By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — A controversial decision by the state’s top athletic organization to drop boys gymnastics as a varsity sport will be reviewed early next month.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s board of directors voted 7-2 Wednesday to revisit its January decision to no longer recognize the sport because the participation across the state and country have fallen to all-time lows. The board will take another vote on the issue June 6.
The coach of the Andover boys gymnastics team, Steve Sirois, said that MIAA recognition of the sport is “very symbolic.”
“People understand (gymnastics) is important,” he said. “It’s about more than doing an iron-cross or a handstand. We are coaching kids who are going to be future leaders.”
In February, the Andover team, comprised of just seven students, won the state gymnastics tournament, besting six other high school teams that still field boys gymnastics squads. But the win was tempered by the MIAA decision, due to take effect next season. The MIAA holds the annual state tournament and is the conduit for gymnastics rules generated by the National Federation of High School Sports.
When the national federation announced it would no longer write the rules for boys gymnastics because of the decline in the sport nationwide, the state athletic association voted to discontinue its support of the sport, said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the MIAA.
“The national federation is no longer going to write rules, and we were going to be forced to do something,” he said. “Either find a new source of rules, write our own rules or discontinue sponsorship of boys gymnastics.”
He said that given the low number of teams and participants, the decision was made to revoke sponsorship of the sport.
“Simply put, it was mostly a case of saying, ‘If you have a sport with this few participants, maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore,’” Wetzel said, adding that only seven or eight states have gymnastics.
In Massachusetts, all the teams are from the eastern part of the state, he observed.
The result is that during the state tournament, not much of the state is actually represented, he said.
“There’s nobody west of 495, that’s for sure,” he said.
Aside from Andover, the only other high schools fielding boys teams are Attleboro, Braintree, Burlington, Lowell, Newton North and Newton South.
But the original decision by the MIAA to drop boys gymnastics still rankles Sirois.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They have only dropped one other sport in history, and that was riflery.”
He said even if the MIAA votes against boys gymnastics again, the sport will go on.
“We will have a team anyway,” he said, adding that boys gymnastics would be a club sport “with varsity recognition” at the local level. Meanwhile, he said, coaches from the other six, boys teams have all agreed they would participate in and run their own state tournament.
“The Lowell High School athletic director approached me and said, ‘We can’t let this stop (us). We can’t not recognize this as a sport,’” he said. Lowell had 53 students on its team.
Next year, Wetzel anticipates having 25 students on the Andover team with 300 participants statewide.
He said he and others in the sport have been approached by members of the Olympic Gymnastics Federation “who are more than happy to sanction us. They wouldn’t charge us and the coaches would run the tournaments. We’ve all done that. We are still willing to do that.”
In fact, he said, “it might be better.”
Andover Athletic Director Don Doucette said that for athletes, it’s business as usual, no matter what the MIAA does.
“We are not changing or altering anything,” he said. “We are moving forward with the team. ... We’ll wait and see if we hear anything” after June 6.
Wetzel said the MIAA welcomes any independent efforts aimed at keeping the sport going.
“The MIAA did not tell any school they could not have a gymnastics team,” he said. “All we said was we will no longer sponsor the tournament. They can do it themselves. We have that in a number of sports around the state now, like bowling, sailing and riflery.”