Cătălina Ponor will be the sole representative for the Romanian women at the 2016 Olympic Games, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation finally confirmed Wednesday. Larisa Iordache, cruelly denied an automatic berth at the 2015 World Championships, has been promised a trip to Rio as alternate. Pictured: Iordache and Ponor in 2012
Three-time Olympic champion Cătălina Ponor will be the sole representative for the Romanian women at the 2016 Olympic Games, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation finally confirmed Wednesday. Two-time world all-around medalist Larisa Iordache, cruelly denied an automatic berth at the 2015 World Championships, has been promised a trip to Rio de Janeiro as alternate.
The selection of Ponor over Iordache was a difficult and painful decision for the Romanian Gymnastics Federation. Iordache has been the undisputed Romanian star the past four years, but a broken hand this spring required two surgeries, and she was only able to return to full training a month ago. Ponor, who returned from retirement in 2015, suffered a torn calf muscle last fall; the beam and floor specialist had made a heroic comeback this year, taking two bronze medals at last month's European championships.
Decimated by injuries, retirements and frequent coaching changes, the Romanian women failed to qualify a full team to the 2016 Olympic Games for the first time since 1968. The Romanian women won a team medal in every Olympic Games from 1976 to 2012 — including back-to-back golds in 2000 and 2004 — a streak unmatched by any other team in gymnastics. The Romanian women also won 12 Olympic all-around medals in the seven Games from 1976 to 2000.
In 2016, the Romanian women will not only not challenge for a medal in the team and all-around competition at the Olympic Games, they won't be represented in these competitions at all. It was a stunning development for Romania, the 2014 European champions, who expected to be in Rio celebrating together the 40th anniversary of Nadia Comaneci's historic perfect 10 that ushered in the golden era of gymnastics and Romania's most successful Olympic legacy.
After 2012 Olympian Diana Bulimar tore her Achilles' tendon this spring, Romania had only two world-class gymnasts left on the senior team. Iordache and Ponor, Olympic teammates in 2012, were the only ones in contention for the sole berth.
Unlike the Romanian women, the Romanian men can send two gymnasts to compete in Rio de Janeiro. Like the women, the men earned one individual spot through the team placement at April's secondary qualification event, but Marian Dragulescu qualified directly by winning a medal on vault at last year's world championships in Glasgow.
Yet Iordache's all-around bronze medal in Glasgow counted for nothing in terms of Olympic qualification — prestigious, but irrelevant. A bizarre choice — or irresponsible oversight — by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) decreed that individual event medalists at the 2015 World Championships should earn automatic berths to the 2016 Olympic Games, but not individual all-around medalists.
Iordache with her all-around bronze medal from the 2015 World Championships
In a sport that still places greater prestige on the all-around, this was baffling. All-around medalists should be at the top of the list of automatic qualifiers, yet they weren't considered at all. It would seem the FIG didn't foresee the extremely likely possibility that someone not from a top team would win a world all-around medal, despite the rising number of countries capable of producing world-class gymnasts, or, the historic fact that it has happened before (see Bulgaria's Jordan Jovtchev's bronze medal in 2001, when Bulgaria finished 18th as a team). Or, the FIG believed that an all-around gymnast would have a second shot of qualifying at the second qualification in the spring, when only teams and all-arounders earned berths. This notion, of course, makes no sense either: Why would a world championships all-around medalist need to do anything else to prove to the FIG he or she is worthy of being an Olympian?
This rule was so incomprehensible that Cuba's Manrique Larduet initially believed he had qualified to the Olympics after winning the all-around silver in the men's competition in Glasgow. Larduet thought his all-around medal, the first for a Cuban gymnast at a world championships, was also his ticket to the Olympic Games. Only later did he find out he had not qualified. However, on high bar, the last event of the last day of competition, Larduet won a bronze, and was able to finally celebrate. But if he had not won the high bar medal, and an injury or illness had prevented him from competing at the April qualification event, he would have had no chance of competing in this year's Olympic Games. Ultimately, Larduet is going to Rio not because he's the second-best gymnast in the world; he's going because he's the third-best gymnast on high bar.
After the Romanian women failed to qualify a full team to Rio in April, Iordache's predicament angered fans, who flocked online to complain and start petitions begging the FIG to give her an Olympic berth. Fans, and officials at the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, hoped she could earn the one Wild Card spot awarded by the Tripartite Committee, but Romania was ineligible for a Wild Card, which is only for countries with very limited Olympic participation.
According to sources, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation had been holding out hope that Iordache could be invited to compete in the Olympics through some loophole, and has been desperately trying in vain to secure her participation.
The federation had said it would wait for two more international competitions before making a decision, to give Iordache as much possible time to come back, but the writing was on the wall for Iordache at last weekend's Romanian championships in Cluj. Iordache was unable to compete her full difficulty in Cluj, and her chances of medaling are weaker than Ponor's chances. Federation officials met with the Romanian Olympic Committee this week and agreed Ponor would be Romania's representative.
Ponor, who turns 29 on August 20, is simply more likely at this point to win an Olympic medal and keep Romania's Olympic gymnastics glory alive. The five-time Olympic medalist delivered world-class routines on beam and floor exercise in Cluj that would challenge for spots in event finals if repeated in Rio. After the recommendation by the federation, the Romanian Olympic Committee elected Ponor to be Romania's flagbearer for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, the first gymnast to do so. It is a huge honor for Ponor, who will serve as an ambassador not just for her country but for the sport of gymnastics as the Games begin. She will be Romania's first female three-time Olympic gymnast since Sonia Iovan and Elena Leustean (1956, 1960, 1964).
It is the second Olympic heartbreak for Iordache, 20. Four years ago in London, Iordache had been expected to challenge for multiple medals, including the all-around. But a late foot injury left her unable to compete at full strength. Iordache has her ticket booked to Rio and will keep training, but it appears the only way she will compete is if her friend and teammate suffers yet another injury.
With less than a month left before competition begins, it would appear that time, like luck, has simply run out for Iordache and Romania.