Russia: Conclusions of their Rio performance

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In a team sense, Russia’s performance in Rio was about as good as we could have imagined. For individuals, things didn’t go perfectly: Maria Paseka could have performed a cleaner Cheng, removing any disapproval of her as the silver medalist; Daria Spiridonova could have continued with the pattern she began on uneven bars in 2014 instead of inventing what hopefully doesn’t become another; Seda Tutkhalyan could have squeaked out just a bit more difficulty and stayed just a little tighter, earning a spot in Event Finals (balance beam in particular); Angelina Melnikova could have had a much better showing in qualifications and made the All Around Final; and although Rio wasn’t lacking in individual success for her by any means, Aliya Mustafina could have performed the beam routine she managed in the Team Final the two other times she mounted the apparatus (qualifications and the All Around Final), which in turn may have earned her one more outing in Rio before returning home.

But enough with the “could have’s.” When it comes down to it, the only development that could be considered a major disappointment for the Russian program was not having an athlete in the Balance Beam Final. Everything else was just about the best imaginable: an athlete with a bronze medal around her neck after the All Around Final (that’s what Melnikova or Tutkhalyan would have been aiming for, too), a silver medalist on vault, a repeat Olympic Champion on bars, and most importantly, a well-deserved silver medal in the Team Final.

For me, that last accomplishment was the crowning success for Russia, early as it came, and the best moment of all was at the very end when Maria Paseka delivered one of her best Amanar’s to clinch it. Four years ago, Paseka did not deliver the Amanar that had punched her ticket to the Olympics, but this year, after spending the entire meet carrying bags and passing water bottles to her teammates, she delivered the vault that she, and the team, needed to secure and retain their silver standing. It’s a shame it didn’t grace the TV’s on U.S. primetime (which is where I was watching) because it’s the stuff great Olympic stories are made of.

In contrast to the final performances of the U.S., which were incredible but almost comically predictable, and the Chinese, which were sad, the vault is where the audience should have been in that final rotation. The Russian women had to fight to the last for the best medal they could have hoped for, and they did just that. They may have finished their collective performance the way they began on bars: steady, consistent, businesslike, but their collective reaction to the scoreboard wasn’t as emotionally guarded. It was ecstatic, overcome, grateful. I think it’s fair to assume that at least by some measures, they were the happiest medalists on that podium.

Four years ago, they were just about equally happy silver-medalists, though that happiness stemmed more from falling apart in the final rotation (and thus wondering if they’d medal at all) than from overcoming an overall lower expectation of them selves. That lower expectation has plagued them for the last four years, and it’s something they’ll need to work through this next cycle.

Truth is, they were better all-around in London. The standard they set for themselves was gold, and it was justified. Most remember the historically dominant performance from the “Fierce Five,” and the gap that existed between them and everyone else in the final standings. But just days before the Team Final, Russia finished qualifications just a point or so behind them, and on paper, the only ground they couldn’t possibly hope to make up came in the first rotation, when the U.S. pounded out three huge Amanar’s to Russia’s passable two.

In London, Russia was much more “solidly second” with rankings that on average placed them second on every event but floor, where in qualifications they finished third. In short, they were in reach of gold, and they dug deep for it.

Their performance in the Team Final in Rio, while much farther from gold, was ironically better than it was in London, at least in terms of delivering what they were capable of. There were no epic meltdowns, no “missed” routines expect for one (Melnikova’s beam). They scored a total of 176.688, ranking second on vault and bars, and fifth on beam and floor. Beam would have been improved if not for Melnikova’s fall, and bars would have been improved if Spiridonova had stuck to her original routine instead of balking on some of the difficulty for reasons that remain unknown. (Was it planned after some rough practices? Or did she panic mid-routine?)

Overall, the Russian team’s performance in the Team Final may have been less dynamic than in London, but it was just about the best they could do, which is markedly different from their experience four years ago. It’s a performance that they’ve been capable of since the last Olympics, but for one reason or another they haven’t delivered until now.

In regards to the inconsistent last Olympic cycle, some will blame over-investment in the veterans, others coaching or lack of experience competing in big arenas. I certainly share those judgments and believe that each is a contributing factor. But I also wonder how much of it is plainly psychological, beginning with the national coaches and staff. For as much as the Russian program has slid since Head Coach Alexander Alexandrov was dismissed, nothing truly terrible and irreversible has happened. On the surface (again comparing the team performance in 2012 to 2016), they’ve lost an Amanar, some inspiration and extra conditioning for floor, and some coping skills on beam. But most of that can be recovered, right?

This may be putting things too simply, but I wonder whether Russia bears an unfair share of fan and federation anxiety, and how that anxiety has affected the program, and even the gymnast’s themselves. Inasmuch as they’ve slid these last four years, the much bigger story is that the U.S. team has become unbeatable. And that has more to do with the unbelievable success of the U.S. program than with the “failure” of the Russian one.

