December 30, 2008

Nine Gymnasts Go on Strike in Belgium

Things are getting ugly at the Ghent training center, which is the de-facto Belgian national training center. Nieuwsblad reports that nine gymnasts are refusing to train under the new head coach, Yves Kieffer. Here's the (short) article, followed by some comments.

Nine Gymnasts Are Refusing to Train After Gymfed "Blackmail Call"

Nine of the fourteen female gymnasts currently attending the Ghent School for Elite Athletes will not be allowed by their parents to resume training today, a decision related to the fact that head coach Gerrit Beltman was previously fired in favor of Frenchman Yves Kieffer. The gymnasts' parents have written a letter to Gymfed [the Flemish Gymnastics Federation], the Ministries of Education and Sport and two organizations representing athletes, stating, among other things: "Gymfed threatened to revoke the gymnasts' elite athlete status [which entitles them to funding and to attending the special athletes' school] if they didn't decide in favor of working with Kieffer by twelve o'clock yesterday. Without any kind of psychological support, you [Gymfed] are holding a knife to these girls' throats. This constitutes blackmail."


The parents also said in the letter that their children are so upset about the current situation that they are currently unable to decide on their future. Therefore, the girls will train on an individual basis for the time being.

It should be noted that whether or not an athlete is granted elite athlete status is not entirely up to Gymfed; it is a decision made by a committee which also encompasses the two organizations to which the parents also addressed their letter, plus the Ministry of Sport.

Meanwhile, Gymfed is denying that it is exerting pressure on the gymnasts. "At no point have we threatened to revoke anyone's elite athlete status. However, now that we're getting a new coach, we must make sure our system is effective."

Our analysis:

We're no longer sure what to make of the Belgian crisis. On the one hand, it's obvious that there is a problem, and it's bigger than the Gymfed President, Rik Dombrecht, would have others believe. (Dombrecht previously stated that "less than a handful, which is to say fewer than five" gymnasts had protested Kieffer's appointment, when in fact it seems two-thirds of them oppose the new arrangements.) On the other hand, we're wondering if the gymnasts and their parents know what they're doing. Training on an individual basis certainly isn't going to help the gymnasts in any way. Also, it seems a bit unreasonable to us that the girls are not giving the new coaches any chance whatsoever. Sure, Kieffer has an unpleasant reputation, but by all accounts, he is a good coach. He has definitely obtained some good results. Moreover, we have by now been informed that both of the Russian coaches appointed to the Ghent center to assist Kieffer and his wife, Valentina Soldentakova and Iouri Kiritchenko, speak some Dutch, so the linguistic situation at the center won't be as dire as Aagje Vanwalleghem has made it out to be, although it's true that there won't be any native or fluent Dutch speakers on the coaching staff.

Meanwhile, there is much speculation in the Belgian gymnastics world as to the identities of the nine protesters and the five gymnasts who will report for duty today. National champion Aagje Vanwalleghem is known to oppose Kieffer's appointment; she has more or less become the spokeswoman for the rebelling gymnasts. On the other hand, Gaelle Mys, who represented Belgium at the 2008 Olympics and has one of the coolest floor exercises in the world, is believed to be among the gymnasts who will resume training in Ghent today, mainly because her long-time coach, Valentina Soldentakova, is among the coaches appointed to assist Kieffer. In any case, it sounds like there will be five gymnasts vying for four coaches' attention, which must constitute the highest athlete-to-coach ratio in the world.

Aagje Vanwalleghem (photo: Jasmin Schneebeli-Wochner/Gymbox)

We're wondering what Yves Kieffer is making of the situation. We know Kieffer previously broke off negotiations with Gymfed because of the "hostile environment" and all the negative press he was getting. The environment definitely hasn't become any less hostile since then. We wonder if he will report for duty today.


  1. I can add this inside information: headcoach WAG of club Gymmax Dendermonde Dirk De Strooper apparently has a lot to do in this conflict. His wife Dominique Verlent was director of sports at Gymfed. Dirk does not agree at all with the way Beltman works and apparently had Beltman fired through his wife.
    Last week at the anual Gymgala, the hall was filled with protest flags. They wanted Beltman back.

  2. Thanks very much for that comment, Anonymous. We had not come across these names in our perusal of Belgian newspapers. Interesting!

    Do you happen to know what exactly it was about Beltman's training methods that De Strooper so strongly objected to? We're curious now...

  3. I don't exactly know.

    Something different: Gaelle Mys had 0.1 point more than Aagje Van Walleghem at the national championships in Belgium. That's why she could go to the Olympics and not Aagje (although Aagje is still better). There are rumours (from De Strooper camp) that Beltman didn't agree with this and made Gaelle perform difficult exercises to make her get hurt so Aagje could still go to the Olympics. That's maybe also the reason why Gaelle wants to train with Kieffer.

  4. Wow. That's a pretty serious accusation if it's true. However, we find it hard to believe that Beltman would do something like that. We're getting the impression there's a whole lot of envy between the coaches...

    Needless to say, we're awaiting further developments in the situation with bated breath.

  5. Didn't Gaelle Mys qualify herself by being among the top 10 gymnasts from NOC's not qualified by the team competition in 2007? Or does the Royal Belgian Gymnastics Federation have the final say?

  6. Indeed they have the final say. Belgian athletes have to perform above the olympic minimum to be able to go. Actually Gaelle did not meet the Belgian minimum but got some kind of wildcard.

  7. I guess I'm too curious...and found following update.
    Aagje has won a battle...but not the war.

  8. Actually, that's an old article, Erik. Since then Kieffer has been confirmed as the new Flemish head coach. But thanks! :)

  9. Sorry. The CURRENT date is displayed on top of that page, so I thought I really had a scoop.
    Not a scoop but an oops...

  10. That's all right. We might have made the same mistake if we hadn't actually read the story before. We can't think why a site would want to confuse its readers like that...