Can Ukraine stop its downward slide? 

Rhythmic gymnastics of Ukraine is in a difficult period, that’s pretty obvious. If you got to see the likes of Ekaterina Serebrianskaya, Elena Vitrichenko, Anna Bessonova or Anna Rizatdinova, you left the World Championships in Pesaro with an Ukraine-shaped hollow spot. Something was missing. A Ukrainian rhythmic gymnast from the individual apparatus finals. 

Given that since the independent Ukraine takes part in World Championships (1992), there have always been a Ukrainian gymnast in the finals, this indicates a pretty dire situation.

Well, actually, everything indicates a pretty dire situation.

There is no talk of Ukraine winning gold medals, not even medals in individual, in Pesaro even the apparatus finals were too far and the gymnasts slipped into the high-mid-level range in the all-around. The general feeling was that Viktoria Mazur was underscored in the AA final, but even a 3-point raise would’ve only elevated her as high as 12th

The individual 17th and 19th places in all-around in 2017 were the worst results Ukraine has ever posted in the history of rhythmic gymnastics World Championships.

We can say that Olena Dyachenko is a major talent, talk about the upcoming Ukrainians, but we do no service to ourselves with that. All Ukraine have now is talents – pretty much all wildcards.

The thing is that Ukrainian RG seems to be on a downward slide, and it’s a question whether they stop that slide before they fell into a deep abyss or not. Let’s hope they do. Because one of the biggest, most beautiful, most revered schools of rhythmic gymnastics looks like a once-shiny building, which is now worse for the wear, threatening with a collapse.

Alina Maksimenko in Montpellier 2011. Photo by Tom Theobald.

ONLY A DRY SPELL?

As with any problems, this is not straightforward to analyse, and of course we’d also have to see how it looks from the inside. But from the outside it looks like Ukraine lost its place amongst the top RG powers and it might not be a one-off, but a logical consequence of a trend.

Not that Ukraine did not have dry spells earlier – in 2010 they won no medals at the World Championships –, but at least they always qualified someone for to the event finals. At the 2017 World Championships the best placement any individual Ukrainian gymnast took was 11th – meanwhile there was an event final with two Italians and two Americans and eight countries (Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Japan, Israel, USA, Italy, Georgia) had a representative in the finals.

In short, Ukraine is nowhere on the power map right now. The fact that Anna Rizatdinova is expecting a baby and Viktoria Mazur has said farewell to the RG circuit does not make for a brighter reading. Aside from their private lives, obviously.

Dyachenko and whoever else (Meleshchuk? Yarosh? Upcoming juniors?) will be in the team in the next years have to carry the flag and the burden of the huge traditions and success. It’s not an easy task. Especially because there is no-one to shelter them. Ukraine always had some kind of continuity. Serebrianskaya was followed by Vitrichenko, then Yerofeeva got the baton, which was passed over to Bessonova, Maksymenko, Rizatdinova…

and now there are Ukrainian gymnasts who can be considered top 10 contenders, let alone medal contenders.

A DIFFICULT TRANSITION

Of course 2017 is a transitional year. Maybe Ukraine were hoping that Anna Rizatdinova was staying for this year, providing an ‘umbrella’ while they’re building up the youngsters. It was not to be – the last we’ve seen Anna was a (probably) must-do routine in Kyiv followed by a withdrawal. Mazur is also leaving as an active gymnast.

Olena Diachenko at Pesaro World Championships. Photo by Ulrich Fasbender.

Eleonora Romanova – the gymnast they started to build up – left Ukraine after the 2015 Worlds for Russia. She will be able to compete with a Russian licence soon, but the switch might have done her career for good – along with some Ukrainian hopes. Lose-lose situation? Looks like so.

Transitional year or not, I’m not sure Ukraine has the gymnasts to compete for medals again in the near future. Maybe they will turn around and will focus on the very good group, but traditionally the focus is more on their individuals. Maybe they will find someone, maybe Dyachenko will have a breakout season in 2018. But the thing is that right now I can picture an Italian, Georgian or even American gymnast sooner on a World Championships podium than an Ukrainian. A part of this surely boils down to the diminishing influence in sports diplomacy. A part of this boils down to the obvious financial and infrastructural difficulties. A part of this is the country being caught up in an armed struggle. When there is turmoil, sports (especially minority sports) have it difficult.

But Ukraine’s problems in RG also look like something of their own doing.

Let me explain. As all sports, rhythmic gymnastics is constantly changing and evolving. For the better? For the worse? It’s a matter of taste. But it is changing and the teams which want to be highly competitive need to adapt.

LACK OF INNOVATION

Lack of adaptive skills hurt Ukraine more than anything.

The Deriuginas built up one of the major rhythmic gymnastics schools of the world with utmost dedication. It is a huge work of art. They have their style. They have their values. That is something all schools should aim for.

But when a school becomes so rigid and so set in its ways that it fails to adapt to the continuously changing environment, problems will come. There was an interview in which, answering a question, Viktoria Mazur shown no interest in the Russians’ new ways to enhance their routines, saying it’s art, not a circus.

It’s an art, yes, not a circus, but – above everything – it’s a competitive sport. Emphasis on competitive. And everything which enhances competitiveness, be it training methods from other sports, psychological background, medical improvements, etc. etc. should be embraced and blended in with the own style and methods.

Otherwise you’ll have a school which considers itself the one which is walking the right path, but in reality it just gets more and more left behind. It happened to many, many excellent teams across all sports from football to swimming, from athletics to artistic gymnastics. They were caught up in their own legend and forgot to adapt for the present and the future.

That is what I fear the most about Ukraine’s RG.

There is a lack of adapting. A lack of innovation. A lack of variety. Routines get recycled. There is nothing really new that comes from Kyiv, and what comes out is an ever-diminishing version of old glory, even if the sparkles are sometimes bright. One might argue that even Anna Rizatdinova would not have made the super-strong team of Anna Bessonova, Tamara Yerofeeva and Natalia Godunko in the 2003 World Championships. The others – basically all Ukrainian gymnasts lately – could not have even hoped for that. And this is an ominous sign for a country where RG has huge and proud traditions.

DANGER OF SPIRALING

The biggest danger is falling into a downwards spiral. Funds are already hard to come by. If there are no results – and results for Ukraine mean medals –, it will be hard to convince state authorities to channel more funds into the RG programme (First: Why would they give? Second: Why not to other sports?).

If there will be less money, results will be even harder to get, goals will be harder to reach. There will be less coverage, and the lack of visibility might influence the size of the talent pool. The rival countries aim to build better infrastructure, and as soon as they are ready, it gives Ukraine another area of disadvantage.

Between 1996 and 2012 there were always two Ukrainian gymnasts at the Olympics. In 2016 there was one. One looks more realistic than two for Tokyo, and there is an outside chance of no-one making it, which could prove to be disastrous. That is a worst-case scenario, which hopefully will not come true.

But, truth to be told, if you want to look for a medal contender individual gymnast right now, you have to turn your eyes to other nations, not Ukraine.

And this leaves us with the Ukraine-shaped hollow spot that we began with.