Gymnastics 101: Olympic History

Posted at 11:09 AM, Mar 16, 2020

Athens, 1896: The earliest years of Olympics gymnastics competition featured a variety of events, many of which were later discontinued. Rope climbing joined such current standards as parallel bars and vault on the original program. Club swinging appeared in 1904 and 1932. In Athens, Germany won five of the eight competitions, host Greece celebrated two champions, and a Swiss gymnast prevailed on pommel horse.

Stockholm, 1912: Growing up in Modena, Italy, Alberto Braglia had taught himself gymnastics in a barn. In 1908, he stepped away from his job at a tobacco factory to win all-around gold at the London Games. Soon thereafter, he is declared a professional for earning money as "The Bullet Man" (or, as posters read, "The Human Torpedo"), stunt work that once led to a broken shoulder and ribs. His amateur status ultimately restored, Braglia defended his title in Stockholm. He then took to the circus, once performing for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, before returning to the Games as coach of the victorious Italian men's team in 1932.

Paris, 1924: At the Paris Games, Czechoslovakia led the gymnastics standings with nine medals, ahead of Switzerland (seven) and France (six). The all-around champion was a lawyer-to-be from Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), Leon Stukelj. Famous for his longevity, Stukelj won silver on rings at the 1936 Games at age 37, then incorporated gymnastics into a strict exercise regimen to which he adhered well into his nineties. Stukelj died in 1999, four days shy of his 101st birthday.

Los Angeles, 1932: In Los Angeles, Romeo Neri led Italy to the men's team title and was also crowned the all-around champion. A stadium in Rimini, Italy, is later named after him. Also in L.A., the rope climbing gold went to Raymond Bass, who later became a submarine commander in World War II.

Berlin, 1936: German gymnasts Konrad Frey and Alfred Schwarzmann each won three gold medals in Berlin. Both survived World War II, after which Schwarzmann, a baker from Nuremberg, earned a silver medal on high bar in Helsinki at the age of 40.

London, 1948: The 1948 gymnastics event needed to be moved indoors because of rain at Wembley Stadium. The arena wasn't ideally designed for judges to have the same views of a routine. This further complicated a competition in which, as the official report notes, "there were differences of opinion on the value to be placed on any particular movement." Still, it is unclear why one befuddled judge awarded a 13.1 — on a scale of 1-10 — to a gymnast in the women's competition.

Shortly before the gymnastics competition, Czechoslovakian gymnast Eliska Misakova, 22, became gravely ill and was hospitalized. She died of infantile paralysis the day of the women's team competition. With Eliska's sister, Miloslava, contributing the team's second highest individual score, Czechoslovakia won gold. A black ribbon was attached to the Czech flag when it was raised at the medal ceremony.

Helsinki, 1952: The Soviet Union made its foray into the Olympics in Helsinki, and was an instant success in gymnastics. Its men and women swept the team events, and two natives of Ukraine won the all-around titles: Viktor Chukarin, who finished with four gold and two silver medals, and Maria Gorokhovskaya, whose seven-medal tally (two golds, five silvers) remains the single-Games record for women in gymnastics (today, only six events are contested).

Melbourne, 1956: Less than a month before the Melbourne Games, Soviet forces rolled into Hungary to crush an uprising. Two gymnasts became unwitting proxies for the conflict: Soviet Larisa Latynina and Hungarian Agnes Keleti, who combined to win all of the individual women's events, even tied for gold on floor. Latynina took six medals (four golds, one silver, one bronze); Keleti, a 35-year-old Jew whose parents perished at Auschwitz, won four gold and two silver medals. Upon conclusion of the Melbourne Games, she defected to the West. Latynina went on to become the most decorated Olympian gymnast in history, with 18 total medals earned in 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Larisa Latynina leaps during her floor exercise routine at the 1960 Olympic Games.
After winning four gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Games, Larisa Latynina went on to win five more: three during the 1960 Games in Rome and two at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Central Press/Getty Images

Rome, 1960: Orphaned at age 12 and raised by his grandmother, Ukrainian gymnast Boris Shakhlin became one of the most decorated Olympians ever. A two-time gold medalist in 1956, he dominated the 1960 competition. With Rome's ancient Caracalla Baths restored as a stunning backdrop, Shakhlin hauled in seven more medals, including four golds (all-around among them). In 1964, he returned to earn silver in the all-around. With his steely physique and resolve, Shakhlin is nicknamed the "Man of Iron."

