The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

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.

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