The Japan Problem

I would say everything turned terrible this weekend, but like it wasn’t terrible before. Everything continued being terrible this weekend.

The big news is that, for reasons entirely beyond the grasp of sanity, Japan has decided Mai Murakami is not eligible to be selected for the world championships team. That’s sort of a problem in that, you know, she’s the defending all-around silver medalist, the best gymnast in the country, and one of the best gymnasts in the world. Oh also Japan’s performance at this year’s world championship will determine whether it qualifies a full team to the Tokyo Olympics. Just that.

We’ve always quaintly made fun of Japan’s preposterous selection procedure, where they select the worlds team 88 months in advance for some reason, base selection on placement at irrelevant meets, and pick gymnasts who are not the best options and who don’t even end up competing in the team final (cough), but it was all games and sprinkles until it started to affect Mai Murakami.

So here’s what Japan is trying to pull: Japan uses the combined standings after two days of national championships and one day of the NHK Trophy to determine the majority of the spots on the world championships team. This is despite those events being held in April and May and worlds being in October. Apparently, no one has ever seen the problem with that.

Out of the 5 members of the worlds team, 4 of the spots are assigned based on those combined standings at the conclusion of the NHK Trophy. So this year, the top 3 all-arounders booked their spots on the worlds team—Asuka Teramoto, Hitomi Hatakeda, and Aiko Sugihara. (Chiaki Hatakeda actually placed 3rd, ahead of Sugihara, but she is still a junior.)

In addition to those three, Nagi Kajita, who placed 7th overall and 5th among the seniors, was selected as the 4th members of the worlds team. Of note, she was selected ahead of Ayaka Sakaguchi, who finished 5th overall (4th among seniors), which is significant because it was a weird decision that didn’t look to be in the best interests of the team score, and was also an instance of Japan looking past the official standings to make a selection—showing that it’s not all “the results are the results” all the time.

You’ll notice that Mai Murakami is not included in that group of 4 gymnasts named to the worlds team. That’s because Murakami was injured for the NHK Trophy portion and unable to compete.

No matter, you thought. It’s Mai. She’ll obviously be selected as the 5th member of the team—a decision made based on performance at the upcoming national event championships—because of reasons like obviously.

The issue: Japan’s selection procedures state that while the 5th member of the team is indeed selected based on event nationals that haven’t taken place yet, that person must also have placed in the top 12 in the standings following the NHK Trophy in order to be considered. Because Mai did not compete at the NHK Trophy, she is not among the group of eligible gymnasts.

No matter, you thought again, obviously Japan must have some sort of injury petition or exception system in place to avoid a situation where your best gymnast is not able to be selected for a critical world championships with qualification to your home Olympics on the line. Apparently not. A special petition was made to the board of the JGA to go around these selection procedures and make Murakami eligible for the worlds team anyway (once again, because of DUH), and this week we learned that the petition has been rejected.

So as it stands now, Mai Murakami will not be going to worlds to represent Japan.

One thing that remains unclear is whether Mai can still be selected as an alternate to the team and then surreptitiously put onto the squad later in a Galieva situation by someone who has eyes and a brain. I kind of doubt it, but we’ll search for hope anywhere. We have seen Murakami named as an inexplicable alternate before—at 2015 worlds—and then be promoted onto the team at the last minute, but in the case of 2015, she had participated at nationals and NHK and placed fairly acceptably at both.

But the fact of the matter here is that everything being done is very stupid. Now, you know I love a selection procedure, you know I love aggressively following all of the rules, and you know I love selection being earned based on results, but in this case, the rules are so awful and wrong that they should have been ignored.

Item #1) Using all-around placement to select a worlds team is bad strategy anyway for any country in any circumstance. It just doesn’t work in gymnastics. For a top-level country—which Japan is—your best-scoring team is going to include event specialists, probably multiple specialists. Those specialists aren’t necessarily going to have a good score on bars, for instance, but that doesn’t matter because bars is totally irrelevant to their contribution to the team or potential medal hopes in an event final.

Placing 4th all-around at a national championship is nothing when it comes to team selection. The first 2 all-around spots can be allowed matter—selecting gymnasts to advance to the all-around final—but the rest of the spots absolutely must be determined based on event scores because the only remaining considerations are team and event finals. There’s no award for having a good 4th all-arounder.

Item #2) What kind of dumb, broken-ass system isn’t prepared for a key gymnast missing a selection competition? Obviously that’s going to happen. You must have an injury petition procedure, especially if you’re picking the team sooooo far in advance.

