Sinai Says: Jumping through hoops to explain perplexing gymnastics coaching decision

The well-being of the gymnasts and the coaching staff was what should have been the focus all along.

Ira Vigdorchik will remain the head coach of the Israel rhythmic gymnastics national team (inset) despite the serious accusations leveled at her of abusing members of the team, which is a contender for an Olympic medal. (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Ira Vigdorchik will remain the head coach of the Israel rhythmic gymnastics national team (inset) despite the serious accusations leveled at her of abusing members of the team, which is a contender for an Olympic medal.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
To hell with Yuval, Alona, Ekaterina, Karina and Ida. So what if they literally got kicked around and faced crude verbal abuse. They want to be Olympic champions, and that comes at a cost. And with the start of the Rio Games less than three weeks away, how can we pass up on the possibility of Olympic glory, right?
That, in a nutshell, was the sad message sent out by the Israel Gymnastics Association on Monday. Truth and justice were never going to be served by the committee set up by the IGA last week following revelations regarding the conduct of the national rhythmic gymnastics team coach Ira Vigdorchik and the allegations that she kicked one of the squad’s gymnasts, Ekaterina Levina, during training last weekend ahead of the World Cup event in Kazan, Russia.
The head of the committee, Judge Nili Arad, didn’t deny that the main goal was to find a compromise that would see Vigdorchik keep her job at least until the Rio Olympics.
But, either Vigdorchik verbally and physically abused the gymnasts, or she didn’t.
There is simply no compromise between the seriousness of the allegations leveled at the coach and her unequivocal denials.
If she abused the gymnasts, Vigdorchik should not have only been fired on the spot, but the gymnasts and their parents should have found the nearest police station and filed a complaint.
If she didn’t abuse the gymnasts, the IGA should have completely exonerated Vigdorchik while the gymnasts and their parents would have been left with plenty of answering to do, as well as facing a possible lawsuit for defamation.
But all of that has been marginalized by the prospect of an Olympic medal.
Vigdorchik may be guilty of objectionable behavior, or she may be the victim of a conspiracy. But that was not the committee’s top priority according to IGA chairman Ofir Pines-Paz.
“We thought that the first thing we have to do was to save these Olympics for the team,” he said at the announcing of the committee’s recommendations on Monday night.
“The second aspect is that we want to change a lot of fundamental things regarding the national rhythmic gymnastics team. But that will start after the Olympics.”
Pines-Paz claimed that the IGA doesn’t have the capabilities to get to the bottom of the matter, but that doesn’t make it any less responsible for what may or may not have happened.
He also added that the fact the parents chose not to go to the police speaks for itself, hinting that he doesn’t believe they are telling the entire truth.
According to a letter sent to the IGA by the parents of the gymnasts, which besides Levina also include Yuval Filo, Alona Koshevatskiy, Karina Lykhvar and Ida Mayrin (all aged between 17 and 19), plenty of abominable things had happened.
They claimed that Vigdorchik denied the gymnasts drink and food, leading to fainting during training sessions while also not allowing them to go to the bathroom. They described the foul language used by Vigdorchik and how they often smelled alcohol when speaking to her, including at the recent European Championships in Holon.
Vigdorchik denied the accusations all along. Her lawyer Amir Rosenberg claimed that the gymnasts aimed to oust Vigdorchik in favor of coach Ela Samofalov, who currently works under Vigdorchik on the national team and is the personal coach of three of the gymnasts at Maccabi Tel Aviv, as well as individual Olympic gymnast Neta Rivkin. Vigdorchik coach’s at rival Hapoel Holon.
“Dear gymnasts – you don’t decide who will coach you for four years and who will lead you at the Olympics,” Rosenberg wrote. “No emotion: hate, love, envy, fear – is relevant to the identity of the coach and the chance of winning an Olympic medal. No dispute with the coach is a reason to replace her today or at any other time.”
Samofalov refuted the claims.
“In recent days my life has become hell,” she said. “I discovered that I’m ‘responsible’ for a planned attempt to replace the coach of the national team.
I was attacked everywhere that I conspired with the gymnasts from Maccabi Tel Aviv to oust the coach. That is completely untrue. All those who blame me and are hinting in that direction will have to provide answers in court after I sue them for slander.”
The tear between Vigdorchik and Samofalov was a well known fact before the recent revelations, but obviously it will have gotten a lot worse over the past week.
Nevertheless, the committee recommended on Monday that they will continue working together, with Vigdorchik to remain in her role as the head coach but no longer personally guide the squad. Vigdorchik will still be in charge of the team’s preparations for the Rio Olympics, but her plan will be implemented in the gym by Samofalov, coach Raya Irgo and choreographer Ayelet Zusman.
“We promised everyone that we will try and reach a peaceful solution,” said Judge Arad, who was joined in the committee by the former CEO of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Orly Fruman, sport attorney Hanoch Keinan and former pole vaulter Alex Averbukh. “We interviewed everyone and they all asked for help in order to reach a joint goal.”
The committee also decided that Averbukh will attend the team’s training sessions and travel with it to competitions to ensure the recommendations are implemented.
The national team is considered to be one of Israel’s main candidates to win a medal in Rio. The team won gold, silver and bronze medals at last month’s European Championships in Holon, while also taking three medals at the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan last summer, winning two silvers and a bronze.
Medals are only awarded in the allaround event at the Olympics.
“We have been through a week from hell,” said Pines-Paz. “It is no secret that Israel’s rhythmic gymnastics team is a leading team in Israeli sport and is a top Olympic candidate. There is no doubt that what happened over the last week has shook up Israeli gymnastics and has certainly disrupted our preparations for the Olympics.”
The team was set to leave for Baku on Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s World Cup event, its final competition before the Olympics. Initially it was decided that the team will cancel its participation and remain in Israel to train due to the distractions of the past week, but Vigdorchik determined after Tuesday’s training session that the gymnasts are ready to compete and they will fly out on Wednesday.
There is little doubt that the drama of the past week has hurt the team’s preparations for Rio, perhaps beyond repair.
But that shouldn’t be the point. The well-being of the gymnasts and the coaching staff was what should have been the focus all along. One can’t help but wonder if the IGA would have acted in the same manner if the team had no chance of winning a medal in Rio.
Sadly, the answer to that question is pretty clear.
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