It’s the return to international competition that gymnastics fans have been anticipating and Anna Pavlova has been training for since 2008. But when she does come back to the World stage, Pavlova won’t be representing her native Russia (which she did from 1999 until about three days ago), but Azerbaijan.
It’s not just Pavlova who has become Azerbaijani, either. The oil-rich ex-Soviet Republic has made no secret about recruiting high-level international athletes to boost its Olympic potential. In addition to Pavlova, 2008 Olympian Konstantin Pluzhnikov, the 2011 European champion on still rings, and Yulia Inshina, a 2011 World team member and 2012 Olympic alternate, will join the team. In the space of a day, Azerbaijan has made greater strides toward Olympic qualification in gymnastics than some countries make in a decade.
For gymnastics fans, it’s tantalizing to speculate which other Russian gymnasts might find it worthwhile to become naturalized citizens, especially with Azerbaijan beckoning with “lucrative” offers. Anna Dementyeva? Ekaterina Kramarkenko? Alexei Bondarenko? Elena Zamolodchikova?
Country switching is not a new practice in gymnastics. In her 20 years on the international scene, Oksana Chusovitina has competed for the USSR, Uzbekistan, Germany and today reps Uzbekistan again. 1999 World silver medalist Viktoria Karpenko and 1996 Russian Olympian Evgenia Kuznetsova both ended up competing for Bulgaria. Andrei Likhovitskiy, who finished eighth all-around at the 2013 Worlds in Antwerp, and his former Russian teammate Dmirti Barkalov, found new opportunities in Belarus. The list goes on. Sophina DeJesus, a UCLA sophomore this year, will now represent Puerto Rico. Californian Shavahn Church took advantage of dual citizenship with Great Britain to compete at the 2005 Worlds. Texan Austin Sheppard, now at Michigan, competed for Hungary at the 2011 Europeans and World Championships.
Canada’s Jessica Dowling went to the Netherlands and came back to Canada a year later. Her onetime training partner Silvia Colussi-Pelaez went from the Canadian junior team to the Spanish senior team. Pommel star Alexander Artemev turned down the chance to compete for Belarus at the 2004 Olympics, and Eddie Penev competed at the World Championships for Bulgaria before changing to rep the U.S. 2012 Israeli Olympian Valeriia Maksyuta competed as a junior for Ukraine. So did 2012 Olympic hopeful Ruslan Panteleymonov, who stayed in Great Britain after moving there as a teenager to learn English.
2004 European champion Alina Kozich competed for Uzbekistan before retiring in 2009, and Russian-born 2006 Junior European champion Daria Elizarova still does. Fans wondered for years why Jana Bieger, whose mother Andrea was a 1976 Olympian for Germany, didn’t take advantage of her dual citizenship to try for the German Olympic team in 2008. And so on.
Pavlova has waited five years for this. If she is one of the most talented gymnasts of the past 15 years, she is also one of the most unlucky. At the top of her form at two Olympic Games, she finished fourth all-around at the 2004 Athens Olympics in an all-around competition that some believe she should have won.* In 2008, a mistake in the all-around final cost her a shot at a medal. In one of the bigger scandals of the Games, she performed her second vault in event finals before receiving the green light from the judges, resulting in a score of zero and almost certainly costing her a medal on the event.
The Russians, who did not win any medals in men’s and women’s gymnastics in Beijing, never seem to have forgiven her. At the Stuttgart World Cup that fall, she tore her ACL on her 2.5 twist dismount off the balance beam. Although she rehabilitated her knee, regained almost all of her skills and returned to competition, Russia has overlooked her time and again when choosing their biggest teams.
So what do you do when you’re a twenty-something international class gymnast whose national team is too strong (or unwilling) to consider you? You go independent, selling yourself to foreign teams like the German bundesliga, which has spiced up its competitons for years with foreign competitors, or one of the top 12 French clubs, whose competition results at the national club championships can translate directly into extra funding from their cities. Pavlova looked good at the Tournoi de Schiltigheim in Strasbourg a month ago. If her knees hadn’t been heavily taped, it would have been hard to tell the difference between the way she was in 2013 and 2008.
But without dual citizenship, the prospect of competing at a World Championships or Olympic Games is out of the question.
At least for Pavlova, still one of the top vaulters and beamworkers in the world, that will not be the case for long.
*(Note: Pavlova, seventh all-around in preliminaries in Athens, also had the distinct disadvantage of not competing in the leader’s group in the all-around final, which seems like a subtle disadvantage.)