Five-time Olympic gold medalist and current FIG Women's Technical Committee President Nellie Kim is busy and optimistic as she continues to help guide the sport and plan its future.
Born in Tajikistan and raised in Kazakhstan, Kim was one of the world's most successful and popular gymnasts during the 1976 and 1980 Olympic cycles. She competed at her first world championships in 1974 at Varna, where she and her Soviet teammates won the team title and Kim won the bronze medal on balance beam. At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Kim won three gold medals (vault, floor exercise and team), and the silver medal in the all-around behind Romania's Nadia Comaneci. She placed second all-around at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, and first all-around at the 1979 World Championships in Fort Worth.
Kim finished her competitive career at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, where she won a team gold medal, placed fifth all-around and tied Comaneci for the gold medal on floor exercise. She has devoted her entire professional career to the sport, as a coach, judge and official, and in 1999 she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Kim, who serves as president of the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Technical Committee for the International Gymnastics Federation, divides her time between her homes in Minnesota and Minsk, Belarus.
During a recent visit to California, Kim sat down with IG's John Crumlish to discuss her thoughts, plans and memories of her abundant gymnastics life.
IG: Midway through the 2012 Olympic cycle, what do you think are the main improvements to the Code of Points based on changes that have been made to it?
NK: I don't think we can say there are many changes to the 2009 Code of Points, because there were big changes in 2005, and in 2009 it was just refining the Code. The big thing was the calculation of eight elements instead of 10. The decision was the result of the statistics that the Women's Technical Committee obtained from different competitions, and feedback we got from coaches, judges and gymnasts from all over the world. They were complaining, "Why do we need to calculate 10 skills? We don't want gymnasts who have more A or B elements to win. We can do eight." This way, gymnasts have fewer elements to train, and less impact and less load on their bodies. We want quality of the exercise, and not quantity, number of elements. We have more deductions for insufficient artistry or originality of composition of elements and movements.
The most important part is judges' education, that we are teaching judges practically - using many video materials, conducting judges' workshops, et cetera - to apply those deductions. It's moving very, very slowly, but it's moving.
IG: Artistry can be interpreted in many ways, so how exactly are you teaching judges about deducting for a lack of it?
NK: We are trying to give them objective criteria. For example, there is a deduction for lack of sureness on balance beam. We said one of the criteria for the deduction is the lack of balance. If a gymnast has many lacks of balances or maybe falls, then the exercise was not performed with sureness. We're trying to give this kind of guideline on how to judge artistry or beauty, too.
IG: What examples are you giving for artistry on floor?
NK: We have a deduction at the end of the entire routine for body alignment. What is perfection? It's excellence of the line and body position. There were many cases when a gymnast could have a nice body position in elements, particularly on floor exercise, but between the elements there were simple steps without any value but which were still movements. But the gymnasts didn't pay attention to these movements, and therefore the elements were performed very well but the movements performed between the elements were not performed very well, and it made the exercise look negligent or inaccurate.
Kim performs on floor exercise.
Therefore, we created a deduction at the end of the exercise which would apply if the gymnast didn't have a nice body posture in the movement. We gave a description in the Code on what that is. For example, the gymnasts walking with her feet pointed inward, not out, which is the special walking technique that we learn from ballet. Some gymnasts are not paying attention. For example, the body posture as they stand. It could be dynamic and nice, where all body parts are in alignment. Or it could be loose, relaxed and not dynamic.
Most of the time we give examples on video. We give the judges the possibility to compare good and bad, because it's better to see it one time than to talk about it many times. So this is the principle, to give examples. The problem is that gymnastics is difficult to describe in words. Gymnastics is performance, and you see it. That's why we're trying now to have fewer words and less talking, but more practical examples.
IG: What effort is there to give points to artistry, and not just deduct for a lack of artistry? When you were a gymnast, points were awarded for Risk, Originality and Virtuosity.
NK: The D panel recognizes, or not, the difficulty of elements performed in the exercise and counts the D score. The E panel takes deductions, including deductions for artistry, originality and composition. This is something we should think about for the next Code of Points and probably apply it differently. I don't yet know how. We have to be in many judging situations that are very similar to men's judges. This decision of the FIG Executive Committee was that we should try to have a harmonized Code of Points with the men, and to have as few discrepancies as possible in deductions for the same mistakes between the Codes.
