Initially I wanted to ignore everything. I like to cover gymnastics and not let TCG become a place for trash and gossip. Another reason for wanting to ignore this was because I had a deja-vu sensation when I heard Catalina Ponor going off in the press zone on how she felt unsupported and un-wanted. I dismissed it as her reaction when the emotions the disappointment were overwhelming.
But this quickly become a media circus, very confusing for 1) people that do not follow gymnastics on a regular basis 2) people that do not speak Romanian and were trying to get clarification via google translate. After a quick and helpful pep-talk from Jessica, I decided to try and shed some light.
The timeline of how this quickly unraveled for the past 36 hours or so:
- Catalina Ponor competed in the beam final and had an ok routine but weaker than her real potential. You can read about the beam final here, I will not get into this again;
- Immediately after the final, at the press conference, this is what Catalina said: “Unfortunately I gave the green light to those negative thoughts and negative messages to me, from those people who did not want me to be here. I’m glad I fought as I could, pressure was great, there were many thoughts. That is, I am an Olympic champion, not once but three times, I had nothing to lose, but it was not meant to be, that is the situation. They have an impact, these negative energies, there were many messages that I can not overlook, very tough messages, I do not want to give them more fuel, but they touched me. I wanted to prove them wrong, but it didn’t work out that way, I wanted it too much. They were not people from inside the sport but various people outside“. (Link)
- Then, right the next morning someone (ahem Catalina Ponor’s mother) went to the Romanian press and said this: “Catalina endured a lot. When she went on to train on beam, if not for coach Sandu, no one would speak to her. Other colleagues envied her. Larisa Iordache did not talk to her! All the statements made lately were just to keep up appearances. Catalina has suffered greatly. She was alone during this time. It came to the point that a colleague of hers sent messages of encouragement to the American, Catalina’s direct competition.” (Link)
- Then, it was Catalina Ponor’s turn to take to Facebook and address her fans and detractors directly (the entire post is 2027 words long): “It _was an extremely tough and stressful day for me. Why? Do you think it’s easy and this comes easy to me? There are years of work behind and the level has increased, gymnastics is not what it used to be. Being the only Romanian here I had to satisfy everyone one way or another, although I had nothing left to prove, maybe just to prove myself that I can do this. I regret that when I realized that the routine didn’t go as planned, I decided not to go for the dismount I had prepared for the final”… “I cried all night”… “I am fortunate I have a tough mind and I stayed focused for as long as I could” “After Europeans I wanted do do well for Romania but only the ones close to me know what I had to face, how many obstacles, what words were thrown at me without reason” “Old” “Ugly” “Shrew” “Moody”. Then she goes all to list all her achievements in gymnastics as well as the hard times – 2003, the comeback, the heart surgery before Tokyo 2011, 2012 (here she just credits Sandra Izbasa with leading the team with her), the comeback in 2015, her vault at the Test Event in April etc. Then she goes on to mention by name the people that helped her though Rio: her doctor, her two physio, Mariana Bitang and Octavian Bellu. _About the training situation at the Romanian National team she says “Because half of the coaches were personal trainers and preferred to support their own personal choice and the other half were split between me and the other gymnasts. Of the girls, three supported me and the rest of 7 were in a different group.” She goes on to thank both her supporters and her detractors and she says “I am seriously telling you I will not give up and I am already thinking seriously about Tokyo.”
- But it all NOT ended here. Her coach Lucian Sandu that traveled with her to the Olympics and was her coach during Rio went on to declare: “Her routine was out of 6.6, everything looked in order, but the nerves piled up, the stress at the most important of times. I was not expecting her to make such a mistake and my expectation of her was to place somewhere around 3rd or 4th and the cause for this was not her age. She prepared very well. The “bad hour” how they say, but in a big meet I have never seen Catalina like this.” When asked bout the cyber-bullying he confirms “I also received messages, even private ones, in which they either asked for my resignation or they asked me to pull Catalina out of the meet and replace her with Larisa. I understand there is a group of fans of Larisa, I don’t know if it’s them but there were many negative messages towards Catalina. What people don’t get is that for me they are equal, and if one says I helped the other, it’s her opinion, for my side, it was not like that. Larisa is upset with me she already has a different attitude. I heard she messaged Simone to support her and people were revolted that they haven’t seen the same encouragement for Catalina. Honestly, I don’t know if she wrote to Catalina but to me she just sent a simple message: good luck. I think it’s too little compared to the importance of the moment, after all the years of working together, and for the relationship we used to have, and I say we used to because it’s clear it won’t be the same. It’s sad because behind Larisa there are people that advised her poorly. In Romanian gymnastics something like this never happened before. Of course there is tension if the team was here in Rio the situation would have been different.” (Link)
First of all, let’s take the trivial out of the table: what happened was that before event finals (August 14), Larisa did send a public Instagram message to Simone “good luck for finals”. Larisa also sent a message to encourage Catalina minutes before the beam final (also on Instagram). Now, I don’t doubt that there was tension between the two and that they were not on the best of terms. The Federation’s official Facebook page said that they had separate training schedule in Bucharest on the last weeks of preparation for the Olympics. Now what people don’t get is that 1) Simone and Larisa go way back, sending each other best wished and happy birthday messages, this was not Larisa shading Catalina EVEN IF she never sent Catalina a message (which she didn’t –see the Instagram post and coach Sandu’s confirmation that she did actually message him) 2) rivalry is absolutely understandable when it comes to individuals; it has a long history, we have seen it in Rio, we have seen it in other countries when the Olympic spot was at stake (see the Netherlands 2012, Trinidad and Tobago in 2016). Gymnasts sometimes encourage other athletes over their countrymen – see Elena Zamolodchikova’s (I want to say 2001?) “I want to congratulate my friend Andreeea Raducan”).