Tokyo, 1964: The Soviet Union's Larissa Latynina added the last six of her record 18 Olympic medals, but was defeated in the all-around by Czechoslovakia's Vera Caslavska, a 22-year old secretary from Prague. Caslavska returned home with four medals: three golds and one silver. She became a star at the 1968 Mexico City Games and the winner of seven individual golds, the most ever by a female gymnast.

Mexico City, 1968: Four years after winning all-around gold in Tokyo, Vera Caslavska publicly rejected Soviet involvement in her native Czechoslovakia. When the Soviets invaded to crush the Prague Spring, she fled her training camp to avoid arrest and hid in a small town. She kept in shape by swinging from tree limbs. After three weeks in hiding, she joined her team in Mexico City, where she won six medals (four golds, two silvers) and was embraced by fans — her floor exercise to the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance" was a particular crowd-pleaser. The shadow of politics was never far away: Caslavska shared floor exercise gold with Soviet Larisa Petrik, and was said to have bowed her head during the Soviet anthem. Back home, the Communist government made her personal and professional life difficult for more than 20 years. She later served as president of the Czech National Olympic Committee and a member of the IOC.

Munich, 1972: A captivating performance by a 4-foot-11 85-pound Soviet pixie cemented women's gymnastics as one of the most popular Olympic sports, particularly for television audiences. Petite 17-year-old Olga Korbut became the first gymnast ever to do a backward somersault on the uneven bars — "I don't believe it!" a stunned TV commentator said of her performance. She won individual gold medals on balance beam and floor, plus a silver on uneven bars. A fall and a missed remount eliminated Korbut from individual all-around contention. Even in the U.S., anti-Soviet sentiment did not keep Americans from being charmed by the "Munchkin of Munich."

The Japanese men were going strong since 1956, when they took silver in the team event. A streak of five straight team golds (1960-1976) ended when the nation boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games. In Munich, 5-foot-3 Sawao Kato led a Japanese sweep of the men's all-around and parallel bars; Japan also went 1-2-3-4-5 on high bar. In all, Japan won 16 of the 24 men's gymnastics medals awarded in Munich. Kato, who defended his all-around title in Munich, added silver in 1976 to become the only man with three all-around medals at the time. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura joined him with a third all-around medal of his own in 2016 at Rio. 

Montreal, 1976: Japan's Mitsuo Tsukahara made a mark on gymnastics history with his vaulting style. He was the first to perform the vault sideways, starting with a cartwheel, hitting the horse in the middle of the move, and springing off into a back-flip. The move was considered daring when he first performed it, but it became so commonplace as to be included in women's compulsories. Going into Montreal, Tsukahara already had four medals to his name. He added five more: two golds (high bar, team), a silver (vault) and two bronzes (all-around and parallel bars).

The two Soviets who had dominated in Munich — all-around winner Lyudmila Turischeva and multiple-medalist Olga Korbut — were due for some disappointment in Canada. There, a new gymnastics darling emerged: 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci. Though lacking Korbut's charisma, Comaneci made up for that by becoming the first person ever to score a 10.0 — gymnastics perfection. Scoreboard designers clearly didn't see this coming, as they only left room for three digits, leaving them to post 1.00 when the judges' decision came through. Comaneci racked up a total of seven 10s en route to five medals, including the all-around gold.

Moscow, 1980: Charges of favoritism in the scoring of subjective events had long been part of the Games. Among the most notable cases is the women's all-around final in Moscow, where defending champion Nadia Comaneci of Romania needed a 9.90 on balance beam to tie Soviet Yelena Davydova for gold. After delivering a near-flawless routine, she waited for half an hour as the judges bickered and ultimately produced a score of 9.85 — thanks to 9.8s from the Soviet and Polish judges. The silver was among four medals Comaneci won at the 1980 Games. In 1989, she defected to the United States and eventually married fellow gymnast Bart Conner, a 1984 gold medalist.

