Romanian gymnast Maria Olaru discusses how the vault problem might have been stopped before it even started. Olympic officials explain what was happening behind the scenes.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone — this is a serialized story, so if you haven’t listened from the beginning, go back to Episode One and start from there.
Previously on Blind Landing …
ELISE RAY: Svetlana Khorkina.
ALLANA SLATER: Svetlana Khorkina, she had the potential to become Olympic champion.
SVETLANA KHORKINA: I learned about the wrongly set height of the vault only after I made the mistake on bars.
ELISE RAY: It ruined her potential for an all-around gold.
ALLANA SLATER: Starting again would have been the fairest option.
ELISE RAY: That would be way more fair than just tacking on an event and replacing that score.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, during the women’s gymnastics all-around competition, the vault was set to the wrong height. To address the mistake, officials let gymnasts redo their vaults, but for many of those athletes, their disastrous performance on the flawed vault had shaken their confidence. They went on to fall on other events, too.
Gymnasts wanted the entire competition to be started over, and when it wasn’t? A number of them left Sydney frustrated, saddened, and confused, full of unanswered questions.
In our first three episodes, we mostly focused on the gymnasts. And now we’re going to turn our attention to the officials, and what was happening behind the scenes.
I’m Ari Saperstein and this is Blind Landing, the untold story of one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history.
The International Gymnastics Federation, known as the FIG, is the governing body for gymnastics around the world. But not just artistic gymnastics. They also oversee sports like trampoline and acrobatics, and even parkour.
The FIG is the oldest federation for any Olympic sport. They’ve been running gymnastics since the first modern Olympic games back in 1896. They make the rules for the sport, and they enforce them, too.
I reached out to the FIG to try and talk with them about the vault controversy. So I emailed the federation with a bunch of questions and, in response, they sent me a 20-year-old press release, something that they issued back at the time of the controversy, and a very brief two-sentence statement.
SIRI: You have one new email. “Dear Ari, I regret that we can not help you further but you will understand that we deal in priority with the current issues. Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique.”
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Because the FIG didn’t answer any of my questions, I decided to try and track down some former officials who were involved with gymnastics at Sydney.
SLAVA CORN: After you sent me that email, I went back and I looked at the entire all-around competition on YouTube, and I had a wonderful afternoon. I’m going to do a few more of those because you prompted me into it. So thank you.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Slava Corn. Slava was the president of the FIG’s media commission at Sydney.
SLAVA CORN: So I was mainly in charge of media, press, and television.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Slava was a spokesperson for the federation during the 2000 Games, giving quotes to the media on behalf of the FIG.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Hi, Kym?
KYM DOWDELL: Hi, how are you?
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Oh, I’m good, hello. So great to talk with you. What’s it like in Brisbane?
KYM DOWDELL: We’re in the middle of winter, which means it’s 24 degrees in beautiful sunshine.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s Kym Dowdell. She was the gymnastics competition manager at the 2000 Games — and by the way, that’s 24 degrees Celsius, so, like 75 Fahrenheit.
Now, it’s important to note that even though both of these women worked as officials at the Sydney Olympics, neither Kym nor Slava were involved with making decisions about what happened on the vault. But they were able to offer up some insight on the federation’s thinking, and what was happening behind the scenes at the games.
And the first thing I asked Kym and Slava was if they knew how the officials decided on a vault redo. Kym said there was a chain of command for dealing with issues. She said that first, Allana Slater, the gymnast who figured out that the vault was too low, would have told the head judge who was assigned to vault. And then …
KYM DOWDELL: That judge would have immediately reported it to the superior jury. And then I’m sure the superior jury probably took it a step further and consulted the jury of appeal. And between them, they followed the Code of Points.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): At that point, the FIG officials would have turned to the gymnastics rule book, what’s known as the Code of Points.
KYM DOWDELL: In the Code of Points, there’s always been a statement even to this day, if there is an apparatus fault, the gymnast has the right to repeat. So that ruling really set the way for the decision. There was an apparatus fault, so all gymnasts had the right to repeat if they so chose.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And Slava Corn has the same understanding.