I get it if you’re selecting the team two weeks before worlds, or something. If you’re not healthy enough to compete two weeks before worlds, you’re not healthy enough to compete at worlds. But Japan is using results from FIVE MONTHS before worlds. That’s forever. It’s very likely that someone could be out of competition at that point and then fully healthy by worlds. Like say, Mai Murakami.

Item #3) Why are you selecting the worlds team now? Your results in April and May are totally irrelevant to your potential scores in October.

You guys. I cannot.

Oh yeah there’s more bad stuff.

At Brazilian Nationals this weekend, Rebeca Andrade injured her ACL (again) while competing floor. She’s estimated to be out of competition until 2020, which means she’s definitely missing world championships.

It’s a gigantic blow to Brazil’s hopes, which were verging on “could we possibly think about maybe upsetting for a medal at worlds” and will now be based solely on ensuring qualification as a team to the Olympics. The scoring potential takes a massive hit, particularly on vault and bars, but I think the core of Saraiva, Barbosa, Fidelis, and Oliveira can still get the job done. (Time to pine for the career of Fabiane Brito right about now…)

As long as Brazil does qualify, Andrade will still be favored to take one of the four team spots at the Olympics. The injury has occurred early enough that she should have time to get her level back before the Olympics, and she’s familiar with the recovery process, at least.

In other news, Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos had a scary fall on bars in the events finals at French Championships, but she’s going to be OK. She won event titles on beam and floor and Melanie.

25 thoughts on “The Japan Problem”

  1. Can Andrade secure an individual non-nominative spot for Brazil, then be on the 2020 team while another Brazilian uses that spot?

    1. You can be too sick to compete two weeks before Worlds and be okay for Worlds. There are plenty of food poisoning/short term bugs where someone couldn’t leave a bathroom or it wouldn’t be safe to flip for a day or two.

      1. Ok but sickeness or food poisoning isn’t what’s being discussed, it was injury. A hamstring pull (I remember Melnikova had that issue days before qualifications in Rio) or minor muscle issue would probably be ok, but nothing more than that.

      2. Illness is definitely relevant to the discussion, because the discussion is about events that would cause a gymnast to miss a mandatory qualifying meet. The point is that it is ludicrous to require someone to be in specific form on a specific day at any point to qualify for the World’s team, unless that day is a competition day at Worlds. There should be a fair process for petitioning to the team if you are physically unable to participate at a qualifying event but can reasonably be expected to be ready by for Worlds.

      3. Yeah that makes sense. I think flexibility in the selection process is definitely required to a certain extent. Contextually, I think Spencer was referring to Murakami’s back injury; if she had that same exact issue two weeks before worlds it would’ve been at the very least up in the air regarding her ability to perform at worlds. Medical issues like sickness, food poisoning or kidney stones (biles 2018, Afanasyeva 2015) right before a competition are outlying circumstances that would of course have to be factored into team selection. For injuries, it definitely is a lot more important to give full recovery, especially for a team like Japan that really doesn’t need Murakami to qualify. I’m not saying that they’re shoo-ins to qualify no matter who they send, but it would take more than losing Murakami to really be in jeopardy of missing the Olympics. Of course the issue is that worlds is months away and she’ll probably be ready by that time as discussed.

    2. Yes, she can go to Pan Ams to secure the non-nominative continental spot. That has to be someone who isn’t a member of the world team (assuming Brazil still qualifies as a team) so she would be a good candidate. Also, she can be one of the Brazilians participating in the AA World Cups (if she is healthy enough to do AA by then) to try to earn one of those non-nominative spots. That can be anyone, including world team members so they might be better off saving her for Pan Ams given how injury prone she seems to be.

    3. Yeah, if she nabs one of the Continental spots. If the US has its +2 already locked up at that point (from Carey’s World Cups and from the AA World Cup), Brazil and Canada are in the best position to snap up the two Continental spots (figuring the best gymnasts from Mexico, Argentina, and the other bubble teams have already qualified through the World Championships AA or EFs)

  2. This is going to sound odd, but put it this way… If your team (Japan) places fourth in team final, they may be banking on the fact that they will qualify a team to the olympics without Murakami. That leaves Murakami to go to world cups or even the asian championships to try to qualify an extra spot for Japan. I don’t agree with Murakami not going to worlds but maybe they want to ensure as many spots as possible for Tokyo???
    I don’t know just a theory. This situation is kind of a Japanese version of the Jade Carey situation.

    1. The thing is that using Mai to qualify a nominative spot doesn’t make a ton of sense – then they can’t use her in the team competition in Tokyo and I would assume they would want her for that. If I were her, I might start going to apparatus world cups anyway, just in case something like this happens again though.

