When the Russians kicked Maxim Devyatovsky off the team last year after worlds, they apparently didn't kick far enough.
He was suspended last fall for withdrawing himself from the world championships all-around final when he knew he didn't have a chance to win, and the deviant Devyatovsky did it again in Tuesday's team finals.
Devyatovsky didn't actually withdraw from the competition in Beijing, but he might as well have, his teammates say. After a poor start on pommel horse (when Devyatovsky fell), they say he threw in the towel and decided to save his energy for the all-around final. His scores were the lowest on four of the five events he competed. The team finished sixth, 1.45 points from the bronze.
An infuriated Anton Golotsutskov couldn't control his anger afterward.
"Some of us worked themselves sick and someone did not strain himself at all," he told the Russian press. "It is very insulting. This person thinks only of himself."
Golotsutskov continued, "You know who I am speaking of. You all saw. I think every athlete in the final of the Olympic Games should be in a special mood. And in principle, all of us were. Except one person. I find it difficult to talk about."
Devyatovsky admires his gold medal at the 2007 European Championships
The Russian media, of course, knew the culprit to be Devyatovsky, a headache for the Russian coaches for some time. At the 2007 Worlds in Stuttgart, he was in contention for a medal in the all-around final, but fell off parallel bars in the fifth rotation. Devyatovsky decided not to finish the routine or the competition.
He shrugged it off afterward. "I don't have any interest in finishing outside of the top three," he infamously said. "There's no difference to me between seventh place or 24th."
The Russian team coaches disagreed, calling his attitude "unworthy" of the Russian team. It wasn't about placement, but about competing with honor. They suspended him through the end of 2007, banishing him to Siberia (as in his hometown of Leninsk-Kuznetsky).
By January, Devyatovsky was training again with the team at Lake Krugloye. The coaches seemed positive that he had undergone the necessary adjustment in attitude.
So I was surprised by his response when I asked him about the Stuttgart incident at the Pacific Rim Championships in March. "Looking back, I made the right decision," he told me. "My foot was hurting and I could have been injured."
To me that didn't sound like someone who had learned his lesson. Devyatovsky just didn't get it, and as his behavior showed Tuesday night, he still doesn't.
In the second rotation on still rings, Russia took its lowest score from Konstantin Pluzhnikov, who had mistakenly dismounted with a simple layout flyaway. In preliminaries, the rings specialist frighteningly had peeled off on his dismount and landed directly on his head. The incident must have spooked him, and his planned full-twisting double layout became a simple layout in team finals.
It was a huge and costly mistake, but not a complete disaster for the team, considering Pluzhnikov's routine was difficult enough to still bring an adequate score.
"Devyatovsky blames everybody except himself," Golotsutskov said. "He started to rip on Kostya Pluzhnikov, who couldn't do his dismount on rings. I say this is wrong. Kostya made a small mistake, but still we beat Germany on rings by a half point, using Pluzhnikov's score. Three times we had a real chance to move into the top three. I blew up then and there, I simply did not have words."
"After our performances on rings, he told us, there's no point in still fighting. I figured it out then that he was not going to fight up to the end.... Everyone else kept fighting, but for him the competition ended. He has simply gone and spat on us. All right, God sees all."
Certainly Golotsutskov can be forgiven his rant, but this situation reminds us that while gymnasts compete on the Olympic podium alone, gymnastics is not always an individual sport. Each team is only as strong as its weakest member, and Russia is sunk with Devyatovsky and his attitude.
Watching the Olympic team finals in Beijing, you saw the great demonstration of team spirit from the bronze-medal American team. They were all for one and one for all, and deservedly took won a medal. You would expect every athlete in Beijing to embody those sports cliches we look forward to getting tired of during the Olympics: to fight to the end, to never give up, to never stop believing in yourself or your team because miracles do happen and dreams can come true against the odds. The Olympics is more than just another meet; it is where you show the best of yourself in every capacity.
If this situation is all true, Devyatovsky's attitude is shocking, though I have to say I've never quite understood his cockiness. He could be a valuable team member, though he is not on the level of the Russian greats — especially not Beijing teammate Nikolai Kryukov, who was already an Olympic gold medalist and world all-around champion by the time he was Devyatovsky's age. Even Golotsutskov, who has done his own clowning around in the past, has proven himself a team player.
Flashing back again to Stuttgart, in the very first rotation of men's qualification, both Kryukov and Golotsutskov were injured landing their vaults. Kryukov continued to compete on parallel bars and high bar (despite the pain on the dismounts), but couldn't compete on floor exercise. Golotsutskov scratched high bar, but with only three other gymnasts available to do floor exercise, he was needed. A score of zero would be disastrous, dropping Russia well out of the top 12 nations that would qualify to the 2008 Olympics. Golotsutskov limped his way through a floor routine for a 12.375 to ensure his team's qualification to Beijing. Would Devyatovsky have done the same? I would have to say no.
In Beijing, event finalists Kryukov (parallel bars) and Golotsutskov (floor exercise and vault) have legitimate medal chances in the individual finals, much greater than Devyatovsky's chance in the all-around. Yet they gave 100 percent of themselves in team finals.
Yuri Ryazanov did also, and that is why his teammates want him to replace Devyatovsky in Thursday's all-around final. Three Russians finished in the top 24 in qualification, but only two per country can advance to any final: Sergei Khorokhordin, seventh, and Devyatovsky, 13th, will advance. Ryazanov, who finished 17th, could advance if either of his teammates — specifically Devyatovsky — withdrew.
Head coach Yevgeny Nikolko said Devyatovsky has apologized to his teammates, but none have accepted it. He said they are prepared to substitute Ryaznov in the all-around final if Devyatovsky decides to withdraw himself, but they have no right to force him to do so.
"So even if he competes successfully, God willing, in the all-around final, it will be his own personal achievement," Nikolko said.
I believe Devyatovsky should withdraw from the all-around, but would be shocked if he did. Since he was a junior, he has seemed more interested in individual glory for himself. I will never forget the Junior European Championships in Patras, Greece, when he said his all-around title was much more important to him than the team title. That is probably the only time that has ever been said in the history of gymnastics.
Golotsutskov said the members of the Russian team are ready to move on to London 2012. Heading into Beijing, however, the team expected a medal.
"I will repeat, our team spirit was simply magnificent," he said. "I never expected that this would happen. Meaning, it was not our destiny [to be sixth]. We will try further. We are young guys... There is more ahead."
But is there a future for Maxim Devyatovsky on the Russian team? I'm betting not.