Guest blog: Whatever happened to Britain’s rhythmic gymnasts?

Our penultimate guest blog comes courtesy of Dr Rachel Vaughan.

Rachel’s enthusiasm for Olympic sport is paired with the formidable academic record of having penned an entire PhD involving the Olympic Games and international politics.

Athletes have to know a thing or two about international politics to survive in the judged sport of rhythmic gymnastics – but what hope is there for Britain’s rhythmic group after last year’s extraordinary journey to their home Olympic Games? Rachel recalls their story and looks at what happened next.

GB rhythmic gymnasts

By Rachel Vaughan

It’s just over a year since the British rhythmic gymnastics group made history as the first ever Team GB representatives in this discipline at an Olympic Games.

Rhythmic gymnastics requires an extraordinary combination of hand-eye coordination, athleticism and split-second timing. For group athletes, an almost uncanny ability to sense where each fellow gymnast is on the carpet is also absolutely critical. Centralised training hubs in Russia and other former Eastern Bloc states are the norm – gymnasts are selected at a young age and live and train together virtually full-time.

While centralisation is now regarded as somewhat passé, it remains a virtual necessity for success in the group discipline. However, it was only a year before the London Games that a specially selected cohort of British gymnasts (Rachel Smith, Louisa Pouli, Frankie Fox, Lynne Hutchison, Jade Faulkner, Georgina Cassar and Annie Bartlett) relocated to Bath to train together full-time with the goal of representing Team GB in 2012.

With room for only 12 teams in London, direct qualification was always going to be extremely difficult. Other than a few forays on to the podium by Greece, Spain and Italy, the group competition continues to be dominated by traditional powerhouses such as Russia, Belarus and Bulgaria. The British girls were unfunded and relied on parental assistance, limited sponsorship and lots of fundraising in order to cover training and living costs.

Utilising the host nation place – guaranteed berths at the Games offered to the hosts in the vast majority of Olympic events – was the obvious way of enabling participation at the Games and raising the profile of British rhythmic gymnastics.

However, what should have been a relatively clear-cut qualification process soon degenerated into chaos. A self-imposed “benchmark score” from British Gymnastics was put in place to ensure competitiveness vis-à-vis other teams – echoes of Eddie the Eagle live long in the memory. But troubles with a tangled ribbon meant the group failed to achieve the required 45.223 in the qualification rounds, falling an agonising 0.273 marks short of the benchmark. A highly publicised and ultimately successful appeal against British Gymnastics followed: self-funded Brits being “done over” by their national federation made front-page headlines, ironically serving to raise the profile of a sport in Britain more used to being overshadowed by its artistic counterpart.

In the end, the British group performed supremely well in front of a noisy and enthusiastic Wembley Arena crowd. While they finished twelfth (and last), their combined score of 48.00 was only 0.025 behind Canada and less than two marks behind Germany. Their difficulty scores were well below those of the top teams, but they competed two clean and well-drilled routines. Medals were never a possibility but they improved to an almost unbelievable extent over the twelve months they had together.

Given more money and more time, what might have been possible? And after the success of representing GB at their home Olympics, what happened next?

After the excitement of the Games, the group continued to train – for a brief period – but was ultimately forced to disband.

Injuries and school commitments contributed to the decision, but the continued lack of funding meant training full-time was impossible.  In the relentlessly results-driven funding environment, rhythmic continues to lose out. It’s the classic chicken-or-egg scenario. Gymnasts won’t get medals unless they can train full-time; training full-time costs an eye-watering amount of money.

While the group may be no more, several of the gymnasts are still in the sport. Lynne Hutchison, Jade Faulkner and Georgina Cassar are aiming to compete as individuals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and Louisa Pouli is involved in coaching.

Team captain Rachel Smith is studying Sport Development at Bath University and – like a number of other former gymnasts – has taken up pole vault,while Frankie Fox is currently starring in a gymnastics and dance spectacular in Majorca.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 2013 has been a difficult year for British rhythmic gymnastics – the need to regroup after the conclusion of an Olympic Games is common to almost all Olympic sports. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that there were no British representatives at this year’s individual European Championships in Austria, nor will there be at the World Championships in Kiev in the autumn.

Neither Angola nor San Marino could realistically be described as hotbeds of rhythmic gymnastics, but both have two individuals entered for this year’s Worlds – yet there are no British gymnasts competing?

This is, at the very least, short-sighted. Rio is only three years away and securing British Olympic representation by right in either the individual and/or group disciplines will necessitate a long build-up in order to get enough experience and exposure internationally.

Image, familiarity to international judges and sadly also the country you represent count for a lot in the world of rhythmic. The 2020 Olympics is a more realistic goal than 2016, but seven years is a long time to keep things going on a relative shoe-string.

It is possible to build up a strong group programme without much of a history in the sport – Italy’s emergence in the early 2000s being a case in point – but whether there is any chance of the necessary long-term investment in money and time to (re)create a British group programme remains to be seen.

In its meeting last September, the British Gymnastics National Planning and Review Group emphasised its long-term vision for the development of the group discipline “at all age groups”. But is this already a case of too little too late, at least in terms of capturing the legacy of 2012?

There are some undoubtedly talented up-and-coming young individual gymnasts. First-year senior Laura Halford won the British senior title in June and, along with Frankie Jones (Team GB’s representative in the individual event in London last year), is aiming to compete for Wales at next year’s Commonwealth Games.

Indeed, perhaps this time next year we’ll get a sense of what the legacy of those two crazy days last August might be. Sadly, I think it might be a while before we see once again five gymnasts in identical leotards proudly marching onto the carpet with union flag badges on their sleeves.