Our world’s sudden and distinct reach for manufactured fairness above all has spread into gymnastics, and the US women’s gymnastics team in particular will suffer as a result.
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) decided to eliminate yet another roster spot on all competing teams, bringing the total down to just four athletes. Why? FIG wants to artificially narrow the competitive gap between nations by pinching off the talent pool.
According to former FIG president Bruno Grandi, smaller countries with fewer gymnasts to choose from need a leg-up in order to compete with larger countries, like the US and Russia, who have more talent available. In 1996, the US sent seven women to Atlanta; in 2000, that number was cut down to six. Now twenty years later, the number is down to a barebones four, leaving a few young women with Olympic caliber skills watching from home—all so smaller countries can gain a slight advantage.
It is at this exact intersection of policy and logic that you mentally lose most bleeding hearts who fail to understand the big picture of competitive theory, and as a result they end up advocating for decisions that sound admirable but actually hurt the very people they claim to advocate in the long run.
On the surface, FIG’s policy sounds admirable: putting its finger on the scale will help the scrawnier countries with smaller populations better put up a fight. After all, anything in 2021 to increase equitable opportunity must be implemented, no questions asked. But the new rule, and nearly all rules that try to undercut strength in favor of equity, fails to take into account the years of infrastructure development put in place by gymnast enthusiasts for generations.
My young cousin is a gymnast with Olympic aspirations, and though I’m no expert on the sport, even I can see how much work goes into practice and the preparation of becoming elite. Her life, and her parents’ lives by extension, is completely consumed by the grind of competition throughout the country. And because female gymnasts tend to peak much younger than males in traditional sports, the rigors of gymnastics must be both embraced and accepted from a very young age for girls with international dreams. It’s like going all-in on a poker hand. Once you’ve made the decision, you have to stick with it.
Thanks to international scale pushers like the FIG, her chances of competing in the Olympics are now 50% smaller than they would have been in the 1990s, all because smaller countries never developed the same infrastructure and resource planning as the US has done for the last century. At what point do we stop penalizing successful people for being successful, or even passionate people for being passionate? Quite often, the difference between winning and losing simply boils down to who wants it more, but statisticians love to try to find causality when contextuality often tells the story best.
We’re veering dangerously close to a backwards world in which succeeding is actually frowned upon, and lagging in the name of empathy is celebrated. Should we move up the finish line so that the Ethiopian runner, after years of passion and determination, wins fewer marathons? I’m sure an Easter European runner would appreciate the help, but would it really be evening the tides for all boats, or just drilling a hole in the biggest, best constructed boat? Is the heroic journey even one we want to take anymore, or do we just want to watch the movie?
Thousands of dedicated gymnasts who wake up before sunrise to practice clearly feel the same way, and luckily, their voices have been heard: FIG has responded to the pushback by adding a fifth roster spot for the 2024 game in Paris.
Let’s actually protect the interests of underserved communities by instilling in them a desire for success and a drive to create infrastructure within their communities; infrastructure that will serve generations of “vulnerable” people for years to come.