January 13, 2009

Whither Belorussian Gymnastics?

Once upon a time, Belarus was a force to be reckoned with in artistic gymnastics. On the women's side, the country produced the likes of Svetlana Boginskaya (surely one of the most memorable gymnasts ever), Svetlana Baitova, and Elena Piskun. On the men's side the program was even more successful, producing stars like six-time 1992 Olympic champion Vitaly Scherbo and 1994 and 1997 all-around world champion Ivan Ivankov. Over the last few years, however, there has been a marked decline in success. While the Belorussian men qualified a team to the 2008 Olympics, it wasn't particularly successful. The women haven't qualified a team to the Olympics since 2000.

A few months ago (to be exact, on October 30, 2008), Belorussian sport site Sportpanorama posted an interview with women's coach Antonina Koshel, who had some pretty depressing stories to tell about the state of gymnastics in her country. If you always wanted to know why Belorussian gymnastics has been in steady decline ever since the retirement of Svetlana Boginskaya, look no further - here are your answers!

Antonina Koshel (photo: Sportpanorama)

Antonina Koshel: We Don't Hold On to What We Have?

Belorussian artistic gymnastics, which has the richest traditions, has been losing ground over the last few years. No new stars of world standard have appeared since Vitaly Scherbo and Ivan Ivankov. At the Beijing Olympics we once again remained without medals. Why? Our correspondent "CP" addressed this question to the national artistic gymnastics coach, Olympic champion Antonina Koshel.

"We made an attempt to create the conditions for a qualitatively good preparation for the team. We carried out podium competitions in the Sports Complex. The team subsequently prepared there for the Games for an entire month. Everything was done to make the situation as close to the situation at the Olympics as possible. Even the height of the podium was made the same as in Beijing."

But not everything was looking so positive.

"The repairs to the training centers in "Staika" were very drawn out and at a certain stage of the preparations, the national team was made to take shelter in gyms which were not the right size for a national team.

Former Belorussian star Vitaly Scherbo

In the team competition at Beijing the boys were tenth, although the goal was to get into the final eight. Dimitri Kasperovich never came close to winning a medal in vault. If he had performed in the final like he did in the qualification, then he would have had a medal. But his nerves got the better of him. The athlete did not hold up, most of all, psychologically.

Our only female gymnast in Beijing, Anastasia Marashkovskaya, just missed the vault final (a place in the final eight was her goal for the Games), but she missed it by the smallest of margins.

Unfortunately, it is turning out that with each Olympics, Belorussian gymnastics takes a step backward. We are steadily rolling downward. And this despite the fact that the means are there and the meet calendar is large enough.

Q: So what is then the reason for the failures?

A: Let's look at who is working with the best foreign athletes, who is holding gymnastics up in the world. The overwhelming majority of coaches are from the former USSR, and among that number there are some from Belarus. And the process of draining coaching personnel is not coming to an end. We are ringing all the alarm bells, but so far with little effect. The coaches are not even turning to us for permission. They are getting in touch with the foreign clubs themselves, discussing the details and leaving the country.

Q: Is it basically the young coaches who are leaving?

A: Of course. Most of the experienced coaches have already been working outside the borders of Belarus for many years. The boys and girls abandon us the moment they leave the Olympic podium, as do those who have already worked for a while with the children. Coaches are leaving both from the capital and from the provinces.

Belarus' most famous female gymnast: 1989 world champion Svetlana Boginskaya
(photo: Steve Lange)

Q: What is the main reason for the personnel drain?

A: There are the low wages of the coaches, especially those working with youngsters, i.e., those people who accomplish enormous work in attracting children to the sport, in training young talents. This can only look easy to a non-professional. Unfortunately, there are nowhere near as many children wanting to take part in sport as there used to be. On top of that, far from all of those who are interested are absolutely healthy. It often happens that you begin to work with a boy or girl and develop them to a particular standard, only for various defects suddenly to appear. So their career is over before it has really begun.

I also see an enormous problem in the fact that our pupils, all graduates of sport schools, when entering the BGUFK [Belorussian State University for Sport] in line with their sports school qualifications, do not then have the right to work in the gym, where they have spent so many years of their life, from the first course on. I'm not talking about serious coaching activity, but why not allow the students simply to mess around with the youngsters, to help them with the simplest elements, to introduce them to a healthy attitude? It could be that while studying, the girls and boys would be accumulating experience. They would be becoming accustomed to children, and would themselves fall in love with their profession. Then they wouldn't need to look for odd jobs, or to work with paying groups or turn to aerobics, dancing or the circus.

Even the great athletes do not want to remain in their native country. There are interesting propositions for them, but these must be shored up by decent working conditions and good wages…

Q: Over the last few years, there have been active investments in sports in our country. Hockey pitches and indoor tennis courts are appearing. Are there gymnasts among the beneficiaries?

A: Is it not strange that in the past forty years exactly nothing has been done for gymnastics? We lose school after school, department after department. We are patching up holes in old gyms which haven't met modern requirements for a very long time now. Judge for yourself whether it is possible to fit all apparatus into a gym measuring 36 x 18 meters [125 x 60 feet], when the floor mat alone measures 14 by 14 meters [46 x 46 feet]. Where do you put five beams and several sets of bars? Where do you build pits for training the vault?

Belorussian gymnastics is dying. We only have a handful of training centers, but we are being edged out of some of these by acrobats and trampolinists.

In a year's time they are planning to demolish the tiny gym in the "Rings of Glory" school, a school with the richest traditions. In exchange they plan to give us an even smaller space, where there is not even room for the floor mats. Is this what you call a solution?

