The Belgian saga goes on. Just days before Christmas, national champion Aagje Vanwalleghem accused the Flemish Gymnastics Federation of ignoring its gymnasts' wishes on national TV, and asked the President of the Federation, Rik Dombrecht, to resign. Dombrecht responded by saying that his resigning from his position wouldn't solve any problems, and that Vanwalleghem's opinions didn't reflect those of the majority of Gymfed's gymnasts. As for us, we're baffled by what's going on in Belgium, and thinking that the good people at Gymfed need a bit of a reality check. They seem awfully ambitious, and not particularly interested in their gymnasts' well-being.
Allow us to explain.
Firstly, you should (and probably do) know that Belgium is intensely internally divided. The northern half of the country, Flanders, speaks Flemish (Dutch); the southern half of the country, Wallonia, speaks French. The two parts of the country don't get on particularly well. To illustrate this, they each have their own gymnastics federation. As far as we know, there is no Belgian Gymnastics Federation; just a Flemish federation, popularly known as Gymfed, and a Walloon one, the Federation Francophone de Gymnastique. Most of Belgium's top gymnasts are from Flanders. They train together in Ghent, where the team was steadily improving, earning praise for its attention to detail, until its head coach, Dutchman Gerrit Beltman, was fired - mainly, it seemed, because he felt the Federation was asking too much from its gymnasts. The remaining coaches and national champion Vanwalleghem clamored for his reinstatement until Gymfed got sick of it and fired the entire Ghent coaching staff, replacing it with two French coaches who don't speak a word of Dutch and two Russian coaches who have been in Belgium for some time but apparently aren't all that fluent in Dutch either. And all this in a part of Belgium which is fiercely Flemish, and involving gymnasts who are too young to have learned much French in school.
Aagje Vanwalleghem during her Sporza TV interview (photo: Sporza)
Needless to say, Aagje Vanwalleghem, who has been extremely vocal about her recent disagreements with Gymfed, spoke up about the situation. Two days ago she was interviewed by Flemish sports show Sporza. In the interview she added fuel to the conflict by demanding that the President of the Flemish Gymnastics Federation, Rik Dombrecht, step down, as he was obviously "destroying everything."
"If he really loves gymnastics, he should really resign," Vanwalleghem told Sporza.
Vanwalleghem wasn't merely speaking in her own interests. She's looking into a way to continue working with Gerrit Beltman on an individual basis (in Belgium, it would seem), and it seems Gymfed is actually supporting her in this. However, she spoke up on behalf of her younger teammates, many of whom, she says, are so frustrated with the current situation that they're considering quitting the sport. Vanwalleghem told Sporza many of the younger girls are considering not showing up for training when Yves Kieffer and his crew start work in January. However, they're in a precarious situation, because they are dependent on Gymfed, not just for their training but for their education. "They could say, 'No, we're not going to train [with Kieffer],' but they're still attending a Gymfed-funded school. So in a way they're being forced to go on training there."
21-year-old Vanwalleghem herself is lucky. She's old enough not to be dependent on Gymfed arrangements. She's a university student who is living with her boyfriend, a promising pole vaulter, and has her own sponsorship contract, independent of Gymfed. But she's concerned about her younger teammates. "The juniors don't want to work with coaches they don't know, least of all because the coaches they used to have were very good. They don't want to switch coaches. It's really bad, and nobody is listening to them." She went on to say that Gymfed was playing with many gymnasts' futures. "They wish to start building something from scratch, but why destroy something that was working well?"
One of the main reasons why Vanwalleghem and her younger teammates object to the four coaches newly appointed to the Ghent training center is because none of them is fluent in Dutch, Flanders' official language and the mother tongue of all the Flemish gymnasts. "So we're now getting a team of four coaches, none of whom speaks perfect Dutch. But when you're working with 12- and 13-year-old gymnasts, it's vital that you understand each other well. I don't understand why the Federation isn't taking this problem more seriously."
It seems to Vanwalleghem that the Federation doesn't overly care about good communication between coaches and athletes. "The Federation says: 'Gerrit Beltman isn't the only good coach out there. It doesn't matter with whom you work, does it?' But it's a matter of trust. Why fire coaches whom the girls know well and trust, and who were obtaining good results?"
