The President of the International Gymnastics Federation, Bruno Grandi, has kindly agreed to meet us to answer, in an exclusive interview, to our questions about the publication of the new qualification system for the 2020 Olympics. System that he has wanted, proposed and designed. Every change, that is really a change, creates a revolution, creates chaos and often it also brings doubts and fears, but here it was given a choice: continue to make as everything was fine or admit that the situation was getting out of hand.
President Bruno Grandi, one year before the expiry of his mandate (he has already announced that he won't run again), chose to reconsider some certainties feeling he was doing the best for our sport.
1) When did you developed the idea of changing the Olympic qualification rules system?
The idea goes back about four years ago, even before the Congress in Cancun, where I was re-elected President and it was born for basic reasons. I’m surprised that in the world there are technicians and fans who haven’t realized what was really happening. In order to better understand the reasons that led me to want this change, we should start from the calendar, that is the key to the whole system of Olympic qualification. The international calendar, substantially, is based on a single competition every year. Newspapers are only interested in the World Championships; it’s useless to deny it, all other appointments are characterized by a decreasing of attention. This is proved, for example, by the fact that Asia often complains: “President you have to do something to change the situation… in Asia we don’t have China, we don’t have Japan, we don’t have South Korea, sometimes we have North Korea (when it's not disqualified for its under age gymnasts, infringement, however, repeated several times) ... we don’t have TV contracts, so there isn’t any interest for this sport to continue to exist". There is the same situation in Africa, although there there are structural and political problems, but the situation exists in Europe too; yes, it's true, there are the European Championships for which there’s a television contract, but everything lasts little more than a week, after which the media attention disappears again.
Sponsors constantly ask us more visibility, on the other hand we can't believe that they are willing to sponsor a Federation in permanent form, as top-sponsors, when gymnastics attracts the audience for ten days a year. There aren't other interests for which you can program an investment. Gymnastics isn't a repetitive sport, which appears every week... there's no visibility and the sponsors bow out. The result is the need to create an interest that is as continuous as possible. Which is the continuous interest? Athletes want to go to the Olympics. World championship works well and continental championships are good (especially European ones), but it’s not so for other competitions.
This is shown, for example, by the fact that the American continental championship doesn't produce interest. There are Americans, Cubans, Canadians, Venezuelans, Brazilians and Argentines, coming all from strong Nations, there are also Chileans (don’t forget that, in 2011, the world champion on floor was Chilean), but they don’t have their continental championships, they take advantage of the multisport championships (Pan American Games) organized by the Local Olympic Committees, otherwise there’s no interest. So, I wonder how can I keep alive a sport that doesn’t exist in the sports trade landscape of world? When I make contracts with television networks I permanently have this problem. That's why there's this new system, the Olympic qualification is divided into several competitions, so as to allow a revaluation, in terms of media interest and not only, of the continental championships and the world cup series.
2) During the Olympics, however, the situation seems to be different, doesn’t it?
Gymnastics, such as athletics and swimming, is in category A, which means to be among the most popular sports. I’ve to be honest, so I want to tell you the whole truth. Gymnastics, at the Olympics, is in category A because the US are interested in gymnastics in a spasmodic way, in fact the main television that pays the Olympic Games is american. If one day the US gymnastics is going to fall out of favor, there would be no more interest and we wouldn’t be the first sport anymore. Gymnastics is loved and has a lot of fans, I think that it’s right that this passion has to be cultivated. Do you know that in Beijing gymnastics was the first sport? In terms of marketing it was a scary thing. For the finals there were 19,000 paying people, such a thing was never seen before. During the Test Event, in London, we had 12,000 spectators… it was so unexpected that even the organizers were surprised. Then, my question is: can gymnastics exist episodically? No, it’s not possible. I say this to our athletes, I don’t speak to the technicians who definitely have their own interests, but especially to those who train every day. It’s absurd to think of living only on income that derives every four years from the Olympics.
Yes it’s true, we gain something from the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships too, but what about the rhythmic gymnastics and aerobics? We lose a huge amount of money to keep alive these disciplines. I often have to pay the organizers. A major problem is found for the acrobatic gymnastics that, perhaps, is even the most beautiful discipline: it is really hard to find, every two years, an organizer for the World Championships. I had to ask China to organize the World Championships in 2016 because no country has placed his candidacy. The reason is only one: there is no business. Everyone was asking me a change and the change was absolutely necessary. So I decided to make a calendar that has a continuity, where each competition is linked to the other. I tried to do this five years ago, before the FIG Congress in Cancun, but I didn’t have the support I had this time, because the US imposed themselves heavily, saying: "We are bound to multisport championships and we can’t afford to organize a continental championship that television networks wouldn’t pay.” Asia was skeptical too: "President we don’t organize the Asian continental championships because with the multisport all expenses are paid by the IOC and we don’t need to go crazy to find an organizing committee and a TV network, nor we have to think about sponsors".
