In a certain way nothing has really changed at the 35th Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships. Russia still reigns supreme – since 2002 the Russian Federation always topped the medal table.
Russian rule is pretty much a given and will be a given for the next years. All the aces are up their sleeves. The best finances, background, infrastructure, coaching and talent pool. You cannot really go wrong with that.
Under the surface, this championships has been one which showed a field in huge transition. The post-Olympic World Championships are always about transition – a lot of gymnasts retire, a lot of new ones gain experience on this level for the first time. In Pesaro the transition felt even bumpier than usual: only 8 of the 24 gymnasts at the 2015 Worlds all-around final were present in the Italian city – only Salome Pazhava, Laura Zeng and Neviana Vladinova from the top ten.
A great number of quality gymnasts disappeared from the rankings – Stuttgart had a really strong field in the top 40-50 –, and the lack of experience of the upcomers showed in quite many mistakes. It’s difficult to compare Stuttgart and Pesaro because of the Code of Points change, which results in lower scores. But the average AA final score of a gymnast was 63.817 only this time, compared to the 69.763 in Stuttgart. Almost six points difference, almost one and a half points per routine. This is partially caused by the CoP change, partially by the lower ribbon scores across the board (you simply cannot amass enough difficulty in ribbon to score high), and partially the transitioning field of gymnasts.
This is not only transition, this is a field searching for new leaders and new stars to develop.
It’s a rare thing that you can qualify for the all-around final with two botched routines, especially that now there was no leeway, all routines counted, the worst score did not drop out. In Pesaro that was the case – Salome Pazhava qualified with 2 badly botched routines, Sumira Kita’s great hoop score literally pulled her into the all-around final despite having two routines scoring at or under 14 points. These are things you usually cannot get away with. Probably no gymnast (apart from the really top ones) can get away with this next year in Sofia. But the girls will grow and improve – it’ll be interesting to see (more or less) the same field in 2018, and the improvement that is about to come.
Interestingly enough, the field of groups – especially top groups – remained about the same quality, despite a lot of teams changing the members. This looks like an easier transition, but one which requires a lot of meticulous planning and work – look at the differing fortunes of Bulgaria and Spain. One kept the level despite changing the whole group, one sank into the middle of the field. But more on that later.
6 THINGS WE’VE NOTICED
THE TWINS ARE HERE TO STAY
The Averina twins won their place to Pesaro at the European Championships in Budapest and delivered in style. The Russian girls took home all the individual golds and only one silver slipped out of the hands of “Averinaland.” They are both super handlers, quick, agile, flexible – as if designed for this Code of Points, which values difficulty above all. Especially Dina seems to be growing in expression and as a performer – something the twins really need –, and she won the all-around deservedly in a final that saw few clean four-routine performances.
The twins are so well-equipped to the new code – and also, they give each other such a support system – that it’s difficult to see anyone easily catching up with them. Apart from the internal rivals the best bet is probably Linoy Ashram to give a run for their money in the near future.
DIFFICULTY TRUMPS ALL
The fact that difficulty of the routines can be stacked up over 10.000 (but still, a maximum of 10 is given) means difficulty trumps everything right now. It gives a way out of mistakes as well – of course only in the case if you have a gymnast capable of handling theoretically 10+ difficulty routines. The Bulgarians were quite open about this and said it’s obvious they should go for difficulty stacking as well, and anyone who wants medals in this cycle is likely to do the same. Over 9 point-difficulty routines are the only likely way to go for the ones who want to fight for the major prizes.
ON THE UPSWING: ITALY, JAPAN
Maybe these two countries showed the most improvement at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships: Italy now have two awesome individual gymnasts with Alexandra Agiurgiuculese and Milena Baldassarri, and the group kept its usual place amongst the big powers, winning the only non-Russian gold of the competition. This makes very bright reading for the host nation – Agiurgiuculese and Baldassarri both look potential top 15 gymnasts for the future (and not just at home ground), capable of reaching apparatus final places and maybe even medals.