Gerrit Beltman (photo: Belga)
Vanwalleghem is convinced that Gymfed's stance in the conflict has nothing to do with gymnastics, but has been prompted by honor and loss of face. "It's all about power. Beltman didn't get along with Gymfed's Board of Directors, so they fired him. The three other coaches supported him, so they fired them too."
For his part, Gymfed President Rik Dombrecht denies that Beltman was fired because he didn't get on with the Federation's officials. "Beltman failed to meet the targets we set at the beginning of the Olympic cycle. He's not denying that. And then he refused to accept our targets for the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics."
Dombrecht refused to specify what these targets were, but according to the Gymfed website, the Federation hopes that Yves Kieffer's appointment will help the Belgian women's team qualify for the 2012 Olympics. If that is indeed Gymfed's target, we can understand why Beltman didn't want to accept it. It seems an unrealistic goal for the promising but largely unproven Belgian squad to aspire to.
In his interview (which, along with Vanwalleghem's, can be found on the Sporza site), Dombrecht was quick to play down the threat of gymnasts protesting the loss of their coaches and rebelling against their newly appointed coaches. "I can't deny we're having a minor problem with a few gymnasts and their parents," Dombrecht said. "It's a very fanatical group, but it's small - less than a handful of gymnasts, which is to say fewer than five gymnasts. The majority of the gymnasts and parents do support us, and do want to work with Kieffer. They're just less vocal, less inclined to talk to the media."
Vanwalleghem in happier days (photo: Belga)
However, according to Vanwalleghem, many gymnasts are complaining. She says quite a few gymnasts (including some very talented juniors) are considering quitting the sport if they can't go on working with the team of coaches they know and trust. "They [the Federation] are destroying our 2010 team."
Confronted with that argument, Dombrecht said that actually, large numbers of retirements were another reason why Beltman was fired. "Over the last few years, while Beltman was in charge, we've lost over 30 gymnasts who had invested heavily into the sport, and into whom we had invested quite heavily ourselves. We want to turn that situation around, and we're convinced it will improve under Yves Kieffer."
And this is where the story gets weird. You see, according to Dombrecht, Kieffer was quick to identify the reason why so many Flemish gymnasts were quitting. "He immediately said they were training too hard and competing too often. This puts a lot of pressure on the girls, which is why they're quitting."
Pardon us, but isn't that exactly what Gerrit Beltman has been saying all along? Wasn't Beltman fired because he indicated that the girls were training too hard, had too many school hours and needed more time to rest between school and training? Didn't the other coaches at the Ghent training center agree with him? And haven't Aagje Vanwalleghem and other Flemish gymnasts been complaining for months (if not years) about the Gymfed-imposed work load at the Ghent academy? It's bizarre that Gymfed should fire Beltman and his team for wanting to give the girls more rest, only to accept a newcomer's assessment that the girls are working too hard. Particularly since that newcomer isn't exactly known for going easy on his girls himself. Even Yves Kieffer's supporters (such as Isabelle Severino) admit that he's a very demanding coach. Dombrecht admitted as much in the Sporza interview, but repeated that he believed fewer gymnasts would quit under Kieffer, and that the team's chances of success would be "many times greater" with Kieffer in charge.
Gaelle Mys, who represented Belgium at the 2008 Olympics (photo: Reuters)
Our take on the situation? We think Dombrecht and his cronies are suffering from mild delusions of grandeur. We applaud Gymfed for being ambitious, for wanting to take Belgium into the top-12, but frankly we think they're being a tad overambitious, and possibly blinded by dreams of success. Clearly their targets are unrealistic; that would explain why Beltman refused to accept them. Also, it seems the Federation is putting success before its gymnasts' well-being. We couldn't help noticing that the words "achievements" and "targets" popped up an awful lot of times in Dombrecht's interview. It seems to us that the Federation is determined to achieve success at any cost, without much regard for the gymnasts who are supposed to obtain those successes. They overworked their gymnasts for years, then fired four coaches who had the nerve to complain about this. And now they've appointed four coaches who don't even speak the gymnasts' own language. None of this strikes us as being indicative of great concern for the gymnasts' well-being. Success is great, but at what cost?
Undoubtedly to be continued.