It is certain that in a large city like Minsk, while building residential areas, they should also construct sport halls, where artistic gymnastics groups could be started. Children will be healthier, they will be introduced to sport, and we, the coaches, will have the opportunity to examine a greater number of children, and to select the most promising ones. Indeed there are specially developed programs for the little ones - not only abroad, but also in Belarus.

America has three thousand specialized gyms. In our country there are only 16, most of which barely deserve the name. Indeed in Pinsk, in the very school where remarkable coaches are at work, putting the final touches to the national team, the hall does not even meet minimum requirements. The vault runway is not long enough and there is nowhere to set up the floor.

1990s star Ivan Ivankov (photo: Etsuko Ikeda)

Q: Can the situation change?

A: They promised us they would solve the problem with a training center in Baranovichakh. Furthermore, they plan to build several training halls for gymnasts in Minsk by 2012. But the thing is, in 2012 we are competing in the next Olympic Games. And where are [the teams] going to be able to prepare for those Games if the women's national training center on Ulitsa Ignatenko 15 is still awaiting repair? Meanwhile they have already more or less constructed the huge "Minsk Arena"...

In our gym, over the last two years, they have so far only managed to repair the roof. But it was all supposed to be completely ready last July! Now there is a new completion date: June next year [the article was written in 2008]. So where should the national team be working in the meantime?

How am I supposed to carry out a constructive training process with the new team of young and promising gymnasts that I have put together? One year from now, World Championships with preliminary qualifications for the Olympics will be held. We will need to finish in the team top-24. A year later we will be fighting for a berth to the Games. How can I look the children or the coaches in the eye when not even the most elementary conditions are in place? Why does no one want to investigate our problems? If we raze everything to the ground, we will not be able to build up anything from nothing afterward.

And is it normal that a gymnast from the national team, living on Ulitsa Ignatenko, is, as is currently the case, forced to travel across the whole city to train at Kalinovsky, where there is a sport school and where the national team is working in the same gym and at the same time as youngsters? This is nonsense! How is it possible that people do not understand that the country's top team should train separately in its own training center? All in all, at the moment not one gym in the country meets the requirements of a national team. So we have no option but to train in the center on Ulitsa Kalinovsky. And here one further problem appears, that of transport. During the training camps we order buses, but all the same, the trip takes at least forty minutes one way. Multiply that by four and you will obtain the time which the gymnasts spend on the road instead of resting, recovering and preparing for the next training session, each day.

Moreover, the specific character of our type of sport is such that the Olympian cannot be prepared from only two or even four years in advance. We start working with children from the age of five, so that when they are sixteen they can get up on to the large podium. This is complex, sometimes tedious work, but it is the only way to develop a champion.

Promising junior Nastassia Zaitseva (photo: French Gymnastics Federation)

Q: Do children train in sports schools for free?

A: In most cases, yes. Only those who attend paying groups bring money in. In principle, I do not agree with such groups. Not every parent can afford to send their child. Talents, as a rule, grow in families with a small income. The children of well-off parents already have everything and don't need to strive for anything. They take part in other kinds of sport, like tennis for example, avoiding the potential injuries of gymnastics.

In my opinion, the ideal solution in the current situation would be sports boarding schools. Specifically, such as are now up and running in China. Children live there, learn and train. A huge number of children pass through these schools. I myself in my time attended such a school, when I left Smolevichi for Minsk. And there were a lot of others just like me.

Currently there are Olympic reserve schools in each region, but let's look at how many future stars of world sport actually leave these schools. Possibly, the time has come to reexamine the existing system, to find another approach. Maybe it is worthwhile trying to extend the search for talents and to include in it, for example, pupils from orphanages. For them to be a success, to compete for their country at the Olympic Games, many of them would work tirelessly, sparing no effort.

The process of the disintegration of Belorussian gymnastics has taken place gradually: the draining away of the cadre, the falling apart of the gyms, the low wages of the coaches. Regardless of what it is, we will roll up our sleeves and work, developing new coaches and gymnasts. We have not given up, but there are problems, which we ourselves don't have the power to solve, which is why we are asking for help...

We really hope they find the help they need, because Belarus has too great a gymnastics tradition to let its program go to seed entirely!


  1. Maybe if they become more capitalistic (more free market, but the remaining vestiges of socialism) then they will get richer (because people are incented to). And then they will have money to spend on gyms. In the USA, there is no government support of gymnastics. It's all from the gymnasts or private sponsors. You just need to get a freer economy so you are rich too. There is also the side benefit of being richer...not just the gym.

  2. I have a feeling that if Belarus was to have a big economic change, it would primarily be in order to improve the quality of life for Belorussians, not to improve their artistic gymnastics program.

  3. Vitaly Scherbo will always the MAN in men's gymnastics. He is the gold standard.

  4. I have to say that Antonina Koshel responses don't impress me or reveal much. She seems to be complaining mostly, and i get the feeling that she is stuck in the old school train of thought. Eastern European countries in general are just not starting to get the back lash of freer communication and exchange of information. What they are starting to realize is that old ways do not work anymore in a country aiming for capitalism, and free economic markets.

    As far as i am aware China and possible Russia are the only places that are still operating under the 1970'- 2000 systems of recruitment and retention.

    Belarusian gymnastics needs to actually think about what IT! can do, instead of expecting handouts.

    All and all not a good read

  5. All true, Valentin, but it's a complicated situation, don't you agree? The Belorussian Gymnastics Federation is not going to attract any sponsors unless it has some stars, but in order to get stars, it will need funding... It's a vicious circle, and we can see why the Belorussians are a bit confused about the whole thing.