Rhythmic gymnasts' reprieve leaves questions unanswered
Great Britain's rhythmic gymnastics team will go to London 2012, but large gaps remain in our knowledge of how their Olympic bid disintegrated into argument, anguish and acrimony.
On Monday an independent arbitrator found in favour of the gymnasts, delivering a verdict noteworthy for its devastating assessment of governing body British Gymnastics' "inconsistent, cut-and-paste" selection policy.
From the arbitrator's account of what both sides had to say, it is hard to argue with his decision. The gymnasts contended that, in a crucial three-day Olympic test event, British Gymnastics never really told them their window to hit a target score only extended to the first two days. The full 16-page verdict suggests the selection document fell well short of making this explicit. It does not say the rhythmic gymnasts' interpretation was correct, merely that the document is ambiguous enough to support the conclusion they reached.
While for many the end result is the right one, some of the detail remains underwhelming. There were a number of opportunities for the team to discover that day two was deadline-day, ahead of the fateful hour. How did they miss them all?
Riding a wave - Britain's rhythmic gymnasts at their January test event, before the dire nature of their Olympic predicament became apparent. Photo: Getty Images
Speaking over the phone on Monday once the verdict had been announced, Sarah Moon - the team's coach - said she and her gymnasts had simply "read and understood the policy to mean the entire test event" rather than the first two days.
And if you read the policy, its wording is confusing enough to support that. But this supposes there was absolutely no verbal, or other written, communication between British Gymnastics senior management and the coach and team on this issue. No meetings to clarify targets? No informal chat about the big day coming up? No text messages, even?
If it's true that the lone communication between team and bosses was this copy of the written selection policy, you could be forgiven for finding that alarming. It implies the team existed in a near-vacuum within their own sport.
Beyond that, what about media coverage? Reporters in the arena were 100% certain that day two was the cut-off point. We had been told this well in advance by British Gymnastics and articles published prior to and during the event, both in the national press and online, reflected that.
Most of the British rhythmic gymnastics team have followed me on Twitter since we first met in December last year, and I tweeted fairly relentlessly on this front for a good couple of days before the test event. Granted, nobody reads every tweet in their stream, but the team members were active on Twitter at the time. Between the seven women in the squad, their coach and their families, even allowing for everybody's focus before the event, it is surprising that not one saw a tweet, or read an article, and thought it strange that the media's interpretation of their week ahead did not remotely match their own.
This is not to accuse anybody on the team of being anything other than truthful. Brian Hutchison, father to gymnast Lynne, went on the BBC's News Channel late on Monday to point out that the entire family had paid for tickets to day three, with all the consequent travel and accommodation costs. His argument is there would be little point in that outlay if you knew the result that day to be meaningless.
On the other side of the coin, it is similarly odd that British Gymnastics did not pick up, in the weeks prior to the event, even one hint that its rhythmic gymnastics team were harbouring an interpretation of the selection policy so far removed from the governing body's intention. Would you not check this?
These incredibly hard-working teenagers are self-funded in a sport with little or no history of elite competition in the UK. They are not daft - they have always come across as industrious, bright, alert and determined to succeed. How could they and their coach have reached a major international event, one on which their entire Olympic bid hinged, with an understanding of their circumstances which differed so vastly from the truth?
On the day itself, after the fateful score - 0.273 marks below the target - had appeared on the O2 Arena's giant scoreboard, the team were whisked away into a private area behind large, black curtains. They were joined by their head of delegation, Tim Jones, one of British Gymnastics' most senior figures and a man who knew this was, indeed, curtains for the rhythmic gymnasts' Olympic hopes. The arbitrator noted he had held a meeting with members of senior management that morning with the express purpose of confirming that this was the team's last chance.
Five minutes later, all of them - including Jones - emerged from behind those curtains in tears, to face the media. Nobody has yet explained what happened in the intervening minutes, though Jones was unavailable for interview when we asked on Monday.
The team insist they did not discover the discrepancy over dates until they were being interviewed in the mixed zone. Accepting that, does this mean Jones did not say a word behind the scenes in those five minutes? This seems odd, considering he was adamant in the mixed zone moments later that the team could not possibly go to the Games. This is a point you would want to make clear prior to the gymnasts facing the media.
British Gymnastics' chief executive, Jane Allen, admitted to BBC Sport on Monday that despite six weeks of introspection in the ensuing appeals process, she still did not know what had happened behind those curtains as the confusion reached an agonising climax.
"I have no idea as to what happened when they were taken from public view. I was sitting in the stands as other people were, I was watching the event and then watching the score come up," she said.
As the BBC conducted interviews with the team, they were crying even as they told us they would fight on during day three, which we knew to be impossible under the briefing British Gymnastics had given us. Why the tears if they believed they had an extra day to get that score?
Tears from the GB gymnasts even as they finish their day two routine. When were they told this was supposedly their last chance? Photo: Getty Images
"We thought we had the two opportunities to get the score but amongst ourselves we'd set the target of achieving it in the first part of the competition, because obviously we wanted to get it done and dusted," explains coach Moon.
"When we didn't get it in the first part, the team were upset for themselves - the training had gone so, so well the whole previous week, but they knew themselves when they came off that it wasn't a good routine.
"They then saw the score and were like, 'Oh no, that's one of our chances completely gone.' Immediately some of the girls were saying, 'Alright, it's fine, we've got tomorrow.' They were telling the girls that were crying to stop.
"Unfortunately, later that evening we were told: 'No, that's it.'"
Did Tim Jones say anything in those five minutes behind the curtain? "No. It wasn't until we spoke in the mixed zone that we realised."
For many reasons this verdict is a cause for celebration: on the evidence presented, the correct decision has been reached. British Gymnastics has borne the findings with good grace - Allen adds there will be no internal "witch-hunt" in the aftermath, despite the faulty document - and the arbitrator took time to acknowledge that the governing body acted in good faith at all times. The gymnasts maintained the most professional and dignified of images in the public throughout an emotionally trying and uncertain period.
However, that this level of calamity - at the most vital and damaging moment in these gymnasts' careers - could be solely the product of one badly worded document reflects poorly on all those involved, suggests a total absence of communication, and remains difficult to adequately explain.