For every Boginskaya and Shushunova out there winning World and Olympic medals, there was another talented gymnast toiling away the Soviet Union. With only 6 spots up for grabs each year, many excellent gymnasts never had a chance to display their skills on the world stage as a result of the extreme depth on the Soviet team in the 1980s. If given half a chance they, too, could have earned accolades and changed the history of the sport.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, many gymnasts who would have formerly been on the bubble were able to compete for their respective republics at the World Championships the following year. Interesting gymnasts such as Lyudmila Stovbchataya (UKR), the Yulia Yurkina (BLR) and Irina Yevdokimova (KAZ) were some of the 18 ex-Soviet female gymnasts competing in Birmingham.
Here are some of the top-notch performers who sadly never wore the Soviet flag at a World Championships or an Olympic Games:
1990 USA vs USSR, Balance Beam
The press handstand mount, the full-twisting back, the sideways backhandspring to Yurchenko loop, a full-in dismount, the flower leo and yarn…what more can a gym fan ask for?!
1989 Chunichi Cup, Floor Exercise
Don’t miss the double full-in first pass! She and Alexis Brion remain the only ladies to ever compete this skill.
1986 Chunichi Cup, Floor Exercise
Although the skill bears the name of Daniela Silivas (ROM) in the Code of Points, Priakhina was in fact the first gymnast to perform the double-double on floor.
1987 USSR Display, Uneven Bars
Check out how close together the bars are set!
1988 Chunichi Cup
1988 USSR vs CHN, UNeven Bars
1986 Kraft Invitational, Floor Exercise
My favourite floor routine of all time!
1990 Dutch Open, Floor Exercise
1990 Dutch Open, Uneven Bars
1985 Medico Cup, Floor Exercise
Barutyan, owner of a fantastic planche on beam, was rumoured to be training a double layout dismount of that apparatus!
Which other amazing gymnasts do you think could have won titles and been stars if given a chance to compete at a Worlds or Olympics?
Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson? Svetlana Khorkina or Carly Patterson? Daniela Silivas or Yelena Shushunova?
The list could go on forever. The rivalry at the recent Olympic Games was the epitome of the Artistry vs. Power debate. Both Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson had a 66.1 Start Value, possessed nerves of steel, and represented the same country. But that’s where the similarities end.
The race for Olympic All-Around Gold was going to be interesting, to be sure. Either of these Americans could have won the most prestigious accolades of the quadrennium, with their most fierce competition coming from Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Ksenia Semyonova, Anna Pavlova, Steliana Nistor and Sandra Izbasa. Johnson held the advantage on Vault thanks to her consistent Amanar, but Liukin more than made up this deficit on Uneven Bars with a whopping 17.7 Start Value. As Balance Beam and Floor Exercise were roughly equal in terms of Start Value, the title was going to be determined by who performed to the best of her ability and who most impressed the international judges.
It seemed that Johnson could do no wrong in the eyes of the American judges. Her consistency had allowed her to finish at the top of the scoreboard in almost every competition she entered leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games, including the at 2007 World Championships. Liukin, on the other hand, struggled more despite winning the ever-decreasingly prestigious American Cup. Johnson surely thought that if she could just compete to the best of her ability, the Olympic crown would be hers.
The international judges, however, demonstrated a preference for Liukin’s more artistic style, resulting in the largest margin of victory in an Olympic All-Around in decades. Liukin’s routines were more reminiscent of the old school gymnasts of the 1970s and 1980s, all the while managing to pack in the highest level of difficulty.
Nastia Liukin Balance Beam Montage
There’s no denying Johnson’s amazing tumbling abilities. Her opening double-double always seems to float through the air with excellent form, and her Balance Beam routine is always so rock-solid.
Shawn Johnson Montage
There were two other gymnasts from these Olympic Games whose combination of power and artistry I truly admire: Anna Pavlova, with her classical Soviet style and high level of difficulty, and Cheng Fei, with her perfect form and cutting edge vaults (Amanar and RO-half on, layout Rudi). I was so disappointed that Pavlova narrowly missed a medal at these Games, especially in light of her 4th place in the All-Around at the 2004 Olympic Games. I was also hoping Cheng would win Vault, having won the World Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but it was nice to see North Korean Hong Un Jong mount the highest step on the awards podium.
Anna Pavlova, 2008 Russian Championships, Floor Exercise
Cheng Fei, 2008 Olympic Games, Vault
There have been several gymnasts over the years who have managed to integrate beautiful and relevant choreography into their Floor Exercise routines while simultaneously showcasing the highest level of tumbling. In fact, it seems that almost all the Soviet gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s were able to do so. My favourite routine ever belongs to Natalia Frolova, a gymnast who never competed in a World Championships due to the tough competition from her Soviet teammates. Watch as she intertwines dance with some exceptional tumbling: 1.5-twist through to piked full-in, whip to triple twist, and double tuck.
Natalia Frolova, 1986 Display, Floor Exercise
Another personal favourite of mine is Silvia Mitova’s Floor Exercise from 1991-92. She chose unique music and some bizarre dance elements that just seem to flow together. Many gymnasts have used this cut of music since, but none have quite managed to capture the same magic as Mitova.
Silvia Mitova, 1992 European Championships, Floor Exercise
It’s not just the female gymnasts who are able to display such artistry. During the Beijing Olympics I was stunned by the exquisite form of Kohei Uchimura. It was so disappointing when he fell from the Pommel Horse in the first rotation of the All-Around. By not giving away form deductions, however, he managed to climb his way back up to the Silver medal position behind the clear favourite, Yang Wei. Could his triple twist dismount be any more solid?!
Kohei Uchimura, 2008 Tianjin World Cup, Floor Exercise
Let us not forget Olympic Gold Medallist Xiao Qin. This Chinese gymnast demonstrates perfect form, fast swing and great height above the apparatus in his Pommel Horse routine, resulting in his utter dominance on the event in the past four years. At the 2007 World Championships, Xiao won Pommel Horse with a whopping 0.6 margin of victory!
I think I’ve saved the best for last. I’d like to know where the judges found 0.3 in deductions in this next routine. And since when does a crowd ooh, aah and applaud during a Pommel Horse routine?!
Xiao Qin, 2007 World Championships, Pommel Horse
Oh, and as for the original questions…as much as I love watching the risky tricks performed by the others, I’m sticking with Liukin, Khorkina and Silivas.