Whether or not you are a fan of rhythmic gymnastics, there is no denying it has become one of Israel’s most successful Olympic sports over the past decade.
In fact, one could argue that there is no blue and- white national team in any sport that can rival what has been achieved by the rhythmic gymnasts.
They have reached the Olympic final in each of the past three Games, finishing sixth in Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016, while coming eighth in London 2012. The team has also won multiple medals at World and European Championships, earning a reputation as one of the leading programs in the sport led by the indomitable Ira Vigdorchik.
So how is it, that just one year after another triumphant Olympic campaign, Israel has found itself without any representation in the group events at the upcoming World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Pesaro, Italy? It will be the first time since 2005 – when Israel’s program was in its infancy – that the blue-and-white has not sent a team to the global championships.
In order to understand what has led to the current situation one needs to rewind to August 21, 2016, the last day of the Rio Olympic during which the rhythmic gymnastics group final was held at the Olympic Arena.
Israel’s team of Yuval Filo, Alona Koshevatskiy, Ekaterina Levina, Karina Lykhvar and Ida Mayrin finished with a combined score of 34.883 points to end the all-around final in sixth position.
That performance came on the back of a rocky two months during which the sport made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Vigdorchik was reported to have kicked gymnast Levina during training ahead of the World Cup event in Kazan, Russia last July.
Vigdorchik denied the accusations, but a letter sent to the Israel Gymnastics Association by the parents of the gymnasts claimed that she repeatedly abused them, both verbally and physically, and drinks alcohol during training and competitions.
The IGA set up a committee to look into Vigdorchik’s conduct and it eventually decided she can continue to be in charge of the team’s preparations for the Olympics, but coaches Ela Samofalov, Raya Irgo and choreographer Ayelet Zusman will be the ones who will do the actual coaching in the gym.
Following the team’s performance in Rio, Vigdorchik said she would like to continue for four more years and begin the rebuilding process ahead of Tokyo 2020. But she revealed she had yet to receive an offer.
“If the country wants me to continue it will ask,” she noted. “I want to continue and coach because that is what I love more than anything else in life. The question is, does the country want me or not? It is out of my hands. There is no doubting my love for the country.”
On the back of all that had transpired, and hoping to start with a clean slate, Vigdorchik wasn’t initially offered a new contract by new IGA chairman Rafi Peled.
It wasn’t until February, and after it had become apparent that Vigdorchik was the only person to apply for the job, that she was rehired.
Vigdorchik has plenty of experience starting teams from scratch, but this time little seemed to go according to plan.
“Just as you can’t set up an elite combat army unit in just a few months, especially if you are trying to do so with non-combat soldiers, you can’t build a national team with such inexperienced girls,” wrote Vigdorchik in a report submitted to the IGA explaining why she is unwilling to send the team to the world championships.
“Taking part in competitions without proper preparation would have harmed these gymnasts both physically and mentally, as well as Israel’s reputation. An athlete needs to be ready to represent the country and our job is to give them the tools to do so and not to set them, and the country, up for failure. The time afforded to me and these athletes to prepare was not long enough. That was made clear from the start and repeated all along the way.”
It became clear that something was very wrong when Vigdorchik withdrew the team from the Grand Prix event in Holon in late June where it was meant to make its debut in front of the home fans. She continued to pull the team out of what were supposed to be tune-up events for the world championships, but her decision not to take part in the global showcase still caught the IGA by surprise.
The relationship between Vigdorchik and the new IGA bosses was rocky from the start and they quickly regretted their decision to put her back in charge. But rather than firing Vigdorchik, the IGA decided to move her aside by naming her as the association’s rhythmic gymnastics professional manager, a job that hadn’t previously existed and the content of which is unclear.
“As the senior national team, which is currently coached by Vigdorchik, will not be going to the world championships, and as this is not an Olympic year, the IGA has decided to implement far-reaching reforms which will include the appointment of a rhythmic gymnastics professional manager, with the national team to be coached by two young coaches,” read an IGA statement.
The IGA was clearly never at peace with its decision to hand the reins back to Vigdorchik, and once it became clear that success with her wasn’t guaranteed, the association came up with a clumsy solution that will only backfire.
“This doesn’t mean she is fired,” said Peled after Monday’s IGA meeting in which the decision was made. “She will just no longer directly coach the teams. We are copying the model of the Russian team where Irina Viner is the main authority who makes the international connections and is less involved with training.”
Viner, who is also Jewish, is the head coach of the Russian national team, president of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation and former vice president of the International Gymnastics Federation.
In 2015, she was awarded the Olympic Order in recognition of her outstanding achievements.
While comparing Vigdorchik to Viner was meant as a compliment for the first, the reality is very different. Viner is all-powerful in Russian rhythmic gymnastics, while Vigdorchik is being let go as the coach of the national team even though she wants to continue.
“We are hoping that some of the girls from the junior team will be ready to strengthen the senior side next year,” added Peled. “Our next goal is to be ready for the European Championships in May 2018.
“Unfortunately, it is under my watch that we will be missing the world championships for the first time since 2005, but we will fix that.”
That seems like far from a given considering the decisions made by the IGA chiefs since the Rio Olympics.
Had they not wanted Vigdorchik in the first place they should have never rehired her. And if they already brought her back on board, they should have given her the support and time she required.
Instead, the IGA has compounded its problems with mistake after mistake, leaving the future of one of the best things to come out of Israeli sports shrouded in email@example.com