      In terms of a non-nominative spot, they can already use her to compete at the AA World Cups whether she competes at Worlds or not as that does not have any restrictions put on it. So all this really does is mean that Japan can sent Murakami to earn the continental spot. But the thing is that Japan is a strong favourite to earn one of the continental spots even sending a B athlete or a new senior. China doesn’t even have strong AAers amongst its top athletes, let alone those who didn’t go to 2018 Worlds to earn the Olympic spot and I looking at the top North and South Korean AAers, I still don’t think Japan needs to pull this kind of shit with Mai and risk not qualifying an Olympic team just to send her to Pan Ams.

    2. I like this theory, that they are going to use her for a non-nominative spot – I’d love to hear Spencer’s thoughts on this!

  3. Japan’s selection procedures have always been bonkers and totally inefficient, which is a shame because they really are a country that could challenge for a team medal on a good day. But the decision to shaft Mai reeks of internal politics. There is simply no other explanation for this, especially given that they have not said anything about using her to qualify an extra Olympic spot. Hopefully there will be enough blowback from the domestic gymnastics fanbase that they will reverse this decision.

    Anyway, with Murakami and Andrade (sob) out of the hunt for an AA medal, that race has just opened way, way up…

    Also, Canada now looks to be the most likely to upset for a team medal.

    1. Yes, I agree that Canada or maybe France are the two who could potentially upset now. I hope we don’t hear about someone on Canada’s team coming down with an injury between now and Worlds because October is very far away. I would love to see someone other than the US, Russia, and China walk away with the medals this time around.

      1. Me too. I was rooting for Brazil, but my dreams for a Brazilian team medal will have to wait until Tokyo… Canada surely has its tail up now – they could come away from these Worlds with multiple medals. And as you say, France is also a strong contender.

  4. Would anybody even be surprised if Japan used 3 AAers again in the team final at worlds, with Sugihara as their 3rd AAer instead of Mai? With this whole Mai/selection fiasco they are pretty much ensuring that they will have to use 2 yurchenko 1.5s in a TF, when they could totally do way better with a team of Mai Murakami (AA), Hitomi Hatakeda (UB BB FX), Asuka Teramoto (AA), Akari Matsumura (VT), with Sugihara doing UB BB FX in qualifications, and Hatakeda being their 4th vaulter.
    Kajita should be nowhere near that worlds team she is literally useless to them in any team final situation. Maybe she could be if she relearned her DTY from 2016 and cleaned up her bars, but for now definitely not.

    1. I almost want team Japan to fail dramatically so they’ll cut this nonsense out, but that’s unfair to the gymnasts stuck in this situation AND if Japan’s gymnastics governing body hasn’t figured out something so obvious as “don’t take only AAers” or “don’t pick your team five months before the event” by now, nothing is going to change that.

      1. Agreed. They should be forced to justify this decision-making process publicly because it is completely farcical.

  5. Do they use the same insane procedures for selecting the men’s team?! Surely they don’t – there’s no way they could be so successful in MAG by bringing the top five AAers or whatever… and assuming they don’t, why the fuck do they use these crazy rules for WAG? Do they just really not want to win anything?

  6. This team selection process is indicative of Japan’s very structured, rule-base, and many times rigid work culture. This rigidity has worked well for Japan’s economy, but isn’t ideal when applied to sports. Gymnastics is extremely volatile in that serious injuries can occur at any time and many gymnasts experiences major peaks and valleys that last for just a couple months at a time. There absolutely must be flexibility built into any gymnastics team selection and Japan’s inflexible adherence to ridiculously rigid rules is going to hurt them again.

    Of course, Japan could truly value a clear-cut qualification process over maximum potential, but I think they are too close to grabbing a World or Olympic team medal to stick to tradition.

  7. Of all the asinine nonsense! I can’t even. I hope Mai avails herself of any and all individual potential spots so that she can go to the Olympics if this decision implodes and Japan doesn’t qualify a full time.

  8. Looks like both jp and bra just got their chance for any upset taken out and now would have to hope for just qualification…:(

  9. Doesn’t Japan automatically qualify a team because they are hosting the Olympics? I though it used to be done that way anyway. OLD fan here.

    1. They only get one guaranteed male and one guaranteed female athlete by virtue of hosting the Olympics; no full team.

  10. I think Mai will be at Worlds. The powers that be have to pretend to play by the rules, but they’ll break them at the last minute. I mean…Japan would be committing the most elaborate and needless suicide in the WAG arena since…I don’t think anything comes close.

    Mai will be in Stuttgart.

    1. well, elaborate and needless suicide is a time honored tradition in Japan…

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