Data Crunch #2.2: Margin of Victory in Women’s Gymnastics

Link: A List of the Margin of Victory For Every Gymnastics Competition

Simone Biles dominated the 2016 Olympics winning the All-Around (AA) by a margin of victory (MOV) of 2.1 points. To put that in perspective, her MOV of 2.1 was only slightly smaller than the combined MOV of the last ten Olympics (2.217). Ever since then I have developed an obsession for trying to find a way to measure how Biles in 2016 compares to other dominating performances in gymnastics history.

MOV was the most obvious choice for a statistic to use as a measure for each individual performance. And the results are in the graph below. At the top of this article is a link to three data tables featuring the full results of each competition by MOV. They are sorted by year, highest MOV, and lowest MOV.

One thing that quickly becomes apparent is the wide variances in MOV over the various decades of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history. The 1950s-1970s have MOVs that are easily visible on the graph, but starting in the late 1980s the MOVs are barely legible. The MOVs then start rising in the 2000s before jumping significantly in the mid 2000s.

The conclusion here is MOV is more closely aligned to a particular era than it is an indication of personal performance.

But who cares? It is fun to say “Biles had the highest MOV in Olympic history.” But who else was dominant? The above graphic is a list of the eight times a gymnast won with a MOV of 1.0 or higher. Who has the highest MOV in gymnastics history? You would be surprised that answer is not a legendary name such as Biles, Nadia, Latynina, or Caslavska. It was Helena Rakoczy of Poland, a gymnast that most gymnastics fans are unfamiliar with.

Virtually every metric I have ever come up with that was designed to measure the greatest individual performance of all time has Helena Rakoczy’s AA win at the 1950 World Championships at (or near) the top of the list. It is a competition that I treat as an outlier due to the unusual circumstances of the event. The first issue with 1950 Worlds is the point system that was used during the competition. Rakoczy won with 94 points. Gymnastics competitions from 1952-1988 used an 80-point scoring system. From 1989-2005 it was a 40-point system. And currently it is an uncapped scoring system where the top gymnasts score around 60 points. That is part of the reason why Rakoczy has such a large MOV, with a point system that is more spread out, the MOV in between all the athletes is also spread out.

Information about the 1950 World Championships is hard to come by, and that is the second problem with it. It’s hard to talk about a competition with so little information available. I don’t even know how many possible points Rakoczy could have scored. My best guess is that a 120-point system was used in 1950 as that was what pre-WWII gymnastics competitions were using. The 1950 World Championships is the only competition with data available that used a scoring system that went over 80 points. It is literally a “one of a kind” entry in the data that can’t be compared to similar to competitions. It also has the additional issue of being a scoring system that hasn’t been used in almost 70 years. It is from an era that is incomparable to even 1980s gymnasts let alone current gymnasts.

But the main reason Rakoczy dominated the 1950 World Championships is that it had the weakest field of any World Championships or Olympics ever held. The three best nations of the 1948 Olympics were not present. The Soviet Union which had not participated at the 1948 Olympics and all the Eastern Bloc gymnastics powers weren’t there either. Yugoslavia and Poland were the only Eastern Bloc nations in attendance, but neither developed a strong gymnastics program. Rakoczy is proof that Poland had a ton of potential, but potential that never materialized and the program would never repeat the success it had during Rakoczy’s era in future decades.

As for Rakoczy, she is in the Hall of Fame and deservedly so. Rakoczy was a great gymnast who backed up her 1950 win with success in other WAG competitions that were fully attended. She won an AA Bronze at the 1954 World Championships, a competition that is in contention for having one of the most impressive athlete lineups in WAG history. Rakoczy at the 1950 World Championships proved her own greatness by showing that when the advantages are stacked in her favor, she would put up results that will literally break the charts. Her massive MOV was not so much a fluke, but an example of her being so good in abnormal competition that she would still put up strong results in normal competition. The same can be said for Biles.

