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."
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.