Russian coach who criticized judges after Israeli gymnast won Olympic gold suspended

Irina Viner claimed anti-Russian bias after Dina Averina was narrowly defeated in Tokyo by Linoy Ashram, ending decades-long Russian dominance in rhythmic gymnastics

Head of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation Irina Viner-Usmanova arrives for an awarding ceremony for Russia's Olympians in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, August 25, 2016. (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)
Head of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation Irina Viner-Usmanova arrives for an awarding ceremony for Russia's Olympians in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, August 25, 2016. (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

A top Russian gymnastics coach whose athletes have won numerous Olympic gold medals has been suspended following her vehement criticism of judges who ended Russia’s winning streak in rhythmic gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics by declaring Israel’s Linoy Ashram the gold medalist.

After Ashram’s win at the 2021 games, Russia’s Olympic team expressed outrage because the Israeli won despite making a key mistake in one of her routines — dropping her ribbon — beating Russia’s Dina Averina by a slim margin of just 0.15 points.

The Gymnastics Ethics Foundation, which handles international disciplinary cases, barred Irina Viner from coaching or officiating at any competitions in international gymnastics for two years, in a decision published late Monday.

That followed an investigation into statements made after Russian gymnasts took the silver medal in the individual and team all-around rhythmic competitions in Tokyo in 2021. Those were surprise defeats that ended a streak of gold medals for Russia going back to 2000 in both events.

In comments to Russian media, Viner suggested the judges were motivated by anti-Russian prejudice and called the situation a “disgrace.” Viner also allegedly retaliated against an International Gymnastics Federation official from Russia who oversaw the judging at the Olympics by blocking her from running for re-election, and allegedly failed to cooperate with the inquiry.

“It was simply a disgrace to rhythmic gymnastics,” said Viner after her gymnast was defeated by Ashram.

From left, silver medalist Dina Averina, of Russian Olympic Committee, gold medalist Linoy Ashram, of Israel, and bronze medalist Alina Harnasko, of Belarus, stand on the podium after the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on August 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP/Ashley Landis)

Viner claimed that the judges supported Ashram for political reasons. “Enough, they got tired of Russia. And the judges decided to support this Israeli woman.”

Ashram, the first Israeli woman to win a gold medal at any Olympics, posted a video to her Instagram page in the wake of her victory, showing herself and her teammates emotionally celebrating the win as it happened.

The post was quickly flooded with thousands of responses, many of which accused her of being unworthy of the prize and saying that Averina should have been crowned champion. Some messages followed a theme suggesting the judges deliberately marked down Averina’s score in order to make sure that Ashram won.

A summary of the ruling on the FIG website didn’t specify exactly which of the accusations were upheld, but said Viner was found “liable for breach of the FIG rules.” Her comments after the Olympics were “deemed abusive and in violation of FIG rules,” the statement said.

Viner’s two-year suspension won’t begin until current measures excluding Russia and its ally Belarus from international gymnastics over the invasion of Ukraine are lifted, or else five years pass.

Israeli gold medalist Linoy Ashram competes in the individual all-around final of the Rhythmic Gymnastics event during Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, on August 7, 2021. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

Viner, who was formerly married to billionaire businessman Alisher Usmanov, is head of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation and widely seen as a leading powerbroker in Russian sports. She raised the issue of the Olympic judging at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in 2021, Russian state news agencies reported at the time.

Responding to the decision to suspend Viner, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko accused the FIG of “discriminatory policy against Russia,” in comments to the Tass state news agency. Viner can appeal the ruling.

Viner’s coaching style came under scrutiny in a documentary, “Over The Limit,” which followed her and gymnast Margarita Mamun ahead of the 2016 Olympics, where Mamun won gold. The documentary showed Viner repeatedly criticizing Mamun in stark personal terms.

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