SLAVA CORN: I think first of all, if something goes wrong and it’s not the gymnast’s error, we have the responsibility to give them the best possible chance to either make it up or redo it. And we’ve always had that as a general rule.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I wanted to read more about this rule. So I went online and pulled up the Code of Points from 2000.
[IN TAPE] So let’s go to Google, Code of Points. ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And I started to read through it.
[IN TAPE] Let’s see, page two, page three, keep going … 56, 57, 58, 59 …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But I didn’t see this rule mentioned anywhere. So then I pulled up the present day version of the rulebook, and, nothing in it either. So then I started going through a little bit of a rabbit hole.
[IN TAPE] Apparatus failure rule FIG …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I’m searching the internet. Searching, searching, still nothing.
So then, I go through the entire FIG website. Like, every section.
[IN TAPE] … rules … accreditation … code of conduct …. code of discipline … code of ethics …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I’m looking through dozens of appendices.
[IN TAPE] … appendix to the Code of Points … world Cup rules … judges’ rules …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And then finally, I come across this one document.
[IN TAPE] … help — help desk? What does that mean? Let’s see. Rights … of … the … gymnast! Oh, I think this is it …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And right at the top is a list of reasons why a gymnast — [IN TAPE] — can repeat their exercise without deduction.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And reason number one is “apparatus failure or collapse.” So, like, if the uneven bars fell apart. Which, once, in the 70s, actually did happen …
And the apparatus has collapsed …
… or, more commonly, if something gets messed up with the gymnast’s music on floor. The gymnast gets to redo the routine.
But when it comes to the vault controversy at Sydney, there’s just one problem with applying that rule.
KELLI HILL: It’s not an equipment failure. It’s not like the vault fell down.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s Kelli Hill, she was Elise Ray’s coach at the Olympics. And Kelli says no one ever gave them a reason for how they settled on a vault redo. But if it was “apparatus failure,” Kelli feels pretty certain the rule was being misapplied, that it was never meant to cover a scenario where the equipment was set up incorrectly.
KELLI HILL: They set it wrong. That’s an official failure. That’s human error.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Kelli thinks that the FIG, under a global spotlight, on live TV, in a situation they hadn’t prepared for, applied the rule that was the closest match to the scenario, rather than evaluating the Sydney vault error as something distinctly different — something that might have merited a competition redo.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Looking back on it, do you feel like the competition should have been restarted?
KYM DOWDELL: No, I don’t feel that at all.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Kym Dowdell, she stands by the FIG’s decision.
KYM DOWDELL: That’s my opinion. Of course, some gymnasts will say that it should have started again. Again, it’s going to be an opinion.
Of course, it’s not just Kym’s opinion — not just the FIG’s opinion, but also the Olympics and the Sydney Organizing Committee — all these authorities involved with gymnastics at the Olympics stated publicly at the time that the apparatus failure rule had been applied correctly and that the vault redo was the right decision.
Right after the competition ended, the Russian Gymnastics Federation filed an appeal on behalf of their star athlete, Svetlana Khorkina. They asked for a competition redo, and their request, it was almost immediately dismissed by the FIG. But this formal appeal, it’s really important because it shows that the federation knew that the athletes disagreed with the way things were handled. And yet …
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] So Allana — did you ever hear about whether or not the FIG did any kind of investigation? Like, if they just figured out exactly what went wrong and how to learn from their mistakes and that kind of thing?
ALLANA SLATER: No, not as an athlete. We certainly didn’t hear about it. Not that I heard that there was ever an investigation, but I would assume that they would always have done that.
SVETLANA KHORKINA: I think that the International Gymnastics Federation did not do anything in order to solve this situation — not to conduct an investigation, and not to punish those responsible.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): You might think that after the vault controversy, the FIG would do an investigation into what happened. But gymnasts Allana Slater and Svetlana Khorkina say that they’ve never heard about any kind of follow up on the vault error. In fact, no one I spoke with has ever heard about an investigation. And that was really surprising to hear because a number of experts I consulted — a sports lawyer, a sports ethicist, a former gymnastics official, a historian — all told me that it’s really the basic standard for the governing body of a sport to conduct an investigation when a major problem happens, such as setting the vault at the wrong height.