For better or for worse, Russia will continue to be compared with the U.S. so long as they remain in medal contention. For better or for worse, fans will continue to hold out hope for them, willing them to bring some competition back to the competition. This is OK so long as fans, and the Russian gymnasts themselves, can keep things in perspective. It might be a while before another team can seriously threaten U.S. dominance in the sport, and the failure to do so should not be treated as failure in and of it’s self. The Russian program should not be treated as a disaster post-Alexandrov because they haven’t matched their London or Rotterdam performances. All of the historic gymnastics powerhouses are struggling. Russia just absorbs more of our own anxiety.

In the meantime, a new, “ silver standard” standard needs to reign. I think that standard was set this last cycle but only rather begrudgingly. If it can be embraced this next cycle, I hope it will go a long way in improving morale. The Russians can be “solidly second,” again, but they need to believe it because the competition is tightening up.

Angelina Melnikova and Seda Tutkhalyan will be key players the next couple of years, and both have informally stated their intention to continue. With Aliya out of the picture for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see how both “youngsters” evolve into team leaders. In contrast to Mustafina in 2010 and Komova in 2011 (and 2012), Melnikova and Tutkhalyan were never seriously touted by the Russian program as their “best hope,” and one has to wonder whether lurking in the shadow of veteran teammates has been a burden to Melnikova and Tutkhalyan.

Following the Olympics, Melnikova was asked by reporters how it felt to be called “the new Mustafina,” and whether that high standard was difficult. She replied, “Probably because of that I cried (in qualifications). I knew that everybody had such high hopes for me, and it so happened…One can say, complete failure in the qualifying competition. Everybody had hopes—the coaches, the parents.”

In the same interview, Melnikova also talked about the extra pressure of competing for the team, and how the prospect of “failing” the team was scary.

Despite the pressure, however, she also talked about the support Aliya offered her following qualifications, affirming her tears and understanding her sadness, the feeling that the Olympics were not so unlike other competitions in terms of emotion, the enjoyment she got with so many athletes and fans around, and the great support of her family. When she talked with her mother following her qualifications disaster, her mother told her, “You have everything ahead of you, you are only 16, but have achieved so much! Everything is in the future. This is not your last Olympic Games, not your last competition!”

For her part, Tutkhalyan has also said things off-hand that indicate her intention to continue competing. I believe it was wise for her to decrease her start value on beam, swapping her full-in dismount for a double pike. It arguably made the rest of the difficult routine easier to manage without being distracted by the impending dismount, something particularly helpful in the Team Final. But decreasing her D score is also what kept her out of the Beam Final, which was disappointing. In the coming years, she’ll not only be looking for that consistency she found and then lost again during the All Around Final, but also for the balance between under and over-rotating that has evaded her on  floor exercise, making the routines unpredictable for coaches and athlete alike. I’ve joined the chorus bemoaning Russian floor routines this last cycle, but I actually like hers. Speaking to reporters following the Olympics, she said that the choreography was based on the Armenian folk dance, Kochari, and that “to some extent we managed to convey the strength of my people, their beauty and spirit. I will continue to perform with this music.”

I think I speak for many when I say it’s welcome news that she will continue to perform, and in her own way.

Moving on to the elder team members, it’s somewhat surprising that none of them have yet made any retirement announcements. I fully assumed that with all of her back trouble, Maria Paseka would bow out following Rio, especially after such a successful and career-fulfilling competition. But she has said she would like to continue if her health allows it. Even more recently, she spoke of her desire to take gold in Tokyo. 

There’s been no retirement announcement from Daria Spiridonova, either, who succumbed to more competition nerves in these Olympics than at any major international competition since turning senior in 2014. I imagine she’s hungry to perform that bar routine again, the way she planned it.

As for Aliya Mustafina, time will tell. In the months and weeks leading up to Rio, her interviews revealed an athlete who was tired and having to summon all of her strength to continue. She spoke of having already reached every individual goal and how her only desire was to help the team. Following the Olympics, Melnikova admitted that Mustafina was “exhausted emotionally” and “came home half dead.”

Despite the exhaustion, however, “The Queen” barely missed a beat before she changed her tune, saying she needed to take a couple of years off but that she wasn’t ruling out a return to competitive gymnastics. It could just be the post-Olympic grief speaking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if following a good, long rest she got a little fire in her belly.

She had an incredible Olympics, far better (it seems) than she anticipated, repeating every Final and standing except floor exercise. She also rallied, reportedly only deciding to perform her hardest bar routine (with the Mustafina dismount and an inbar Shaposh) once she was in Rio.

Retiring on a high note might be wise, but we’ve learned time and again not to count her out.

Article: Sara Dorrien-Christians

Photo: Russian Gymnastics Federation

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