London 2012: Rhythmic gymnasts win appeal to compete at Olympics

Great Britain's rhythmic gymnasts are set to compete at this summer's London Olympics after winning an appeal against their exclusion.

In January, the team missed a target score set by British Gymnastics to prove they could compete at the Games.

But they argued the qualifying criteria had not been made clear to them and an independent arbitrator ruled in their favour  following a hearing in London.

"It's been a tough journey but we're so happy," said gymnast Rachel Smith.

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I am not persuaded that [the team knew] selection would be based only on the qualification stage

Graeme Mew Independent arbitrator

"We want to prove to everyone that we do deserve to be there and to make the country proud."

British Gymnastics said in a statement it "will now nominate a rhythmic group to the British Olympic Association (BOA)". The BOA has in turn confirmed a British rhythmic gymnastics team will go to the Games.

There had always been a place available to Britain in the rhythmic gymnastics team event at London 2012, but British Gymnastics took the decision to impose a second, artificial standard for its team to hit.

Other sports have done the same in the run-up to the Olympics, in common with the BOA's policy of ensuring athletes are only sent to the Games if they prove themselves competitive at an international level.

The gymnasts' fate rested on their performance at January's Olympic test event inside London's O2 Arena.

However, while reporters had been briefed that GB's performance during day two's qualification stage was their do-or-die moment, the team - who proceeded to miss their target of 45.223 by just 0.273 marks - insisted afterwards they could still achieve the standard on day three.

British Gymnastics and the BOA repeatedly confirmed that, contrary to the gymnasts' belief, day three's results would not count towards their 2012 qualification. But the team's confusion had been readily apparent and independent arbitrator Graeme Mew agreed in his verdict.

"I am not persuaded," he wrote, "that [the team knew] selection would be based only on the qualification stage."

British Gymnastics argued that this had been the case as focusing the team on one day would replicate the pressure of competing at the Games, particularly as other teams at the test event were fighting to reach the Olympics based only on their qualification score, not day three's final - which was largely seen as an afterthought.

But Mew added: "The GB group, however, was in a different position. They were not competing with the other teams for a place. Rather, they were competing against the benchmark."

WHY DID THIS DISPUTE HAPPEN?

Excerpts from the written verdict of arbitrator Graeme Mew make clear that a poorly worded selection policy lay at the root of this dispute:

  • "The selection policy is not well drafted. The document is repetitive, uses inconsistent terminology and has a certain 'cut and paste' appearance. Of particular note is that the two people from British Gymnastics principally involved in developing the policy cannot agree on what it means.
  • "The athletes are unanimous in asserting that they were unaware that they had only one opportunity - the qualifying stage of the test event - to achieve the benchmark score.
  • "The policy could easily have included language which clearly and unequivocally stated that the GB group would have only one opportunity - in the qualification stage of the test event - to achieve the benchmark score. But it did not."

British Gymnastics' chief executive, Jane Allen, has issued a statement in response  to Monday's verdict in which she stands by the governing body's initial selection policy.

"British Gymnastics respects the rights of its athletes to appeal selection procedure," the statement read. "We were confident that we had put in place a transparent, fair and equitable selection policy and associated qualifying score to allow a rhythmic group to self-determine their nomination to the BOA and subsequent participation in the London 2012 Olympic games.

"The selection policy and its associated procedures have been thoroughly examined by an independent arbitrator and we accept his ruling."

The arbitrator concluded that the decision to exclude the gymnasts, while flawed, had been made "in good faith and in the belief that it was correct" by British Gymnastics, acting "in the best interests of its athletes and coaches".

Subject to ratification from the BOA, which has the final say in sending athletes to the Games though this should be no more than a formality, the team will now become the first ever to represent Britain in the Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team event.

Sarah Moon, the team's coach, told BBC Radio 5 live: "It's a huge relief."

She added: "It's fantastic news. The girls were really upset, they'd been told that was it and it wasn't enough, but they've been training hard and got themselves back together. This weekend we went to an international competition in Sweden and won it.

"Now we've got a lot of preparation competitions to attend - we'll be working hard on those and getting on with the job in hand."

Tearful gymnasts' Olympic dream appears to end at January test event

While Britain will now send a rhythmic gymnastics team to London 2012, the squad will not necessarily be identical to the one which competed in January's test event.

The final team will not be announced until early July, with a deadline of 3 July for British Gymnastics to nominate athletes for inclusion in Team GB.

Team GB already has representation in the individual event. Frankie Jones is likely to take up that berth, which was earned entirely separately to the place in the team event and has not been part of this dispute.