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Grow your own Olympic team

Anna Pavlova, formerly of Russia, now competes for Azerbaijan.
Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The Republic of Azerbaijan has made no secret of the fact that it wants to be an Olympic contender in gymnastics. Home-growing a national team, however, takes more than money, excellent coaches and good organization (though those things all help).

Unfortunately for the Azeris, what it really takes is time. Bela and Martha Karolyi emigrated to the U.S. in 1981 and established their own gym in Texas in 1982, but in spite of them and a horde of talented coaches who came west with the Soviet diaspora, it still took 25 years for the U.S. to become the women's gymnastics powerhouse it is today.)

Meanwhile Azerbaijan, an ultramodern, oil-rich former Soviet republic, has come up with what it hopes is a shortcut to Olympic success (or at least, Olympic qualification): Instead of bringing up its own athletes, Azerbaijan's Olympic Committee and Gymnastics Federation have turned recruitment firm, making generous offers to B-team athletes from nearby nations, especially Russia and Ukraine. It's a system that, in gymnastics at least, works for the fans as much as for the country. The best example of is fan favorite and newly naturalized Azeri Anna Pavlova, who for the past five years has been overlooked by the Russian team masters for big international competitions, even when she could have potentially medalled on vault, by far her strongest event.

The dynamics of The Pavlova Situation in Russia have never been well explained: Whether the Russian head coaches simply chose to focus on the new generation after Pavlova tore her ACL in 2008 or whether there were issues of attitude problems and/or bad training habits is unknown. Either way, Pavlova showed up at numerous Russian Championships between 2010 and 2013, performed well on beam, often won vault, and was never selected for major teams. She earned her living competing for foreign clubs, like Haguenau in France, as well as in the German Bundesliga league, before her nationality switch to Azerbaijan was greenlighted by the International Gymnastics Federation late last year.

But in this phase of her career with Azerbaijan, Pavlova is at least given a chance again and assured a quality training facility. At 25 and with bad knees, she is a far cry from the All-around threat she was at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. But was lovely to see her performing at the European Championships again this year, where she earned Azerbaijan's only medal, a silver on vault.

The downside of the Azerbaijani project is that they seem to be scrapping for leftovers, gymnasts good enough to be on the national squad but not make A-level championship teams. That might be enough to qualify a team to the Olympics, but it will not get them near a medal podium. The solution is to recruit better athletes -- such as recent signee Oleg Stepko, a 2010 Youth Olympic Games gold medallist who won the 2013 European Parallel Bars title, who are young (Stepko, who has a chest tattoo that ironically reads "Only God Can Judge Me," is just 20.)

The result is bound to be mixed: Azerbaijan will likely do better with their storebought starter team than they will with their homegrown gymnasts, for now. In an ideal situation, a Pavlova or Pluzhnikov in an Azerbaijani uniform will inspire a generation of Azerbaijani-born youngsters to achieve the same thing in gymnastics.

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