Again, the FIG didn’t answer any of my questions, including about whether or not they conducted an investigation. So even though it remains unclear if one happened, both Slava Corn and Kym Dowdell say that the vault controversy did prompt conversation and change within the gymnastics world.
KYM DOWDELL: You know, mistakes are never acceptable. Never. But what is even more unacceptable is when you don’t learn from those mistakes. So there was a lot of learning from that mistake and that was being corrected.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And they say that those discussions resulted in having new safety protocols.
SLAVA CORN: So we now have done, over the years since that, a lot more in terms of ensuring that apparatus is exactly to specifications.
KYM DOWDELL: There is a full process set up by the FIG where the FIG authority and the technical FIG technical authority go round and measure the apparatus in a lot of detail prior to each session of the comp starting.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] And that’s a result of what happened at Sydney?
KYM DOWDELL: I think that’s a result of what happened from Sydney. Those processes were put in place following Sydney and they’ve become more and more stringent over time.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Lessons were learned. People began checking the vault more often and more rigorously because of what happened at Sydney. And the narrative that the vault problem at Sydney was just a one-off mistake, something terrible that no one could have predicted, that was all starting to make sense to me based on everything I’d heard.
Until I spoke to a gymnast named Maria Olaru.
MARIA OLARU: I’m very serious when I say this could be a very big tragedy there. But we are lucky that was only many falled.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Maria Olaru, and she’s echoing the same comments we’ve heard throughout the series about how dangerous the vault problem was. Now, Maria’s English is, by her own admission, a little rusty, so I’ll be chiming in to clarify a few things she’s saying.
MARIA OLARU: Few days before starting the competition, we have official training.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Maria’s referring to what’s called “podium training.” See, a few days before the all-around final, every country gets time to practice in the Olympic arena so they can get acclimated to the equipment. Gymnastics equipment, depending on how new it is or what brand it is, might be especially stiff or bouncy, so podium training is time for gymnasts to get a feel of things before they start competing.
So when the Romanians were doing their podium training at Sydney, Maria and her teammates went to go test out vault.
MARIA OLARU: And first, when I was in the front of the horse, I refuse to jump because something wasn’t OK.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So she did a simple, watered-down vault just to play it safe.
MARIA OLARU: Because I want to be sure if I’m wrong or not, and to be sure that I’ll be okay. After this, I was sure, very sure that something is wrong.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So Maria told her coach, Octavian Bellu, that they needed to check the vault.
MARIA OLARU: I told my coach. And he was nervous, of course, because, “Olaru, you are crazy because always you have something to say.” And I told him, Mr. Bellu, I’m very sure that something is not OK.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): They went back and forth like this — Maria insisting that something is wrong, her coach telling her she’s mistaken. When Maria says that her coach was nervous, that’s because podium training has strict time limits — and her coach was worried that checking the vault would be a waste of their precious few minutes on the apparatus.
MARIA OLARU: That’s why in that moment, Mr. Bellu was very stressed that we don’t have enough time to check the vault.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But Maria says that one of her great strengths as a gymnast was her perceptiveness — and when she reminded her coach of this quality, finally, he relented.
MARIA OLARU: In that moment, I convince him. And then we call somebody to check the horse. And, of course, that I have right. The horse was down with five centimeters.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Five centimeters. That’s two inches too low.
The story of the vault error in Sydney has always been that it was a one-time mistake. The word I’ve heard so many people say again and again is “unprecedented.”
But according to Maria, the exact same mistake also happened a few days earlier.
I think there’s really no better way to explain just how surprising this story is than to hear the reaction of American gymnast Elise Ray when I shared it with her.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Maria Olaru, so she said that the same thing happened for the Romanian podium training a couple of days earlier. She says the officials came over: Five centimeters too low.
