Gymnastics Bios #1: Annelore Zinke

At the start of 1975, the undisputed queen of gymnastics was Soviet gymnast Ludmilla Turischeva. She was the reigning Olympic Champion, World Champion, European Champion, and National Champion. When asked what she was going to do next, she vowed to do it all again. Turischeva had won every gold medal at the last European Championships. All eyes were on Turischeva as she seemed poised to succeed where both Latynina and Caslavska had failed by winning the prestigious European Championships All-Around (AA) title three times in a row. So unprecedented was the prospect of Turischeva winning a third straight title, there was talk of permanently retiring the current European AA trophy to honor such an achievement.

But none of that would happen. Instead Turischeva would get trounced by a newcomer. The title would instead go to Nadia Comaneci of Romania who was making her debut in a Big Four competition. (1) But Nadia wasn’t the only breakout star of the 1975 European Championships. Turischeva‘s teammate Nellie Kim was competing in a Big Four competition for the first time while  at full health and finished in second place.

Perplexed at what was happening, Turischeva completely unraveled and the gymnast who had won every gold medal at the last two European Championships would medal on just one event, a bronze on floor. Meanwhile Nadia and Nellie Kim would continue their success and dominated the gymnastics scene all the way to the 1976 Olympics where both gymnasts would make history by being the first two gymnasts to record a Perfect 10 in Olympic competition.

Kim (L) Nadia (M) & Zinke (R)

The 1975 European Championships would go down as one of the most significant events in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) history. It launched the careers of two of its most iconic stars of the 1970s and brought Turischeva’s dominance to an end. It is a story of the birth of Nadia and Nellie Kim and the end of Turischeva. But what gets lost in the conversation of those three gymnasts, is that Turischeva did not finish behind Nadia or Nellie Kim. There was a third gymnast who had also usurped Turischeva. A gymnast who was destined to be a major factor at the 1976 Olympics alongside Nadia and Nellie Kim, but instead would disappear from the sport and see her legacy erased. This is the story of that gymnast.

The Janz Salto

Annelore Zinke competed for East Germany and trained at Sports Club Dynamo Berlin. The club had also been the home gym of 1968 and 1972 Olympian Karin Janz who would win the most medals of any East German in WAG history. The elder Janz was Zinke’s idol and the standard of success she hoped to follow. The uneven bars at the 1972 Olympics in Munich are best known for Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut and the Korbut Flip. But it was Karin Janz and her trademark move the Janz Salto that was victorious. Following the 1972 Olympics, the two moves would rival each other as the top move on bars, one being the trademark move of the East Germans, the other belonging to the Soviets. For Zinke, she had to make a decision between which of the two moves to include in her uneven bars routine. She chose both.

When Korbut first performed the move at the 1972 Olympics, it was a skill that had been years in the making. The following year in 1973, two more gymnasts debuted the move. Lyubov Bogdanova of the Soviet Union and Zinke of East Germany. For Soviet gymnasts trying to adopt the Korbut Flip, they were at an advantage as it had come from within their own program and Soviet coaches had a better understanding of how to effectively teach it.  This was an advantage not afforded to Zinke and her ability to learn it as quickly as the next Soviet could learn it is an early testament to her immense talent.

Zinke Performing the Korbut Flip at 1974 Worlds

It is also reflective of Zinke’s personality where she was looking to make a statement by proving both moves were easy enough for her to do in one routine. But she was also making a statement that she was so superior on bars, she could easily master the top moves of her Soviet rivals. It is especially noteworthy to do something like this on bars where the routines typically last 30 seconds and unlike floor or beam, a bars routine doesn’t include choreography which gives gymnasts an opportunity to catch their breath. Every move a gymnast decides to use in her bars routine must be carefully chosen in order to make sure the routine doesn’t exhaust a gymnast before it can be completed. For Zinke, it wasn’t enough for her to simply beat the Soviets, she wanted to rub it in their faces while doing it.

Zinke (R) in Cottbus. April 1973.