Los Angeles, 1984: Vera Caslavska...Olga Korbut...Nadia Comaneci... The U.S. had never produced a gymnastics star like that, much less won any individual medal in women's Olympic competition. Then came Mary Lou Retton, a wide-smiling 16-year-old born in a West Virginia coal mining town. In her first major international competition, Retton became the face of the Los Angeles Games after rallying with a pair of 10s in her last two events to pass Romanian Ecaterina Szabo for the all-around title. Retton, with four other medals (two silvers, two bronzes), joined the list of famous athletes to grace the cover of a Wheaties cereal box.

Three members of the U.S. men's gymnastics team (Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord, Tim Daggett) competed in their home arena, UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Joined by Bart Conner, James Hartung and Scott Johnson, they won the team gold medal in a major upset over the world champion Chinese team. In addition to the men's team medal, the men won several individual medals: Vidmar's silver in the all-around and gold on pommel horse; Conner's gold on parallel bars; Gaylord's silver on vault and bronzes on rings and parallel bars; and Daggett's bronze on pommel horse.

Seoul, 1988: Coming into Seoul, Vladimir Artemov of the Soviet Union became known as the "permanent runner-up" for repeatedly finishing second at major competitions. But in Seoul, Artemov stepped it up, winning the all-around title and adding golds on parallel bars, high bar and in the team event, to go along with familiar silver on floor. His performance overshadowed that of teammate Dmitry Bilozerchev, who had overcome a shattered leg to win the 1987 world all-around title. In Seoul, Bilozerchev took the all-around bronze and tied for the gold on rings and pommel horse.

Barcelona, 1992: Vitaly Scherbo, a native of Belarus representing the Unified Team, arrived in Spain having made a bold promise to his mother: that he would win three gold medals in Barcelona. But he was twice as good as his promise: After leading the Unified Team to the team title and winning the all-around crown, Scherbo won four event finals on the same night — parallel bars, vault, rings, and pommel horse — and became the first gymnast ever to earn six golds at a single Games. Late in 1995, Scherbo's wife was severely injured in a car crash, a personal setback that also threatened his gymnastics career. But in 1996, he returned to win four bronze medals at the Atlanta Games.

Atlanta, 1996: In Atlanta, with a solid lead entering the final rotation — vault — the American women seemed poised to capture the nation's first women's team title in Olympic history. But on vault, Dominique Moceanu made two mistakes, and with the second-place Russians still performing on floor, Team USA appeared to need a solid score from Kerri Strug to clinch the victory (four of a team's five scores counted). On her first vault, Strug missed her landing and severely injured her left ankle. The 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. went back out and stuck her landing almost entirely on one foot before collapsing in pain. With her ankle in a soft case, she was carried onto the gold-medal stand. Though the U.S. ultimately would have won without Strug's heroics, the gutsy performance made her a national star.

Sydney, 2000: The women's all-around in Sydney seemed cursed. First, the vault apparatus was set incorrectly — nearly 2 inches too low — causing a string of crashes before the mistake was noticed. Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina, a 5-foot-5 giant in the sport, landed on her knees, and American champion Elise Ray made two poor passes. Khorkina declined a do-over offer and ultimately placed 10th. Meanwhile, the all-around winner — Andreea Raducan of Romania — tested positive for a banned substance and was stripped of her gold. Raducan claimed that a team doctor had given her a common, over-the-counter cold medicine containing the banned substance pseudoephedrine.

Paul Hamm competes during the pommel horse final during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
Paul Hamm won the gold medal in the men's all-around final at the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Athens, 2004: Once a men's gymnastics dynasty, winning five straight Olympic team titles from 1960-1976, Japan decisively reclaimed gold by finishing nearly a full point ahead of the United States. The silver was America's first medal in the team event since 1984 and the first at a fully-attended Olympics since 1932.

In 12th place with two events to go, Wisconsin's Paul Hamm made a big comeback and emerged from an even bigger controversy with Olympic gold. Hamm, the first American to win an Olympic men's all-around title, outscored South Korea's Kim Dae-Eun by .012 points in the event's closest-ever finish. The bronze medalist, South Korean Yang Tae-Young, claimed a scoring error on his parallel bars routine cost him the victory, and although officials acknowledged a mistake they did not overturn the final results. In October 2004, the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied Yang's appeal; his bronze and Kim's silver were the first Olympic all-around medals for South Korea.