Among other things, concerning to the multisport, there’s also another problem: their calendar is often at odds with the FIG calendar. For example, I would like to mention the conflict of schedule that happened in year 2011: FIG was in Japan to make the Olympic qualification that, as I said before, is the one that produces more receipts and, at the same time in Mexico, in Guadalajara, there Pan American Games were under way. Luckily for me, I managed, in agreement with the President of the Pan-American Committee, to move the date of the competition and allow the judges who were in Tokyo to go there. Do you think that this is normal?
3) This new system "helps" the countries where gymnastics are less strong, or rather, it allows their athletes to have more chances to play for the qualification, doesn’t it?
Exactly. If you would like to know if I'm angry, yes... I am angry. I'm angry with those who don't understand the importance of this step, with those who are confined to their "little parish", but here we've to begin to think, at least, to the province. Let's see which countries were strong once. Finland had the world and Olympic champions, today it's disappeared. What has happened to Hungary? It doesn’t even have a team to compete in a world championship. It took 14 years to bring the composition of a team from 6 to 5 elements. Where are the countries like Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania? They gave the best athletes of the world. Do you know how many athletes were disputing the championship of the Soviet Union in the years 1970- 1972? Almost five hundred selected athletes. And do you know that now they are about twelve? I went to Lithuania, after its separation from the Soviet Union, I gave an economic contribution and do you know that they wanted to make me a monument? That's only because I have given them the apparatus to do gymnastics.
These are the countries we have to worry about … we have to give them the possibility to continue their trainings, in these countries there is a strong tradition that deserves to be supported and developed. Having five gymnasts who are able to do the all around (six apparatus for the man) it’s not so simply for them. That's why the FIG has brought the number of the team members from 5 to 4 athletes. However, since there is a tendency to specialization (for example Hungary has the world champion on pommel horse, Krisztian Berki, and he almost wasn’t admitted to the London Olympic Games, where he won, because the Nation hadn’t a team). I wanted to give opportunity to those who excel in one specialty. Do you know how many specialists athletes we have discarded from the Olympic Games ruining their life? Because an athlete who wins the Olympic Games, even in less advanced countries, becomes a hero, he is maintained by industry and sponsors. All this convinced me to change. This is the story.
Let me give you an example.
Aljaž Pegan, famous Slovenian gymnast, twice world champion on HB (high bar), has never participated at the Olympic Games. Why? Because his country didn’t have a team. Slovenia hadn't four athletes that could allow to rank among the top twelve teams in the world. I felt so "guilty" with Pegan, that the last year I sent him as gymnastics ambassador at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing. The FIG has taken charge of all the expenses, travel, hotel, food… I wanted to give him the access to all the competitions of the Olympic Games, because this boy, now married and father, had never breathed that incredible atmosphere. Pegan is only one of the three cases that weigh more on my conscience. I was also offended by a dear friend, the former president of the International Cycling Federation, the Dutch Hein Verbruggen. When he saw that his countryman, silver world medalist on rings, wasn’t admitted to Olympics he told me it was a scandal that in a sport like gymnastics exists that rule. In those Games, unfortunately, the winner of the gold medal on rings wasn't the strongest gymnast in the world... why? Because one of the strongest athletes in the world wasn't even admitted to attend the Olympics.
4) There are countries, like for example Romania, that lately showed weaker performances. They have strong gymnasts, but in a really small number. What is the reason in your opinion?
The reason is always the same: it is quite hard to have gymnasts able to cover all the events. The great Romania suffered because of this change: the elegance and the peculiarity of the artistic and choreographic movements, typical of the Romanian school, are less paid now. We can’t forget that the entire world was moved when Olga Korbut fell on the back tuck on beam (no one showed it before her) and now there are gymnasts that do a layout, a full twisting back tuck or even a full twisting layout from flicks. This is gymnastics nowadays, it is continuously evolving in dynamism, but it must be performed also artistically, otherwise our sport becomes acrobatics.
5) Getting back to the new rules… the format will see 4 all around gymnasts and 2 specialists for the strongest countries. Does the total number of gymnasts participating to Olympic Games change?
Yes, there will be four all arounders and two specialists, obviously I have to get our sums right. How many places do I have for the Olympics Games? I have 98. No, the total number of gymnasts has not changed. We have to take 2 places away from these 98, the ones entitled to the IOC, which will choose to which country should be “donated” the qualification. In London it was given to Vietnam and the girl (just think of that!) was doped.
6) How does the IOC allocate the places?