IG: What was the reason for synchronizing some of the deductions between the women's and men's Codes?
NK: It is difficult for media to memorize many deductions and different rules, so therefore, for the media it's better if there are similar deductions. I agree with this. For example, bent legs, insufficient height, legs apart — maybe we should discuss this type of deduction with the men's technical committee for the future Code, and make everyone's life easier, including media (laughs).
IG: What do you think can be done to make gymnastics not only less confusing for media, but more popular to the public, and as popular as it was when you were a gymnast?
NK: I think we are promoting a negative attitude against gymnastics ourselves. I don't say the FIG, but people who are criticizing gymnastics. For example, how can we request our girls the same as in rhythmic gymnastics - choreography, dance, artistry and feminism on floor — if at the same time they have to do power tumbling in the routine? Because, without power tumbling, it becomes a rhythmic gymnastics routine.
Sometimes, instead of saying how good we are and looking for positive moments, we are saying something negative. We should talk more positively and about how strong our sport is. We should bring respect to ourselves, our gymnasts, coaches and judges, and not punish, punish, punish. In Russia there is an expression, "If you don't like yourself, nobody else will." You are the first one who has to respect and love yourself. It's really true in this life. I tested it myself (laughs) and it works.
It's true that our sport has more young people performing at a high level. It's like children and teenagers, and probably in many cases, they depend on coaches. So when you think about many other sports, there are adults or teenagers who are almost mature competing.
I think also we have to work in the marketing aspect to promote our sport better. Even though gymnastics is one of the oldest sports in history, we have to find something positive in it. People blame the Code of Points, or that the judges don't do a very good job. I don't think this is the only reason. Of course partly it's true, but maybe we should be more creative, find other apparatus, and create new apparatus or a new kind of performance. Maybe the age requirement should be different. Maybe we should have competitions for level A and level B — for example, a world championship for level A, and one for level B where they don't have to fulfill the requirements that we'd ask for level A.
There is also the format at the world championships. We have two days of competition, starting at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. and finishing sometimes after 22:00 (10 p.m.) It's very long, and not many people may watch all competitions for so long. It's also hard for the judges. Maybe we should modify the qualifying process for the world championships. Maybe we should allow, as in the World Cup of soccer, continental qualification.
Kim poses with her five Olympic gold medals.
IG: You finished your competitive career at 23, but nowadays there are few female gymnasts who are active internationally in their 20s. What do you think should be done to keep women in the sport longer, so older gymnasts such as (Great Britain's) Beth Tweddle and (Germany's five-time Olympian) Oksana Chusovitina are not the exceptions?
NK: These people should be encouraged by the FIG, our federations and the media. Now we have heroes, like Beth Tweddle and Oksana Chusovitina. I remember when I was a gymnast, people were telling me, "Oh, you're a veteran, you're already 23..." They politely gave me hints that it was time for me to retire. If someone had encouraged me to continue, maybe I still could have done something more. But since I was a gymnast, the competition format has changed. Now you don't need to do four apparatus. You can do one or two, and you can be good on them. Therefore you can have less training and less of a load, and can live longer in gymnastics. You become almost a professional.
I remember when (three-time Olympian) Svetlana Boginskaya finished gymnastics, she continued for a few years, just performing exhibitions. I asked her, and she said she trained maybe 1-1/2 or two hours daily, just for physical conditioning. She was almost professional, like an actor in a theatre. She performed and went home, and it wasn't difficult for her. She performed at the highest level. Nadia (Comaneci) also performed in shows, and maybe it wasn't at the highest level, but she maintained good physical conditioning and the ability to perform good routines for quite a long time. So we have to encourage women to stay in the sport longer, and the media should also talk about it.
IG: What is the status of the proposal to raise the age requirement for women's gymnastics to 17 or even 18 at the international senior level?
NK: That's (FIG president) Bruno Grandi's goal. That's what he wants - to have women's artistic gymnastics and older gymnasts. I don't know if it will happen or not, because I know that some countries are against this decision. In some countries, girls mature earlier and therefore they quit gymnastics earlier. At this moment I don't know what we will decide.
IG: What is your opinion about raising the age to 17?
