New Club Opening Ushers In Rebirth Of Artistic Gymnastics In Estonia

Written by John Crumlish for International Gymnast Online

Monday, December 7, 2020

With the recent grand opening of a training hall specifically for artistic gymnastics in Tallinn, authorities and enthusiasts in Estonia are expectantly ushering the discipline back into their country’s rich culture of gymnastics sports.

Estonia’s previous prioritization of other gymnastics disciplines such as rhythmic gymnastics, acrobatics, aerobics and trampoline left little room for artistic gymnastics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the country’s simultaneous declaration of re-independence in 1991.

Viktor Saaron, an Estonian Gymnastics Federation (EGF) board member, told International Gymnast Online that the September 3 opening of Erika Gym Hall in the capital is the realization of a plan shaped and reshaped over the past two decades.

“Until 1993 artistic gymnastics in Estonia had a good level,” said Saaron, who has worked 18 years with Tallinn City and the last four years with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to restart artistic gymnastics in the country. “At the 1993 Baltic Sea Games with 12 participating countries, the Estonian gymnasts won many medals.”

Then came a mass exodus of Estonia’s coaches and, subsequently, the retirement of most of its top artistic gymnasts.

Artistic gymnastics had started in the country in 1930, the year in which the first Estonian Championships also took place. Tallinn hosted an annual international competition beginning in 1989, but it was last held in 1994 due to a lack of good gymnasts in the host country.

Jekaterina Appel, Estonia’s most recent artistic gymnastics representative at the global level, competed at the 2006 and 2007 World Championships; however, she trained in Germany since 1999.

International Gymnast magazine’s John Crumlish visited Tallinn in December 2012, where his tour of gyms revealed an emphasis on other disciplines such as rhythmic gymnastics and aesthetic group gymnastics.

“In the first half of the 1990s more than 10 of the best coaches left the country,” said Saaron, an EGF board member in various positions since 1988. “It was understandable during that period. People tried to find better working conditions and incomes. Also, the best gymnasts had to leave gymnastics.”

Twenty years ago, the ominous loss of Estonia’s last training hall dedicated to artistic gymnastics symbolized the discipline’s official evaporation in the country.

“Artistic gymnastics continued with its training and competition programs until 2000, which was the year when artistic gymnastics activity was suddenly suspended because the last custom artistic gymnastics hall in Tallinn was destroyed,” Saaron said. “Since that moment Estonia had no competitive artistic gymnastics activity, only at university and school levels.”

Saaron said Erika Gym Hall contains all the equipment – including men’s and women’s apparatus provided by the FIG – needed for Estonian coaches and gymnasts to develop and thrive.

“There is the whole set of men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics competition apparatuses, a pit for high bar, trampoline, many other smaller methodological equipments and a mini-hall with mini apparatuses,” he said. “There are enough good conditions for coaches to become qualified at the top level in Estonia.”

The Erika facility is a project – “a very long process,” according to Saaron – 20 years in the making.

Based on interest expressed by artistic gymnastics coaches to continue with the discipline, Saaron began negotiating on behalf of the EGF with Tallinn City in 2002 to find “any hall to restore artistic gymnastics.” In 2007, then-EGF President Mehis Pilv ordered a sketch project that was unable to be realized. In 2013 Tallinn City made a plan to build a big gym hall, but after one year declared that it was unable to execute it, Saaron said.

Erika Gym Hall’s opening festivities included Estonian officials and Finnish guests such as 2016 Finnish Olympian Oskar Kirmes, his brother and 2019 World Championships teammate Robert Kirmes and their father/coach Mati Kirmes, who as an Estonian gymnast represented the Soviet Union internationally.

2016 brought fresh life to the project, as the new EGF board and new EGF President Peeter Tishler made the decision to restore artistic gymnastics during the next four years. Specifically, they set about to find and make a hall suitable for modern training conditions.

The plan came to fruition with the September 2020 opening of Erika Gym Hall.

Joining in the opening festivities were Finnish guests with Estonian roots including 2016 Olympian Oskar Kirmes, his brother and 2019 World Championships teammate Robert Kirmes and their father/coach Mati Kirmes, who as an Estonian gymnast represented the Soviet Union internationally.

Estonia’s fledgling generation of artistic gymnasts will not be prematurely tasked with global success, though, Saaron said.

“As soon as it is going to be possible, on the lower level our gymnasts are going to compete at regional competitions in neighboring countries,” he said. “Because it was a ‘break’ in artistic gymnastics activity for 20 years and today we are starting almost from zero, then it is a matter of a longer period to establish artistic gymnastics at a higher international level. It could take at least five to 10 years.”

Erika Gym Hall is the country’s only facility for elite gymnastics, but discussions are under way with Tartu University and Tartu City to build a new gym in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, Saaron said. The current hall at TU contains old equipment. Four other towns have acrobatics-based gyms, where artistic gymnasts who represent eight clubs can train on only floor exercise.

Although other disciplines hold a substantial lead in popularity and achievements, and the current count of artistic gymnasts in the country is just 150, Saaron said artistic gymnastics has an intrinsic advantage and appeal as it ambitiously rejoins Estonia’s gymnastics tradition.

“Yes, a lot of work has to be done to encourage kids and their parents,” Saaron told International Gymnast Online. “Looking at the other side, artistic gymnastics is itself such an attractive sport art that kids with their parents are coming to artistic gymnastics at their own wish.”

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