Octavian Bellu: For us, medals are circumstantial. The work of exceptional kids, not of a well organized system.

Octavian Bellu granted an interview to the Romanian press agency Agerpres in which he discusses the future of Romanian women´s gymnastics and sport in general.

Bellu ended yet another Olympic cycle, London 2012, by bringing in top level results, something he is usually known for: 3 medals, one of each color. But the next Olympic cycle is a difficult one, a new approach is needed to keep Romania among gymnastics´ top nations.

Agerpres: How was 2012 for Romanian women´s gymnastics?

Octavian Bellu: It was a good year with 4 European medals and Olympics medals. We pulled through considering the circumstances, we had to rely on 2 gymnasts who already hold the record for age participation at the Olympics. After Nadia, we hadn´t seen 22, 23 or 24 year olds going to the Olympics, not even make it to Europeans. We pulled through well after Sandra Izbasa´s injury. With Catalina we cannot talk about a recovery but, after a 4 year break, she performed amazingly at the Olympics, she came back to form very fast. We had problems at the Olympics too. Larisa Iordache could not perform at her best due to foot injury. There were good things and not so good things, like in life. My opinion is that Romanian gymnastics did well yet again. I wouldn´t focus on what happened in 2012 though, but rather look at what is coming.

Agerpres: Are you referring to Catalina, Diana Chelaru and Sandra´s retirements?

Octavian Bellu: They will follow other priorities, it´s normal at their age. I don´t know how many young gymnasts there are and where they are standing for 2013, which is an individual year but we are looking to building a team for 2014 Worlds and the 2016 Olympics. The Federations and the Olympics Committee need to analyze this and establish a short, medium and long term strategy. Maybe this might surprise people, but long term means looking at 2024. Rio is a short term project. Those kids that will go to Rio are already with the Junior National teams, close to becoming Seniors. We know what we currently have but you can´t predict how they will evolve. 

Agerpres: Are Ana Porgras, Diana Chelaru and Amelia Racea´s early retirements alarming?

Octavian Bellu: They thought they had done their best and now they want to do something else. I know Diana wants to coach. Unfortunately, we don´t have a selection platform like the American basketball one, with college teams. Our college sport structure is almost non-existent. When you finish school what do you do? They quit at 18, 19, the age when you start college. Their social situation is stable and their financial situation is good, especially for those who won European, World or Olympic titles. So then they look at other goals, everyone is free to do what they want.  

Agerpres: Have you already put something together for Rio?

Octavian Bellu: We haven´t been able to do that. The gymnasts are preparing for galas until the 24th of December, the young ones had some competitions in Constanta. We have to review the technical staff, the team, our training methods, we need time for that. We are not as fast as others, who have sent their gymnasts to training camps already and have started to prepare their teams. We will do this slowly, after we understand the new code and figure out what else we need to know about the International Federation´s new requirements. We put the fire out at the last minute as we always do, but it´s true that we have managed to do this successfully every time. Because of health issues we also had failures, like with Tokyo 2011 where we couldn´t put together the best team but let´s say that we ended the project we took over successfully. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics is an achievement, especially considering we had to put together a team of 3 generations with the youngest at 16 and the oldest at 24.  

Agerpres: Do you think we can do this again in Rio?

Octavian Bellu: In London we did less that we wanted to, but we also did more than we could, considering one gymnast was injured. The two veterans performed brilliantly at their second Olympics. I can´t tell what will happen in 4 years, but we have to take some action. The method we´ve used so far – short term handling of the problems – is no longer fruitful and we have to consider a more predictable system so that the medals can also be predictable. For us, medals are circumstantial, the work of exceptional kids; they are not the result of a well organized system who follows an established path and which leads to winning medals.

Agerpres: What action is needed to end this?

Octavian Bellu: They are well known: stimulating the coaches, going back to a system where school is the main actor in promoting elite gymnasts. Where you used to find talent, now you can´t find anything since they are not doing sport in schools anymore. School teachers are no longer interested in elite sport due to their low wages. They have to teach for 19 to 21 hours but in order to go into elite sport you need a minimum of 35 to 40 hours a week. Who will cover the cost from 21 to 40 hours? Then there´s a social problem where the coaches are not promoted, trained or stimulated. When they get some experience, they leave the country since the little they earn there is more than what they earn here. Gymnastics is famous and is promoted by the above mentioned achievements. Little kids do not benefit from any scholarship, like they used to do. The child has talent, but when he is about to enter a centralized system covering his meals, housing, schooling and medical assistance, their parents are afraid of the cost and take him back home. They cannot afford paying what it takes for this child to benefit from the centralized system that brought results for Romania.

Agerpres: Everything revolves around the financial support and the crisis doesn´t help either. How can this be solved?