NK: At this age I think we will have fewer gymnasts competing at the highest level, but they will be more professional, like Boginskaya, (Russia's) Svetlana Khorkina, Chusovitina and Tweddle. They are or were older than 23, but when you think how they compete, it's beautiful. It was professional, high-level performance, because they were mature gymnasts. I can see a good point of having the limit for participation being 17, but at the same time I can understand the concerns of those continents where girls mature early. And also, maybe the tradition is different. If you are talking about the Middle East, I don't think girls from some of the countries would even show up on the podium in a leotard. I think they can do it to a certain age, 15 or 16, so we wouldn't see girls older than that from those countries.
It's a very, very difficult question to answer. I can hear both sides, and that's why it's difficult. But from my point of view as a gymnast, I would say when you're 19 and 15 it's a big difference in understanding and performance.
IG: Such as...?
NK: It's like a mature person and a teenager competing against each other. As a mature person, you're thinking more and you're considering many things, and you can see the consequences of your performances. The responsibility is a big load. Pressure affects you much more. Girls who are 14 or 15 don't think as far, and therefore, pressure is not as much as it is for a 19-year-old.
IG: If you are thinking more about the consequences, you could be come more fearful.
NK: Exactly, because you can see what the injuries can be if you make a mistake. Also, you are already bigger and weigh more.
IG: How did you cope with fear in your 20s, and what do you suggest to other gymnasts in their 20s?
NK: You can cope with and overcome fear by a quantitative number of repetitions. And of course, with quantity you can obtain confidence. But of course, the most difficult part is to begin to perform the skill, especially when you are the first one in the world to perform it. On vault I was the first to do a Tsukahara full twist. On balance beam I performed two different dismounts. The first one was a gainer-full from the end of the beam. It was a very difficult skill, coordination-wise. Another one was side aerial into back tuck. I was the only one who did it in Moscow (1980 Olympics). It was not even included in the Code of Points, and we included it recently — nobody requested and therefore it was not included (laughs). Of course, when you are the first one, it doesn't mean you are performing it with the best technique. Those who perform it after you can analyze your performance and review video of it, and then can improve the technique.
IG: What are your abiding memories of the Moscow Olympics?
NK: It was a difficult Olympics for me, first of all because it was at home. There was double pressure because everyone was expecting you to win. I was the team captain, the oldest one. I was the one people expected to win the all-around, so it was big pressure. But before that, there was too much politics involved — too much fighting for positions on the team. I was fighting with some coaches and authorities from the Soviet federation. Some of them were not in favor of having me on the team, so I needed to prove that I was strong. Even though I was the most experienced and had the most titles, I still needed to prove that I was one of the best. It was a real competition, but behind that, I needed to win these political things. It was already a game of adults, unfortunately, and I was involved in it. I was an adult already.
Sometimes in a team, you think it's one team, but in reality everyone is fighting with each other. When it comes to the individual finals, nobody helps you. I can tell you that in Moscow, on floor, I started performing, and someone switched off my music in the beginning. Can you imagine? It happened twice — the day of qualifications, and the day of the all-around. It could never happen accidentally twice in a row, so therefore, I know it was done on purpose. It was someone higher than the team, from the federation. They were trying to close my eyes on what was happening, not in the performance but in the political things.
But in the end, I was so happy because I was still OK, and I didn't injure myself. Here, fear rose up because of what happened to (1978 world all-around champion) Yelena Mukhina (who was paralyzed in a training injury in 1980). That was still in my mind. That's what I mean about being an adult — you keep it in your mind. You cannot get rid of it, and you understand that it could happen. This was a mistake, in my opinion, because, a month or two before that, she already gave signals that she better not compete. She was from Moscow, and I think, since the Olympic Games were in Moscow, it was very important to have somebody from Moscow on the team. There was big pressure on this girl.
IG: How did you feel at the end of the Olympic competition, when you won the gold medal on your last event (floor exercise final)?
NK: It was wonderful when I got my gold medal. I was very, very tired. I was really happy that it was my last, last competition. It was a relief to know I did everything I could. The most important thing is when you can say to yourself, “Yes, I have done everything I could” and you have realized yourself. As a gymnast I did realize myself 75-80 percent. I could have done better, but it didn't happen. But I mostly did what I could, and that is why it was with an easy soul, with an ease on my heart, that I finished. I didn't let down those who coached and helped me. Everybody was happy — the people who trusted and believed in me. I didn't let them down.
IG: You didn't let yourself down, either.