Bulgaria break Russia’s stranglehold to emerge tops

In sync: Bulgaria’s (from left) Simona Dyankova, Stefani Kiryakova, Madlen Radukanova, Laura Traets and Erika Zafirova in action during the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around final. — AP

TOKYO: The Russian rhythmic gymnastics juggernaut collapsed, with dramatic back-to-back losses that sparked furious allegations of injustice in a sport famous for twinkling costumes, techno remixes and hoops looping through the air.

Russia had won every gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics since 2000. But their total defeat this year began on Saturday, when Linoy Ashram of Israel won gold in the individual competition, edging out of a pair of Russian identical twins who were the favorites heading into Tokyo.

Dina Averina placed second and her sister, Arina, fell to fourth.

In yesterday’s group competition, Russia tumbled again into second place, losing the gold to Bulgaria. Italy took the bronze medal.

“It’s so unreal, we cannot believe it. I don’t know what to say,” Bulgarian gymnast Stefani Kiryakova said.

“This is the happiest moment ever.”

The rhythmic gymnastics group finals are a two-part competition for groups of five women. Part ballet, part gymnastics, part circus, the event begins with the teams dancing with balls, then moves on to a set of hoops and clubs.

Bulgaria pulled ahead after the first routine, performed to a lively Bulgarian folk song called “Water Cosmos Earth”. Their orange-red balls looked like fire as they soared through the air.

The Russians performed to traditional opera in pink, blue and gold costumes that made them look like spinning toy dolls.

The group performances, each a spectacle of 2½ minutes, are so packed with flying objects and women twisting and cartwheeling across each other it’s difficult for the untrained eye to comprehend its acrobatic intricacies.

The gymnasts often move as perfect mirrors of each other, like synchronised swimmers without water.

Italy’s bronze medal-winning team are known as “The Butterflies”, and gymnast Alessia Maurelli said they spend years learning to move as one.

“We are only one thing, only one person, only one butterfly,” she said. — AP

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