Secondly, notice how this discussion become from They were not people from inside the sport but various people outside and shifted towards Larisa. Catalina did initially add at the end of her Facebook post “it’s not nice to shout out loud that you want Biles to win the beam final” but she quickly deleted it. The reason might have been that Catalina found that she was in the wrong saying that ( as explained above)? So after all is said and done, it was not Catalina that accused Larisa of anything. These were just excuses the people around her found.
Which leads us to the result: 7th place in the beam final, her 3rd at an Olympic Games. Yes, Catalina made mistakes and didn’t hit her usual difficulty in the final. But she still hit her 2016 personal best in an international meet, in the beam qualifications, at the Olympics. She did great, she peaked at the right time. She looked amazing, her preparation and struggle to get herself in the best shape of her life and it get there should be studied and coaches and Romania and she should be a role model for every Romanian gymnast.
The sexism and ageism she had to endure are beyond imaginable (being called old, ugly, a shrew). She is a hero who overcame a devastating injury, whose rehabilitation took forever, she is not a “shrew that stole her place in the Olympics”.
If you have any doubt in your mind that Catalina did not earn her spot, go and check her rehab videos that she posted on social media. She went to the US in the fall of 2015 looking for help post calf surgery and despite finding the best specialists it still took much longer than planned for her to get back to Romania. And instead of travelling back and joining the team in Bucharest before Christmas as planned, she was able to enter the gym again only at the end of January. Less than two months later she would compete in Doha at the World Cup. Three months later she would be at the Test Event earning Romania’s best scores on beam and floor.
And after that, she improved constantly. She looked even better at Euros. And at Nationals (in June) she was better than at Euros.
Yes, I do believe that Ponor was the right gymnast selected for Rio. There was no right answer for who deserved more to go. But she was better prepared, in July at the test competitions, constantly scoring above Larisa. It was heart breaking to see the two gymnasts compete against each other for Romania’s sole spot. But the most prepared gymnast got to compete in Rio.
How the Federation handled this was outrageous, however. I have a problem with the fact that they never really picked Catalina. Remember their statement “The presence at the Olympic Games requires compliance from COSR and National Federations, strict rules on time limits for participation and participants, the delegation structure, the positions of each member, including as flag bearer. As a result, in the last meeting of the Executive Committee of COSR was pushing the idea that Romania’s delegation as flag bearer is gymnast Catalina Ponor, a very honorable mission for each sport. After testing the previous period, developments in National Championships, it was observed that the gymnast Catalina Ponor is more advanced in terms of preparation compared to Larisa Iordache, which is why the Romanian Gymnastics Federation agreed with the decision, decision discussed and accepted by the two gymnasts.” (Link)
No wonder the s*** storm on social media and the outrage and the fact that Ponor was a contested choice. This wouldn’t have happened if the federation handled it and took it upon themselves to actually **select** a gymnast with a set of rules and selection criteria. And not just between Iordache and Ponor but all the Romanian gymnasts should have had their chance to bid for the spot.** **
Throughout this time Larisa has been a class act – she too struggled with not one but two surgeries. As an injured athlete she was equally ignored by the coaches up until May/June when she was ready to train again. And how about the routines she managed to pull together in just a few short weeks of training. Her performance at Nationals was nothing short of heroic, competing all around despite a back concussion and the very brief period of training. And the lies she had endure from the Federation that was trying to motivate her by giving her false hope that she could have still a shot. And how she traveled to Rio to discover that her federation had failed her once again by not arranging a gym for her to train in. She was also interviewed yesterday and she said she did wish Catalina Ponor good luck, though personal messages and public messahes. She also said “For me, Rio represents a new beginning, because it concluded an Olympic cycle. I did everything it depended on me, I have nothing to reproach myself. I hope next start will be with good results_. For me, what happened in Rio is a lesson and an experience that I would not have wanted to go through. It hurts very hard to watch others compete and I cannot be on the apparatus_ “. (Link)
And coach Lucian Sandu, on the same note with the federation who has been his employer at the National team for the past 14 or so years is equally reluctant to accountability and prefers to talk about his personal fallout with one of the gymnasts he has coached, in order to distract attention from what he believes to be a bad result. As for his coaching contribution on Catalina’s achievement or lack of thereof? “Her routine was out of 6.6, everything looked in order, but the nerves piled up, the stress at the most important of times. I was not expecting her to make such a mistake and my expectation of her was to place somewhere around 3rd or 4th and the cause for this was not her age. She prepared very well. The “bad hour” how they say, but in a big meet I have never seen Catalina like this”.
Lucian Sandu must have forgotten that similar mishaps happened at Euros 2016… and in 2012 at the Olympics, in 2011, in 2005 and 2007 at Words. It is fair to say that Sandu does not compete himself so the mistakes are not his directly. But I would have preferred to hear about how he tried to help Catalina prevent these countless cautionary tales from happening over and over.
But it’s no wonder this is was how things were handled in the Romanian team since 2014 when Bellu and Bitang left: ignoring the problems, blaming the mistakes on the gymnasts or on “people outside the sport’, on bad luck, distracting from the real underlying issues, focusing on the excuses rather than on introspecting and finding the root cause of the problem in order to be able to learn and correct.
For Romania, it’s a relief that this quad ended.
Dear coaches and Federation officials, I am afraid that this time there is no cozy warm spot to go back to. Without a Romanian National team (all the gymnasts are either sick, on a break or retired), change has to happen because your job has (finally) become obsolete.
Article: Bea Gheorghisor