean, Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici shows how promising she was. Lacking the powerhouse tumbling of the others, she stood out for her elegance instead, with beam being her best event. The fact that her career was so short, especially when they went to the effort of changing her age in the first place is a tragedy, as is the fact that her name was blackened when the reason given for her forced withdrawals from the AA was that she was a poor worker.

Dong Fangxiao - China

Dong was another gymnast who had overshadowing gymnasts on her team to compete alongside with, in this case the likes of Ling Jie and Liu Xuan and the less accomplished but outstanding Yang Yun and Kui Yuanyuan. Dong was more of a team player than a star in her own right, but was a good all-arounder and strong on floor. Her investigation stripped China of their 1999 and 2000 team medals.

Hong Su Jong - North Korea

Copyright - Thomas Schreyer

Hong Su Jong is the infamous gymnast whose age falsification earned North Korea such a lengthy ban that they missed the London Olympics. Before the federation ban, she also earned a suspension for the use of Furosemide (a diuretic used to aid weight loss/combat fluid retention...which is downright odd in those circumstances when I type about it all the time in the context of cardiac babies!). Controversy aside, Hong was an extremely talented vaulter for which she earned silver at 2007 worlds, but she was also awesome on bars. Her handstands would earn her quite the battering these days, but such lovely clean work. Hong's career, by contrast to most of those mentioned here, was lengthy - she competed in the 2004 Olympics right the way through to 2010, although she missed Beijing through injury. She was, aside from the originator, one of the first to compete the Amanar vault, bringing it back mainstream along with Shawn Johnson. She is sister to Hong Un Jong who has not been involved in an age controversy. They may be twins, but the latter competed much later than the former.

Daniela Silivas - Romania

Copyright - Ellie Langsley

Daniela Silivas is regarded as one of if not the greatest all-arounders of all time and regularly tops fan polls of favourite gymnasts. Her battle during the 1988 Olympics AA with Elena Shushunova is legendary and thrilling to watch but....Daniela began her career by competing underage during 1985 worlds, at the age of 13. A true all-arounder, she was typical of her nation in that her beam and floor stood out, despite the horrendous choreography meted out to her that year. Super energetic and sparkly, she managed to nab the beam title but didn't come into her own until later in the quad. Certainly she was the best Romanian gymnast of the 80's, and there is seriously stiff competition for that.

It's strange these days to contemplate gymnast's passports and dates of birth being switched and manipulated on the whim of a federation coach. Not that I think the practice has been 100% eradicated (note: I have no interest in suspicions re: named, unproven individuals, ESPECIALLY those concerning a certain team from 8 years ago YAWN), it probably never will be when states like the above still exist and the age restriction remains punitive. Of course, we have no idea of the true extent of age falsification - FIG themselves only uncovered 3 - especially during the 1980's. There is just no way only a small handful of gymnasts competed underage the entire decade. My money is on Romania as the biggest overall offenders, the Karolyi's had no qualms about this practice at the time (despite repeat bellyaching post-defect to the US, which they really have a nerve complaining about every year), and clearly neither did another long-time head coach, Octavian Bellu. They also had much less depth than the super strong USSR (who definitely have several more skeletons in the closet all the same, which coaches have alluded to) and therefore greater motive to bend the rules. They also showed form for skulduggery when they actually had one gymnast impersonate another at a meet in the US in 1981.

Anyway, I'm a big believer in appreciating the performance and the performance only. I find it very sad that there's a lot of people who call themselves gymnastics fans, but who spend far too much time condemning gymnasts from 2 quads ago, and current gymnasts of the same nationality, because why not. If it's really the biggest deal ever to them, then they should also spend their time blackening the names of the likes of Silivas and Gogean too, which will never happen. Nationality (read: of Asian extraction with absolutely zero thought given to the fact that some ethnic varieties have the good fortune to look younger than others with slighter frames to boot) and the identity of who the suspect beats seems to be all important.

Who's your favourite? Does the inconsistency of FIG action and fan reaction annoy you too? Can't we all just get along on the Gymternet? ;)

Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy New Senior Day!

In good news, my laptop is my own again rather than shared which is great and will make blog posts much less rushed. I'm also firmly on the jobhunt and the fatigue is definitely starting to lift. Happy new year to me!

In much more exciting news, it's 2016-year of the Olympics AND a whole bunch of new seniors are eager to make an impression in time. I can't believe that we are in the Olympic year, although I can well believe as seen on twitter and tumblr earlier today that Simone Biles has won 27% of available WAG world medals this quad.

Anyway, today is all about the new seniors. I have an incomplete list here. A slightly depressing document given the sheer number that have retired, injured out or faded away already but anyway, it's a super exciting new bunch!

The USA of course are going to net quite a few, Laurie Hernandez, Norah Flatley, Emily Gaskins, Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, Jazmyn Foberg, Abby Paulson, Ragan Smith, Christina Desiderio, Margzetta Frasier and Rachel Baumann. People have been waiting for the first two to turn senior for years as they've been well known since or nearly before turning senior. The power of youtube! Of course, several of the others have been making waves for quite some time too, like Ragan Smith and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf. Rachel Baumann is more of a newcomer to the scene, qualifying elite in 2014 although having an elite older sister in the same gym did mean she had a following. Jazmyn Foberg has been one of the quiet types, firmly in Laurie's shadow until she surprisingly won Nationals in 2014 and had a very close-fought silver last year.

