Last week the Federation Internationale de Gymastique (FIG) banned North Korea for two years due to age violations. Just two weeks ago the FIG was giving out accolades instead, crowning the new world kings and queens of artistic gymnastics in Rotterdam. The top-four finishers in the women's team competition were the usual suspects of Russia, the United States, China, and Romania. Gymnasts from these countries also dominated the individual competitions (the all-around and event finals).
These winners have more in common than great gymnastics. All four nations use some form of centralized training.
Centralized sports training is usually associated with communism, particularly with Russian and Chinese athletes. The USSR opened its first sports boarding school in 1961 in Tashkent (in what is now Uzbekistan), based on similar schools started by East Germany in the 1950s. Women's gymnastics flourished in the USSR under this system, dominating the international scene. Girls with high potential were plucked from their home villages and deposited in training academies where they lived, studied, and trained together. Round Lake became the center of this system, producing numerous champions for the USSR.
After the collapse of the system in 1991, Russian gymnastics suffered as USSR gymnasts began competing for the new republics like Ukraine and Belarus. Additionally, funding was cut for the training centers, which fell into a state of disrepair. Under these conditions, the women could not retain their spot at the top of the winners' podium. In fact, this 2010 women's team earned the first team gold medal since the 1992 Olympics, the last year in which the former Soviet republics competed as a team.
Chinese gymnasts flourished as the Russian women faltered. Like the Soviets, communist China has a National Training Center where young girls live after being selected from nation-wide talent pools. China's training methods have been criticized in the media as the girls train for hours each day under physically strenuous conditions; on top of difficult training gymnasts often only see their families a few times a year. (Of course, China, like North Korea, has also come under fire as many question the legitimacy of the reported ages of many of their top competitors.)
Though Russia and China are often associated with centralized training for gymnasts, the system was pioneered in Romania by Béla and Márta Károlyi. In the late 1960s they established a boarding school for talented young girls and, as luck would have it, one of their first pupils was a six-year-old named Nadia Comăneci. In 1981 the Károlyis defected to the United States and shortly after they opened a gym in Houston, bringing their training methods with them.
In 1999, USA Gymanstics turned to first Béla and then Márta (in 2001) to oversee a new, hybrid centralized training system. In this system, gymnasts train at their home gym with their own coach, but about once a month they must travel to the Károlyis' gym in Houston where they prove their fitness and compete against their countrywomen for team slots. Many have criticized this system because it places tremendous strain on girls, some as young as twelve, to constantly train, travel, and compete. This cycle has produced numerous injuries to aspiring young athletes.
Interestingly, not only is the National Team Coordinator for US women's artistic gymnastics one of the pioneers of centralized training, but also five of the six gymnasts who won the 2010 team silver medal were trained under a centralized gymnastics system.
* Valeri Liukin is the coach of Rebecca Bross (who moved to Plano, Texas from Michigan with her mother to train at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy). Liukin is an Olympic Champion from the USSR who moved to the US in 1992.
* Mattie Larson's coaches in California are Galina Marinova, an Olympic gymnast from Bulgaria, and Artur Akopyan, a former member of the USSR gymnastics team.
* Mihai Brestyan, coach to both Alicia Sacramone and Alexandra Raisman, was trained as a coach in Romania before moving to the US and opening his own gym in Massachusetts.
* Mackenzie Caquotto's coaches, Wu Jianai and Li Yuejiu, are both Olympians from China who now coach in Illinois.
What does this mean for youth sport in general in the United States? Centralized training practices reminiscent of Soviet and other Communist nations are developing here, likely because of both the immigration of talented and trained coaches and parental desires. As more and more parents seek to create specialized, superstar athletes at younger and younger ages, the appetite for boarding schools and centralized training grows.
The best example is IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida. Started first as a tennis academy in 1978, today the complex serves over 12,000 athletes who play tennis, golf, soccer, baseball, basketball, football, and lacrosse. They report that they have trained athletes who have won "131 All Stars, 63 MVP Awards, 22 World Championships, 5 National Titles, 2 Heisman Trophies, 889 Tournaments, 107 Major Championships and 11 Olympic Medals." Student athletes live on campus and attend school while honing their athletic skills. Academic instruction beginning at Pre-K is available.
Of course, the state does not sponsor children's education and training at IMG Academies. Rather, parents pay thousands of dollars each year to send their children to Bradenton, Florida. While the training system may resemble communist practices, the execution is decidedly capitalistic.
As American youth sports become increasingly competitive, centralized training systems modeled on the success of communist sport, but driven by American capitalism, seem destined to develop further. Their final cost in terms of dollars and injuries to young athletes is unknown. And it appears that so long as they continue to produce champions those costs will remain hard to gauge.
A version of this article appeared on The Bleacher Report on October 26, 2010.