The noticeable takeaway from the above graphic is that there has been a massive increase in MOV in the last two decades. This can be traced to the 2006 Code of Points which introduced uncapped scoring for the first time. Under the previous capped scoring systems, dominant gymnasts were hindered in building a sizable lead over the rest of the field. It prevented them from adding maximum difficulty to their routines and acted as a roadblock to building their leads. It didn’t matter how good Nadia’s routines were. If the maximum score permissible was 10.000, that was the highest obtainable score for her, she couldn’t earn a 10.500 even if her routines were that much better than the other competitors.

It also forced top gymnasts to leave their best moves in the gym. If a gymnast could do a difficult move well enough to earn a Perfect 10, there was no benefit to upgrading it as that move with or without an extra half twist resulted in the same score. Every time Simone upgrades, she increases her lead over the rest of the field.

It’s no coincidence that in the last 12 years, a gymnast has had a MOV greater than 1-point on five different occasions. That only happened on two occasions from 1952-2005. Biles isn’t the only gymnast responsible for this. Shawn Johnson and Aliya Mustafina have done it as well.

When Simone’s 2016 MOV is cited, it should only be done with the caveat that we are in an era where massive MOVs are a regular occurrence. But it is still an example of Simone’s greatness. The absurdity of winning by more than two points is a testament to her talent. While it is unfair to the gymnasts of the 1970s to compare Simone’s 2016 MOV to their MOVs back when it was harder to build a lead, when given an unfair advantage, Simone used it to shatter the previous standards. And that is what greatness is.

For every dominant win, there is also a close win. The above graphic is a list of the nine competitions where a gymnast won by less than .050 points. The most infamous case of this happening at the Olympics is Shannon Miller losing to Tatiana Gutsu in 1992 by 0.12 points. But what many gymnastics fans are unaware of, is that Miller won the 1993 World Championships by an even smaller MOV.

Shannon Miller’s career came right when MOV was at its lowest. The ten competitions held from 1988 to 1999 had an average MOV of .065 points. Lilia Podkopayeva’s wins in 1995 and 1996 were nearly double the MOV of the competitors of her era. Her 1996 MOV ranks 30th among all competitions, but it was 2.7 times higher than the average MOV of her era.

As for the 1993 World Championships, the results were so close that the MOV between gold and bronze was .051 which was a closer result than gold and silver in all but 12 competitions.

If close wins in the 1990s look better when you account for average MOV of that era, the reverse is true for the 2000s. Jordyn Wieber (2011) and Morgan Hurd (2017) were the 8th and 14th closest wins in WAG history. Bridget Sloan (2009) is tied with the 1984 Olympics for the 10th closest win of all time. And yet they belong to an era that has produced six of the nine most dominant wins by MOV in WAG history. Perhaps the closest of wins in WAG history belong to the 2000s.

In the past Hurd has struggled to escape Simone’s shadow and to have her 2017 victory taken more seriously. An analysis of MOV does not help her case. Nor does it help the case of those who thought Wieber was the best gymnast heading into the 2012 Olympics. Jordyn’s 2011 performance while still a victory, was not that of an athlete who had total control over the rest of the field.

Ironically, the last competition held before the change to uncapped scoring was the 2005 World Championships where Nastia Liukin lost the gold medal by .001 points. It is the closest competition of all time after the 1985 World Championships which ended in a tie. This isn’t the only time a .001 difference impacted the medal tally. During the 1960 Olympics Soviet gymnast Sofia Muratova lost the silver medal on balance beam to her teammate Larissa Latynina by .001 points.

Lastly, my initial goal with this project was to see if MOV could be used to compare gymnasts who competed decades apart from each other. I quickly realized that it couldn’t be done. The various WAG generations are too different from each other. I made one final attempt to salvage MOV and see if I could tinker with the data to produce a better result. I divided the MOV by the point total of the winning gymnast. The logic being it would better account for the differences of the various scoring systems that have used varying point totals throughout the history of WAG. The results were better, but still far too vulnerable to generational trends. In the end there is nothing that can really be done to account for a .001 win in 2005 and a 2.1 win in 2016. The results are listed below. I multiplied the results by 100,000 to make them more legible.

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