With Kaho Minagawa and Sumire Kita, plus the group Japan got four medals and took the third place in the medal table, which is a huge achievement. And (in theory) they should only improve as we are going towards Tokyo 2020 – gymnastics will be one of the sports at the Games in which Japan wants to have a good medal haul and a huge impact. They will probably give their all in funds and in sports diplomacy – count for the Japanese flag flying high in the next years.
ON THE DOWNSWING: UKRAINE, SPAIN
We all expected Ukraine to have a difficult transition post-Rizatdinova, and we had it at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships. Viktoria Mazur bowed out from RG with one of her best all-around performances, Olena Diachenko made the all-around final, but still, the downslide is easy to see. Since there is an independent Ukraine, this was the first time in RG history that the countries’ individual gymnasts failed to make the apparatus finals.
Neither of them were in the top 15 in all-around and the best place Ukraine took was a 6th in groups. That does not make for a very pretty future, especially that Mazur and two key group gymnasts retire. While the Ukrainian school is as beautiful as ever, the quality of the individual gymnasts is slowly declining, and they now have to build up their talents without any “shelter” of an experienced, consistently medal-winning gymnast. The general feeling in the Pesaro circles is that without some kind of reform or the appearance of a super talent this decline will be difficult to stop. The biggest danger is that Ukraine might fall into a negative cycle – if there are no medals, funding might be even harder to come by, funding problems will influence the preparation and performances, and so on and so on.
Spain had no individual gymnasts qualified to the all-around final for the first time ever when the country took place at RG Worlds. The group sank into the middle of the field, showing another difficult transition – both pop questions of planning for the future, as this performance is an alarming slide from the usual level of one of the traditional RG powers. It might be only transition – in group they will most probably improve –, but for a country in which RG has a crazily passionate fan base, performances like this will just not cut it.
THE CROWD DARLINGS
There is something of a cuteness overload aura of the twins, it’s a delight to see the artistry of Katsiaryna Halkina, but it was just brilliant to see how well Salome Pazhava was received. The Georgian top gymnast came back after a long and very difficult hiatus, struggling with injuries, and even though she had minimal preparation for the Worlds (and accordingly had a really uneven performance), she keeps her standing as the universal crowd darling. She has something else, something extra, something that cannot be taught: a true top class performer in a field that has amazing gymnasts but really few top class performers. She just occupies a special spot in rhythmic fans’ heart – and if her health is all right, we’ll most probably see her back amongst the best next year.
A special mention to the Bulgarian group with its brilliant 5 hoops routine – they were somewhat unlucky with making a mistake in the final, costing them the medal, but that was widely considered the finest group composition this year.
THE CROWD ITSELF
Honestly, I’ve never experienced anything near like this in RG craze. Although the Italian fans can make their discontent very loudly heard (it’s not common in the sport to hear whole-hall boos to some scores), they obviously put their heart out for something they love. I wouldn’t be surprised if some gymnasts had goosebumps from the crowd noise level. Up in the stands we most certainly had, and it’s no wonder some photographers took their earplugs with them! Despite the boos, the general atmosphere was just plain amazing – it’s great to see such a huge, passionate and fierce crowd for RG.
SPECIAL AWARDS TIME!
Slaying in Social Media Special Award: for Ukraine, obviously. Viktoria Mazur first announces her marriage, then her retirement, Anna Rizatdinova is expecting a baby, now that is the way to surprise fans off-carpet!
Charming Everyone With A Surprise Visit Award: for Margarita Mamun. That is one thing that all hell broke loose in the fan areas when the reigning Olympic Champion entered the hall. But how many times do you see an Olympic, World and European Champion just casually popping into the press centre for some rest and chat with the photographers and journalists? A note: Rita would make an amazing global ambassador for RG. She has an aura of natural warmth and kindness that is just charming everyone.
Gimmick of the Championships Special Award: the black swan-white swan mid-routine ‘skirt change’ for Dina Averina. The most entertaining thing is that the dress sometimes malfunctions!
Most Hats Special Award: Irina Viner. I counted eight.
Money To Burn Special Award: Azerbaijan and Ukraine, for registering 11 of the 27 enquiries at these Worlds. The frequency of enquiries and the number of accepted enquiries were both unusual!
Best Twins of the World Championships Special Award: isn’t it kind of obvious? 😉