Unlike chess (part 1), the post-socialist Gymnastics School due to Olympic marketability still retained enough visibility to resist as a macro-sport. Even more interesting, it retained a disproportionately high status in a CEE country which continously lost steam in all that concerns sports: Romania. Certainly, Russia still remains a powerhouse on the global gymnastics scene, but in order to better highlight the intertwining of sports and politics, Romania seems to display a very interesting process of decay: a personalization of performances around key coaches, who get recruited into the presidential administration and other high positions without any notable results, and then return to the training center only to find similarly inconclusive results. In order not to get tangled with the specifics of the selected case (i.e. decay of infrastructure and investment), this brief overview will dwell more on the idea of a national strategy concerning sports.
Brief overview of the status of the Romanian Gymnastics School
For those not particularly interested in the history of this sport suffice it to note that since the 1970s, Romania has been a constant powerhouse on the global gymnastics scene (most notably in women’s team but also to a limited extent in men’s). The sport became an issue of national pride into which generous resources were poured (which was a common ocurrence in communist countries – to keep to the Romanian example the 1986 Champions League winner Steaua Bucharest Football club was also a “national project” under the patronage of the communist leadership). Not surprisingly, the gymnastics school managed to outlive, at least apparently, the turbulent transition and Romania continued to dominate the Syndey 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympics (as well as most major competitions in-between). While most sports were gradually decaying despite isolated (i.e. personalized in terms of raw talent or personal contingencies that allowed specialized training) cases of breakthroughs, Romanian gymnastics continued to dominate (in women’s team).
The shock was abrupt and consisted of a mixture of insubordination and political interference – in 2004-2005 the women’s national team coaches, which was by now the only renowned Romanian squad (O. Bellu and M. Bitang household names for those of you following the sport) quit and got recruited into political offices. From this point the pattern exhibited by other sports became obvervable in gymnastics: isolated cases of success on an overwhelmingly declining path. The return of Bellu and Bitang did mark a momentary reaffirmation of the Romanian gymnasts, but the trend was not reversed.
What lies beyond “the shrinking basis for selection”?
Arguably all CEE sports coaches and commentators flood their national media with concerns around a “shrinking base of selection.” The phrase however hides more than it reveals: while the coalescing of multiple talents into a single generation might be a freak occurence, the complete absence of would-be practictioners has more to do with lack of incentives. Under the smokescreen of “transition shortages” most CEE Governments have simply turned a blind eye to any nationwide strategies concerning sports, well-being and healthcare – fewer practictioners, fewer possible professionals nothing too complicated about it. Beyond the facade of lavish ceremonies and praise for upholding the “national valor” the sheer reality is that of an ineffcient system which is equally faulty at finding talent as it is at re-integrating professional sportsmen into society. After the end of brief careers, Romanian gymnasts to keep to our example can at best look forward to a meagre and unreliable Government pension and to unclear teaching positions. As quick as the political class is at drawing any type of populist legitimacy from sports, it is even quicker at withdrawing behind the mantle of “insufficient funds for sports in the face of more pressing problems”. The selected example is interesting because it shows the shallowness of a politicization phenomenon: rather than a coherent strategy for integrating professionals into a nationwide system, the two coaches were put at the very top of the ministerial chain, but de facto possessed very little experience to use the powers they had (which were much more limited than the official titles seemed to hint).
The other part of the story is perhaps already known: weak visibility implies no funds and decaying infrastructure for would-be practitioners. For micro-sports, nepotism quickly infiltrates the low-ranking echelons thus even further damaging prospects for recovery. In the absence of a national strategy micro-sports which more often than not imply specialized training and specialized facilities even at an amateur level, are left to rely on a patchwork of local initiatives and contingency-based survival stragies.
All things considered, there seem to be many facets of the politics-sports intermingling. This particular case study shows that even when the political sphere apparently gets more involved in a micro-sport, the equation is still not solved: the total involvement of the communist era followed afterwards by a total retrenchment is difficult to solve by a patchwork-type of intervention.
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