Octavian Bellu: It´s not only about money. We hear all the time that we don´t do sport because there is no infrastructure or financial support. We need to solve out a few things. I don´t know the cost of doing 4 instead of 2 sport classes a week. Every time I raised the infrastructure topic, the answer came back as a question: what infrastructure did Romania have when Nadia or Diana Mocanu – who trained in Braila in a pool which did not meet the international standards – became Olympic champions? We were World champions in handball and we didn´t have many arenas around the country. We tried copying different systems and none was successful. Unfortunately, we are not defined by sport as a nation unlike the Japanese, Germans, Norwegians or the Danish. Parents are exceedingly demanding. Kids should not go into sport because they sweat! This is not a reason not to let a child do a sport. There are things we can fix by professionally managing sports issues.  

Agerpres: Changing the sponsorship act would be a solution to get more funding?

Octavian Bellu: Others have found solutions, like some countries near by. They created infrastructure by looking at public-private partnerships. This should be considered here as well. The state, which is the main sponsor for sport at the moment, cannot keep this up, does not have the resources anymore. On the other side, the private sponsors cannot see this as charity forever, they need to receive something back for it. We are clinging to a sponsorship act which we cannot find anywhere else instead of allowing the fiscal code to function normally and offer fiscal relief to the respective sponsor by looking at the percentage by which he supports sport. There are many successful methods others have implemented.

Agerpres: If Sandra decides to retire, Larisa Iordache will become the leader of the future Olympic team. Will she be able to stand up to the challenge?

Octavian Bellu: She can, but she cannot do it alone. She has some challenges in front of her for next year, at the individual competitions where she can prove herself because she did well at the EYOF as a Junior and did well at the Europeans: 2 golds and a silver. I hope she can make some progress. Next year is a transition year. She needs to stand out in individual competitions to be able to lead the team in 2014 when we will start seeing the team or the leaders for Rio. She needs to add difficulty to her routines and balance this on all apparatuses to have a shot at the All-around. She can do it but health is very important.

Agerpres: Do you think that Sandra Izbasa, who has won gold at 2 Olympics, could make it to Rio if she wanted to?

Octavian Bellu: No matter what Sandra decides, she is mature enough to know what her priorities are. We´ve told her she has all the qualities to be able to make it, but we understand if she wants to stop here. You cannot make assumptions on this point since no one in the Romanian team has ever made it to 3 Olympics, life gives you less reasons to continue and more to stop. I believe that if she sets her mind to it – and I´ve told her this – if she wants to be the first Romanian gymnast to make it to 3 Olympics, she has everything it takes to make it.  

Agerpres: Do you think that having a Ministry for Sport would help solve some of the issues sport is confronted with?

Octavian Bellu: We´ve experienced this before, it´s not bad having one. I stand by the opinion that things have to be very clear: if you have a ministry for sport, it has to be a ministry for sport, not for sport and youth since you´d only complicate things. Youth can be considered for the Education Ministry or other ministries but this is not important. The important thing is who is the one who manages sport, the team he puts together, how he applies his vision around priorities, sport for all, bringing in funding, even European funding, to help develop Romanian sport. We need teamwork to build a modern foundation for sport: transforming clubs into societies, even school clubs, and getting departmental clubs from under the Ministries, since there is no such thing in Europe. Around the form, there are various options. There´s the one proposed by the Olympic Committee, with the Federations answering to the Committee as in Italy. In France, sport is under the Health Ministry and everything works well. Spain uses a special form of confederation for its Federations, there is a board which discusses everything with the Government. As a Ministry it will be closer to the Government, it would have something to say.

Agerpres: You are the President of the National Council for Sport, the one that will decide the criteria for allocating funding for the Federations. How will this split be done?

Octavian Bellu: We have nothing to split, we are a consultancy group, we have no funds or budget. We establish some priorities around how to allocate the money. The person who runs the sport discusses the budget with the Federations following some criteria. Which Federation should you give more, which has more clubs, sportsmen, better image, results? There are many criteria and you have to follow this to split the funding accordingly. We have to wait and see how sport will be organized in the territories, if it stays the same or it will be organized by region. We are not going anywhere if we don´t understand what sport and where it is done, the status of the infrastructure and such administrative issues.

Agerpres: You´ve always promoted the de-centralization of the infrastructure and you support the European sport act. What would applying this act mean?

Octavian Bellu: We have not reformed sport, because we are afraid. Applying this would create a lot of discomfort since many structures which have not evolved after 1989 would disappear. There would be noise and change, and this scares us. In France and Germany, for example, the local administration decides what they do there, how to run the existing infrastructure, if they need to build new training sites. It´s the same everywhere. We still suffer from being centralized, having the National Association in Bucharest decide and force you to, let´s say, start rowing without water. Everyone has to assume this responsibility if the de-centralization which started some years ago will continue. The European Act establishes all this. It talks about implementing some programs, to use sport for socializing, things are clear. It is part of a political treaty signed by all the heads of state in Lisbon. I don´t know why we are thinking about putting together a new sport act, the European act is there. Let´s look at what would fit into our structure from that Act. I think everything should start from the ground up. We´ve invested in the upper level, in the National teams, made sure they had everything at their disposal, now let´s look at how much we´ve invested in kids and Juniors. I´ve heard that the funds coming from cigarette and alcohol taxes will be directed to them. I´d like to see this, it would be an important step for revitalizing Romanian sport.

Original interview published by Agerpres here.