At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Japanese trio of Sawao Kato, Eizo Kenmotsu and Akinori Nakayama swept the all-around medals (pictured here), and their teammates Shigeru Kasamatsu, Mitsuo Tsukahara and Teruichi Okamura placed fifth, eighth and 11th, respectively.
Japan also swept the medals on parallel bars and high bar. On the latter, Japan occupied places 1 through 5, with Nikolai Andrianov of the USSR placing sixth. (Six gymnasts made finals back then.) Yes, Japan was that good. Since 1972 was the last Olympics to feature the highest-scoring gymnasts in the finals, its medalists really earned their hardware.
The current finals rule of two-per-country was implemented incrementally. The 1974 Varna worlds had no limit for the all-around, but only two gymnasts per country could compete in event finals. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the limits were three for the all-around and two for events. When the all-around field was trimmed to 24 at the 2003 Anaheim worlds (it used to be 36, then 32 in 2001), the limit decreased to two gymnasts per country. Ouch!
Even if I don't agree, I can understand the limit of two for apparatus finals. But two per country in the all-around is too severe, especially at a time when all-arounders are a shrinking population. At the London Olympics, for example, only three men's teams had more than two all-arounders. Two-time world all-around silver medalist Philipp Boy was among those who got bumped. Of the 12 women's teams, six had three all-arounders, and six had two. 2011 world champion Jordyn Wieber was eliminated.
The individual all-around used to be the centerpiece of a major championship. Eliminating potential gold medalists, such as Boy and Wieber, tarnishes that title. Giving Wieber's spot to the 25th-ranked gymnast doesn't make much sense, unless that person has a legitimate shot at winning. So the question is, Should the worlds and Olympics be real championships, or are they merely participation sports? (Think kids' T-ball, where everyone gets a trophy.)
After the conclusion of the Antwerp world championships, I asked FIG Women's Technical Committee President Nellie Kim if it was time to abolish the two-gymnasts-per-country limit for individual finals at worlds and Olympics. She said she would like to see it go, but that it was up to the FIG Executive Committee. Her hands are tied.
I applaud the FIG's mission to globalize the sport. I appreciate that if a gymnast from the Dominican Republic qualifies for an event final, gymnastics might grow in that Caribbean nation. I understand that the FIG wants to increase its membership and provide competitive opportunities.
The FIG Executive Committee can keep the two-gymnast limit for event finals, but it should return to three gymnasts per country in the all-around faster than a Kenzo Shirai quad. Do it for the fans, do it for the integrity of the competition, and do it for the gymnasts who deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams.