July 18th, 2016 will mark Nadia Comaneci’s 40-year-anniversary of the first ever perfect 10 in gymnastics history, yet Romanian fans will have little to celebrate as the team, for the first time in over 40 years, has failed to qualify a full team to the Olympics.
After Nadia scored that perfect 10 in Montréal Romanian gymnastics began a history of glory that in the early years was marked by a persistent rivalry with the number one powerhouse of gymnastics, the Soviet Union. Twice was the Romanian team able to defeat Soviets at the World Championships in 1979 and in 1987 however the feat was never achieved at the Olympic Games where the Romanians always placed second to the Soviets.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 Romania began its most successful period with 5 consecutive World Team Titles (1994, 1995, 1997, 1999 & 2001) and two Olympic Team Titles (2000 & 2004). Plenty of individual medals were earned during this period with Lavinia Milosovici, Gina Gogean, Simona Amanar, Maria Olaru, Andreea Raducan and Catalina Ponor as some of the most stand-out gymnasts of those 12 years.
However after 2005 Romania entered another era, their only medal at that year’s World Championships was earned by Catalina Ponor; bronze on beam. And in 2006 Romania qualified a quiet fifth that would improve into a fourth place during the World Team Final. The struggles of the Romanian team at this point were also given to the new code of points, that unsettled more than one country, as the perfect 10 was no longer the top score and instead the new score was formed by the sum of two scores: difficulty and execution.
This new way of judging gymnastics deeply hurt Romania that throughout its history had relied a lot more on execution than they did on difficulty. Countries began to massively improve their difficulty, particularly its top three rivals United States, China and Russia; as it was now more worthy than it had been under the perfect-10 format. Yet Romania did not and continued to rely on their consistency and execution for team medals.
In 2007 a World Team bronze medal, literally, dropped into their lap, as Russia’s Ekaterina Kramarenko started the run for her vault but stopped touching the vaulting table in the process and therefore earning a zero that automatically dropped Russia from bronze medal position to last place. Romania, that otherwise would have finished fourth, won bronze. At the Beijing Olympics Romania’s consistency paid off as Russia fell twice from the beam and had a big mistake on floor, once again Romania overtook Russia for bronze and Sandra Izbasa won gold on the Floor exercise.
However by 2010 consistency was no longer enough, plus the team’s problems on bars that had been present since the 90s began to worsen. The result was that both at the 2010 and 2011 Team World competitions Romania finished in fourth place and to make matters even worse, in 2011 Romania did not win a single medal. Despite the struggles Romania had always managed to earn at least one medal at a World Championships in the past 30 years so watching the Romanian team walk out empty handed from the 2011 World Championships seriously began to question the future of Romanian gymnastics.
But when the Olympics rolled around in 2012 the situation turned favorably for Romania as their consistency won them team bronze, ahead of a fall plagued Chinese team. Individually veterans Catalina Ponor and Sandra Izbasa won medals. So even if they seemed to struggle throughout the quadrenium Romania always seemed to do well once the Olympics came around.
Sadly for Romania that was not to be their road to Rio. At the 2014 World Championships it became clear that their situation on the uneven bars was unsustainable. The team that had gradually, over two decades, dropped more and more places in the uneven bars standings touched a rather low point when they were forced to count a 10.033 in the qualification round that nearly dropped Romania out of the top 8 teams that were to advance to the team final. Romania’s 7th place finish back then, only a year and a half ago, was thought as the most terrible thing it could happen to them, as narrowly missing a World Team Final was thought to be the worst case scenario for powerhouse Romania, little did we knew.
The strategy of good execution and consistency instead of high difficulty had worked for Romania several times to earn team medals, most notably at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics where less difficult routines but very well executed managed to surpass teams that had the difficulty but not the consistency to execute them (Russia & China). The strategy nearly worked again at the 2014 World Team final where Romania improved from a 7th place in qualification to near bronze, yet in the last rotation a fall from beam kept Romania in fourth place.
The fall from the beam that happened at the Team Final in Nanning was not the first to happen at a major team competition; it was only a signal that slowly Romania had began to loose the consistency that had been key for so many decades. The depth that Romania had with several gymnasts competing for a few spots at major teams was also gone and their problems with the uneven bars had been accumulating for years and had reached its lowest point. All those factors came together, in a very sad way, at the qualification round of the 2015 World Championships.
After doing reasonably well on floor and vault, the Romanian team entered a nightmarish uneven bars rotation where the team counted four falls that translated into two scores in the 11 range that they had to count. In the uneven bars Romania as a team finished in 23rd place out of 24 countries competing. Sadly the panic streak followed them to the beam rotation where the team also counted falls; the result made fans and experts’ jaws drop to the ground, as the team that had never missed a World or Olympic team final in decades, had finished in 13th place and out of direct qualification to the Olympics (top 8 teams).
Hope was still present for Romania as placing in the top four at the Test Event could still allow them to qualify a full team to the Olympics, but an injured finger to the team’s top star Larissa Iordache forced her withdrawal and the team’s possibilities to achieve that goal became questionable.
Romania would still be led by their veteran 2004 Olympic triple gold medallist, Catalina Ponor, but she was also recovering from injury and was not at the top of her abilities. Laura Jurca was also injured and unable to attend the Test Event. Laura had been Romania’s light in the Glasgow nightmare, where even though she was the youngest member, she was the only one not to count falls on any apparatus.
In the end, the Test Event, turned out to be a sad day in gymnastics history as the injuries, the lack of consistency and the decades-long problems with the uneven bars ended Romania’s chances to qualify a full team to the Olympics as they finished 7th out of 8 teams competing.
While the problems had been visible in the Romanian program for years it was the sudden drop from their bronze medal in London 2012 to 13th place in 2015 that shocked many, yet fans believed they could make the best of the second chance the Test Event meant, sadly, the qualification day at the Test Event on April 17th marked the end of an era for Romania.
Now, as any other country that finished outside the top 12, they are entitled to one spot for the Rio Olympics. It has been announced that Larissa Iordache and Catalina Ponor will battle for the spot with Larissa having higher chances as she’s been a constant presence in the last four years with four World medals two in the all-around and two in the floor exercise.
The next stop for the Romanian Team is Europeans where a team competition will be contested. Did you know that Romania has won European Team Gold in the Olympic year every time since 2004 with their most recent win happening in Brussels in 2012. Sadly four years later fans and experts are wondering if the team will even make the podium.
A lot of changes are needed in order to rebuild the program. Juniors need to be groomed to develop high difficulty along with the consistency that for so long was Romania’s trademark and coaches need to do so while keeping athletes healthy so they can build the necessary depth. As for bars the last two years have shown that Romania cannot resurge if the uneven bars issue is not taken care of, a solution needs to be provided or nothing will be accomplished if the team has depth and consistency but remains unable to perform on bars.
Shock and sadness must pass to focus on the future; an early road to Tokyo 2020 has begun. Four years are ahead to rebuild and rise and we can only hope to start seeing shades of the old Romania as early as next year’s Europeans that are set to take place in Romanian soil, Cluj-Napoca.