As regards Rio, all eyes are on Laurie Hernandez, Ragan Smith and Norah Flatley for a look-in, but for all of them it's a super tough ask even with their talent. It all depends on what the team needs once the core of the team is built and that's impossible to call at this time. I will say that I think it will be easier for people outstanding on one/two events like the latter two rather than Laurie because even though she's so strong in the all-around, she's not as high-scoring as some of the others they already have.

For other countries, it will be much easier for the new seniors to slot in to the Olympic picture. Catherine Lyons is poised to be a major asset to Team GB, she complements the powerhouses they already have in spades perfectly. They could definitely do with a fabulous beam but I think what will be most helpful is her execution scores, she is significantly cleaner than the others in general, and messy execution is what's holding GB back a bit. Teal Grindle is a major prospect too, but I think the size of the team could be against her. I'm unsure about Georgia Mae Fenton, she's always been lovely to watch but hasn't seemed to improved much. There will always be surprises though.

Russia will be hoping for some super-consistent beamers to join their ranks! Angelina Melnikova is a no-nonsense all-arounder that hopefully will make a big splash in the senior ranks, she gives off the impression also that she has a lot more to give. Daria Skrypnik has been well known for years, she's got beautiful lines and is typically Russian in style. Best on bars, DTY under her belt like Melnikova and potential on beam...overall I'm not convinced about her though. Maybe with more time. Natalia Kapitonova is outstanding on bars, but like Skrypnik will struggle to make an impact there when they already have such strength on the event. She's nice on floor too but not very high-scoring. Ekaterina Sokova has been dealing with injury, hopefully she'll be back in fine fettle this year. She's built like Melnikova and is similar, a good all-arounder and beamer.

Romania could do with about 15 or so new seniors to replenish the ranks. Asiana Peng who was a big deal a few years back seems to have faded from the equation gradually so we can pretty much count her out, sadly and she's probably not the only one given Romania's recent-ish track record with junior/premature retirements. Andreea Ciurusniuc and Andra Stoica were the ones I had my eye on, but I haven't heard anything about the latter lately. Ciurusniuc competed quite a bit in 2015, she's solid..not outstanding but has good potential. Good floor. I've definitely fallen out of touch with Romania's juniors/new seniors this last year, Maria Holbura who's a new senior is a relatively new name to me, whereas others on my list seem to have fallen by the wayside.

China has gained a LOT of fresh faces to the senior ranks, although for now they can be roughly divided into those poised for Rio selection and those who are focused more towards next quad given their lack of upgrades. Among them are Liu Tingting, Lv Jiaqi Luo Huan, Zhou Linlin, Liu Jinru, Lu Yufei, Fu Yuyao, Gong Kangyi, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin. Some names are much, much more familiar than others and I've got some catching up to do. Not much has been heard of Lv Jiaqi or Luo Huan lately- they could be dealing with injury etc. but hopefully they'll be in the mix this year- I've been awaiting them for years, along with Liu Tingting. The latter shines on beam with some fantastic connections but she's super solid everywhere. Very sparky and energetic, as well as super-clean. Still has a good bit of future potential to unlock and difficulty to improve throughout the next quad, but I would definitely say she's one to watch for this year too. Fu Yuyao is fabulous also with massive potential. Another great beamer but in general her difficulty is so low that it's all about the future with her. Likewise Zhou Linlin although hers is higher- beam is her strong event so she'd need to improve elsewhere and/or pile on the difficulty to stand out, at the moment her bars and floor are a bit uninspiring however. Gong Kangyi breaks the mould a bit- she excels on floor where she's got some very nice tumbling already and an ambitious first pass. She's got a nice beam to her name but is surprisingly super weak on vault and bars are not her thing, but her floor is quite valuable. She's falling somewhere between the two groups. Firmly in the first camp though is Liu Jinru who is developing nicely into the powerhouse she showed flashes of years ago- she was interestingly once coached by Cheng Fei, albeit briefly. Her floor is strong but vault is the main attraction with very difficult vaults already under her belt. Rudi and DTT I believe, although I am hopeless at differentiating Tsuk and handspring vaults. All in all seems like exciting times ahead for China.

Shallon Olsen is finally a senior! Her floor and vault should be a great boost to Canada, there's video proof of the amanar in training that she has looked capable of for years and she HAS competed a Silivas. Definitely one to watch. Canada will also net Rose Kaying-Woo and Megan Roberts.

Elizabet Vasileva of Bulgaria is also a senior. She's always exciting to watch just for the fun of her ridiculous flexibility.

And last but not least, I'm excited to see Koko Dobashi of Japan who is really lovely to watch on all events.

Who are you most excited about? Which country/team will be most impacted in your view? How long until off-season is over??