The IOC saves one place for the host country and the other one is assigned, following the universality principle, to an Olympic committee of the continent which is not represented. The universality principle states that at the Olympic Games all the five continents should be represented in every sport. Let’s take as an example of its consequences the case of London 2012 for rhythmic gymnastics: in this sport the strongest countries are the European ones, in America and Africa it almost doesn’t exist. In London, 12 teams qualified for the Olympic Games but two strong countries, Greece and Switzerland, were eliminated to leave the places to Great Britain (as the host country) and to the American continent, in order to respect the universality principle. These exclusions raised strong protests, some of them addressed to the FIG, even though the only authority responsible for this kind of decisions is the IOC.
7) Who determines how many athletes can participate to the Olympics for each sport? Gymnastics has 98, they are few if compared to other sports. Did you ever try to increase this number to give more space to gymnastics?
The number of places assigned to every discipline is established by the IOC, and only the IOC has the authority to change them. Of course I tried to ask for more athletes. If the IOC had granted us 110 gymnasts I would have maintained the format of 5 team members. 110 women and 110 men would have been enough … but the IOC never agreed. My complaint was based on the fact that other sports like athletics and swimming have more athletes than gymnastics. But it is also true that the amount of medals that a single athlete can win in gymnastics is incredibly larger: the same athlete can win team medal, AA medal and events medals. A clear example was Vitaly Scherbo, who in Barcelona won 6 gold medals!! This concentration of medals on only one person or on a small group caused the decision of the IOC to block the number of participants and this decision seems to be unchangeable.
8) The new rules come into effect in January 2017, so the World Championships of 2018 will already have this format for the Team?
I established that in the World Championships (2018-2019) teams can count on 5 athletes. This is a small advantage I gave to “strong” countries, compared with all I gave to the “weaker” ones. We speculated on how many countries could have the two specialists and they are 4 or 5: USA, Romania and China probably will have two; the other ones, like Russia and Germany, will likely have only one.
9) The new rules give more importance to the World Cups, that will become qualifying and so will certainly raise more attention from the media.
Exactly! What is the benefit of World Cups today? They are isolated competitions that raise interest just from the organizing countries, but the other ones? If we think about the media, even in Italy, despite having good results in Stuttgart and Glasgow, World Cups only gain a few lines on newspapers. Which TV, which newspaper is really interested to invest on these competitions? None. If these competitions become qualifying, if we give them an Olympic goal, we hope to raise a greater attention and participation from the media.
10) I will ask you something that doesn’t concern rules: why, in your opinion, USA is so strong in artistic gymnastics? In the women’s field it seems more and more out of reach.
In USA, like Steve Penny (president of the USA federation) told me, there are 300 clubs that “produce” athletes at a national team level. USA has what once Russia had. Many Russian, Romanian, Hungarian coaches travelled the world and stopped in countries where the economic return, given also by visibility and results, is more favorable. Results are obtained thanks to structures, that certainly are not few in USA, but the coaches form the champions and the job of a coach is based firstly on discipline. If the athlete acknowledges that the program proposed by the coach gives results in a methodic and systematic way, he/her can work with the awareness that the progress expected will happen and it is this only certainty that gives the athletes the strength to continue to make gymnastics.
Discipline + structures =success.
11) In these late years gymnastics has changed a lot, the apparatus have changed, the code has changed, athletes pushed themselves to higher and higher difficulties. What do you think about that, as President of FIG?
Gymnastics must evolve with time, I agree. But I am against the spasmodic increase of difficulties to the detriment of artistry. Several times I told the presidents of the technical committees, and I will repeat it also in this last year of my mandate, that it is necessary to create a code where the penalty on difficulty, when not perfectly executed, must be bigger. Back in my day, the higher was the difficulty, the more the mistake in execution was tolerated, now it is advisable to make the opposite: the higher the difficulty the higher the penalty, for the simple reason that the “high” difficulty implies a risk for the safety of the athletes. Second reason, we can’t forget that our sport is artistic gymnastics, so we insist on maintaining this artistry. The results become more uncertain, but an uncertain result is more interesting in sports.
12) Finally I will ask, if possible, how many votes have these rules obtained?
These new rules, that I strongly wanted, gained an approval of the 83%, certainly not modest if we consider that countries like Russia, China, Japan and Germany endorsed it with me. And they are not at all “weak” countries. I just anticipated the future, then if a President crazier than me will come, maybe he will go back to the previous format, but he will kill gymnastics. Many countries that were world champions now either have disappeared or are disappearing and we can’t accept it. Nowadays we are proceeding towards specialization, and I don’t want to push it that much. That’s why I decided that specialists must be only two and in only two events. On the opposite, I couldn’t not consider this trend, I couldn’t exclude from Olympics a gymnast who excels in one apparatus. We don’t penalize anyone, on the contrary we just give an advantage for the world gymnastics, increasing the number of countries that compete to be in the first twelve teams.