Sinai says: Israel’s young rhythmic gymnasts mere pawns in Vigdorchik saga

There is little doubt that the drama of the past year has crippled a once proud national team, perhaps beyond repair.

Israel rhythmic gymnastics head coach Ira Vigdorchik (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Israel rhythmic gymnastics head coach Ira Vigdorchik
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Success comes at a price.
That is a simple fact evidently more true in sports than in most fields in life.
But when does the cost become too steep? At what point does hard work become abuse? And who decides when the line between motivational speech and verbal torment has been crossed?
These questions and more have been brought to the forefront time and again over the past year in the dispute between coach Ira Vigdorchik and the Israel Gymnastics Association, an ever-escalating squabble that is threatening to tear apart everything that has been achieved by the rhythmic gymnastics national team over the past decade.
It is a saga that simply refuses to end. And while the focus of recent episodes has been on Vigdorchik’s employment status and whether the IGA can fire her, the underlying issues are of far greater significance.
The escapism afforded by sporting glory can transform a harsh reality into a distant memory.
After all, it is so often that we hear athletes rave about how success has made everything they had to endure worthwhile.
We have rarely heard that from the members of the national rhythmic gymnastics team, and that is no coincidence. Their young age, usually ranging between 16 and 20 years old, has played a major part in that, but the main reason is the indomitable figure of Vigdorchik, who has become the face and the mouth of the team.
The names of the gymnasts who were part of the squads that 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 – have been quickly forgotten, becoming almost irrelevant. In many ways, they were no more than cogs in the Vigdorchik machine.
There is no denying that Vigdorchik has been the mastermind behind creating one of Israel’s most successful national sides in an Olympic sport, winning multiple medals at World and European Championships.
But with Vigdorchik’s personality always overshadowing the team, it is hardly surprising that its demise has coincided with her rift with the IGA.
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 Olympics, 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 that July in Kazan, Russia. Vigdorchik denied the accusations, but a letter sent to the IGA by the parents of the gymnasts claimed that she repeatedly abused them, both verbally and physically, and drank alcohol during training sessions 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.
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 last 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 building 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 was unwilling to send the team to the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships last summer in Pesaro, Italy.
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 role of which is unclear.
Vigdorchik never accepted this change and the parties have spent recent months trading barbs via the media.
After she threatened to take members of the IGA’s board to court on claims that they were trying to get rid of her for internal political reasons – which surprisingly cost Peled his job on Tuesday – the IGA replied with an angry letter that included alleged revelations regarding the coach’s conduct.
According to the letter, after the team’s exhibition display during the Grand Prix in Holon, Vigdorchik walked in front of the stand in which Peled was seated with Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig and shouted out “these aren’t gymnasts, this is garbage.”
The Regional Labor Court in Tel Aviv was the scene of the latest chapter in the melodrama this past Sunday, with Vigdorchik requesting temporary relief from the court and a status as a corruption whistle-blower after being officially fired by the IGA last month. A ruling isn’t expected until next month.
The entire situation is made even more absurd by the fact that Vigdorchik continues to work with the team, and is set to do so for another month. The IGA requested that she continue to turn up for training sessions as usual, with the 60 days of notice she is entitled to according to their agreement only starting on December 25 when her firing became official.
Vigdorchik claimed at the Labor Court that she “lives for the team” and that changing a coach now would “kill the team” she has rebuilt over the past year-and-a-half.
There is little doubt that the drama of the past year has crippled a once proud national team, perhaps beyond repair. But that shouldn’t be the point. The well-being of the gymnasts and the methods used to reach such a level of performance are what should have been the focus all along.
It is often tempting to turn a blind eye in the chase for success. But that shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Let it be medals and sporting triumph that are sacrificed rather than the physical and psychological welfare of young girls.