Carly Patterson became just the second American woman to win Olympic all-around gold and the first since Mary Lou Retton 20 years earlier. The 16-year-old from Texas defeated three-time world champion Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, who finally won an Olympic all-around medal, a silver, in her third Olympics. At 25, Khorkina was the event's oldest medalist since Vera Caslavska won gold at age 26 at the 1968 Mexico City Games. By finishing with the bronze, Zhang Nan earned China's second-ever Olympic medal in the women's all-around. For the first time since 1972, Romania was shut out.

Beijing, 2008: American Nastia Liukin claimed all-around gold ahead of her teammate Shawn Johnson, who narrowly edged China's Yang Yilin for silver. Liukin became the third American woman to win Olympic all-around gold and Liukin and Johnson became the first American women to go 1-2 in the all-around. Liukin tied the  U.S. gymnastics record of five medals at one Olympics set by Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Shannon Miller (1992).  Johnson picked up four total medals, including gold on the balance beam. In the team competition, the U.S. women struggled and finished second behind host-country China by more than two points.

Host country China was dominant in gymnastics, picking up the men's and women's team titles, plus the men's all-around gold won by Yang Wei. Nine of China's 14 gymnastics medals were gold, including six of seven individual men's gold medals up for grabs (all but vault). Maybe the most controversial gold was that won by He Kexin in the women's uneven bars finals against American Nastia Liukin. Liukin and He earned the same amount of points, but He won gold due to a complex tie-breaking rule.

Considered underdogs after falling off the podium at the world championships preceding the Olympics and finishing sixth in qualifying in Beijing, the United States men won a surprise team bronze medal. Forced to use alternates when 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm and his twin, Morgan, suffered pre-Games injuries, the Americans held off Germany to win the team bronze medal.

London 2012: After winning a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships and earning the top team score in the qualifying round, the U.S. men's team seemed assured of a spot on the podium at the London Olympics. Error-ridden performances left the Americans in fifth place. The Chinese men won their second straight team gold, and as the competition came to an end Great Britain and Ukraine were in silver and bronze medal position. But Japan, in fourth place after Kohei Uchimura botched his dismount off the pommel horse, filed a protest appealing Uchimura's score. The appeal was accepted and Japan is moved up to second place. Great Britain received bronze, their first team medal in gymnastics in 100 years, and Ukraine was pushed off the podium. Uchimura also claimed the gold medal in the men's all-around, followed by Germany's Marcel Nguyen and USA’s Danell Leyva.

The U.S. women — soon to be known as the "Fierce Five" — decisively won team gold, the first American team to do so since the "Magnificent Seven" in 1996. America’s Gabby Douglas became the first African American and the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual and team all-around in the same competition. Russia’s Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina won the all-around gold and silver, respectively. American Aly Raisman, who also competed in the all-around final, tied for third place with Mustafina, but lost the tiebreaker and landed in fourth. In the event finals, Raisman earned a gold medal on floor exercise and a bronze medal on balance beam.

Simone Biles and Aly Raisman celebrate after winning the gold and silver medal, respectively, at the 2016 Rio Games.
Simone Biles and Aly Raisman went 1-2 on the podium during the women's all-around final at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

Rio 2016: Japan’s Kohei Uchimura won his second men’s individual all-around final by a tenth of a point over Oleg Verniaiev from Ukraine. Uchimura joined fellow Japanese gymnast Sawao Kato as the only winners of three individual all-around medals. The U.S. men had a strong showing in the team qualification, placing second behind Japan, but were unable to carry that into the final where they placed fifth. Japan secured the all-around gold, followed by Russia and China who won the silver and bronze, respectively.

Romania, which had earned a team medal every Olympic Games since 1976, ended its streak after failing to qualify for the 2016 Games. The U.S. women — now known as the “Final Five” — won team gold for the second consecutive Games, and with an eight-point lead of the second place Russians. China took third. The U.S.’ Simone Biles made her debut on the Olympic stage with dominance, winning four golds and one bronze medal. Aly Raisman joined her on the podium for the U.S., winning silver in the individual all-around and silver on floor exercise. She became the second-most decorated American Olympic gymnast with six medals behind only Shannon Miller. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina finished in third for the individual all-around bronze.