ELISE RAY: At Sydney?
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] At Sydney.
ELISE RAY: Podium practice?
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Yes.
ELISE RAY: Wow.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise and I were talking on Zoom, and on the screen, Elise was kind of in shock. Remember, she almost landed on her head and neck when she crashed on the vault.
To learn that a gymnast says she notified people about the same problem just days beforehand, that’s …
ELISE RAY: That’s shocking.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Now, I could not reach anyone who could confirm Maria’s story. Maria said she told her coach in the moment, and that all of her teammates were watching as the officials readjusted the vault. And I reached out to her teammates and her coach, but none of them responded.
But the lack of response might have something to do with the fact that Maria is not very well-liked by some of these people. See, a few years ago Maria wrote a memoir, and in it, she discussed abuse that she says she experienced in the Romanian gymnastics world. Maria criticized a sport that’s like the NBA or MLB in terms of importance and legacy in Romania. In doing so, it made Maria not very popular with some of the people she used to train with.
If Maria’s story is true, it brings up a whole host of other questions. Who was the official or multiple officials that fixed the vault? Was the incident documented? And, most of all, considering all the safety protocols that are supposed to be in place, how could the same mistake happen twice in one week?
Again, the FIG had no comment. They wouldn’t say whether or not the incident was documented, whether or not it was reported to them, and, if so, whether or not it was something they looked into. And that is why what Maria’s saying holds weight — because if someone makes a claim like this, you’d think a governing body would want to look into and verify or debunk it. But that’s assuming the FIG was aware of Maria’s story before I reached out to them. And it’s the kind of story they’d be aware of if they’d done an investigation.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Did you ever get an apology from the officials for what happened?
ELISE RAY: Oh, no. No. Nothing. Swept under the rug.
SVETLANA KHORKINA: No one apologized to me. I don’t remember that anyone apologized from the International Gymnastics Federation.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): No apology, and no known investigation. And also, the FIG has never offered any kind of explanation about how the vault was set two inches too low. Like, who was the actual technician that set it at the wrong height? Was it one person that made the mistake or a group of technicians? Who was responsible for checking the vault height before the competition, and was it checked?
ALLANA SLATER: It’s a mystery that nobody knows. Like, even as an athlete who said something, I don’t even know what happened with how it was set up, and how did it get there?
ANGIE FIFER: When it comes to getting information after, it’s just move on, move on, whatever. And it goes back to the bigger culture issues.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Angie Fifer, the sports psychologist we heard from in our last episode.
ANGIE FIFER: I mean, there’s so many things that could have played out differently. Had they have gotten an apology, I mean, that would have been a step in the right direction to change culture. But culture is … it’s so powerful. And if the culture is that the gymnasts themselves don’t feel valued by the organization to receive information about what happened during their Olympic all-around final, that goes back to problems deep inside the culture of the sport.
ELISE RAY: You know, I’m a big, big proponent of owning up to your stuff.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Again, Elise Ray.
ELISE RAY: So that would have gone a long way even if they couldn’t have fixed it and they couldn’t have gone back and made it a different way. But yeah, there’s something big in that apology. Even now, 20 years later.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Try, for a minute, to imagine what it’s like to be Elise, or any of the other gymnasts who fell on vault. You fall at the Olympic Games because of someone else’s mistake. You don’t think the situation was solved fairly. But you never get an explanation or an apology for what happened. How do you move on from something like that?
On the final episode of Blind Landing …
ELISE RAY: After Sydney, I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I wanted out, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. But that’s kind of how life is, right? Unexpected, and twists and turns.
ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time on Blind Landing.
Blind Landing is reported by me, Ari Saperstein — and produced by me, Christian Green, Myka Kielbon, and Jessica Taylor Price. Our translator is Luba Baladzhaeva and our voice actor is Marley Feuerwerker-Otto. Special thanks to Ellen Weiss and Mia Zuckerkandel. And thanks to our interviewees for sharing their stories.