But for all her talent, the early part of Zinke’s career in 1973 and early 1974 would be marked with lackluster success. She does not appear in any of the standings at the major international junior competitions of the era. The only reference to any events in 1973 comes from a news article recounting her second place finish on uneven bars at the East German Championships, which was supposedly her best event. In 1974 Zinke would put up a modest result by placing fourth at the East German Championships. She would also make the 1974 East German team for the World Championships.

The 1974 World Championships is best known for being ruthlessly dominated by the Soviets in what was the last major WAG competition ever held without country limits. In the AA the top five Soviet gymnasts finished in the top seven. It was Zinke (6th) and her teammate Angelika Hellmann (bronze) that prevented the Soviets from having their five gymnasts who were at full health from sweeping the AA. Had modern country limits been in effect, Zinke would have finished in fourth place.

Zinke’s Routine at the 1974 World Championships.

The top two spots in the AA would go to Turischeva and Korbut. The duo would win every gold and silver medal of the competition except for the uneven bars. Instead the Soviet duo would finish with the silver and bronze medals. Annelore Zinke would win the gold medal and become a World Champion. More startling than Zinke’s win was her age. Annelore Zinke was only 15 years old at the 1974 World Championships. No one that young had ever medaled on an individual event at the World Championships or Olympics, let alone win a gold medal. Zinke was the youngest champion in WAG history up to that point in time. Zinke had chipped away at the declining ages of the athletes in the sport, but this accomplishment would soon fall to the wayside when a 13 year old Nadia arrived on the scene a few months later and shattered any and all remaining preconceptions on whether young gymnasts could compete against the veterans.

1975 European Championships. Zinke is to the far left.

At the 1975 European Championships Zinke had established herself as the third ranked gymnast in the world with the Olympics fast approaching. The early parts of her career had been marked with inconsistency, but she had shown remarkable improvement and was rising up the ladder at an unprecedented pace. She was a medal favorite at the upcoming Olympics. She had a bright future and was of the ideal age not just for 1976, but had viable prospects for 1980 as well. If she continued her rapid improvement, she could go down as one of the most legendary athletes in the history of East German WAG.

Zinke’s desire to follow in the footsteps of her idol Karin Janz had helped her become a world champion. It would also prove to be her undoing. A month after Zinke gave the best performance of her career at the 1975 European Championships, she suffered a catastrophic injury while attending a training camp for the national team. While performing the Janz Salto, Zinke fell awkwardly and dislocated both of her elbows. The double injury would effectively end her career.

Zinke refused to call it quits and attempted a comeback. But she would struggle to recover mentally from her accident and the fear of injury would hamper her training regimen. Adding to her problems was that in this era of WAG where the ages of the athletes were rapidly declining, so were the average weights. Injured gymnasts were particularly vulnerable to a rapid weight gain since they were unable to train they were no longer burning calories. Other obstacles cited would be her age and height.

She would go on to compete in 1976, but was nowhere near Olympic form. Her results were that of someone who was struggling just to maintain a spot on the national team let alone make an Olympic team. Zinke failed to qualify for the Olympics and in the following year retired from elite gymnastics.

Zinke Performing on Floor at the 1974 World Championships

The legacy of Zinke would be that of a missed opportunity for the East Germans. In the wake of a rapidly rising Romanian program, Zinke was their last chance to maintain the momentum they had from 1968-1974 before being overtaken by Romania as the second ranked WAG program. While the rise of Romania into the second best program was most likely inevitable, under a healthy Zinke the East Germans had a better chance of directing some of the attention to their program. Instead the East Germans would be an afterthought from 1975 onwards, rarely mentioned in an era of gymnastics dominated by the Soviets and the Romanians.

In a testament to how badly the loss of Zinke hurt the East German program, in the Olympics and World Championships following Zinke’s injury, East Germany failed to medal on the uneven bars. East Germany had dominated the apparatus winning every gold medal from 1970-1987. The only time they didn’t was in 1976 and 1978 in the aftermath of Zinke’s injury.

As for what could have happened had a healthy Zinke had participated in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal? One compelling prospect is whether she could have learned the full-twisting Korbut Flip and debuted it at Montreal. Lyubov Bogdanova and Elena Mukhina both debuted it in 1977. Given Zinke’s immense talent, she had a reasonable chance of doing it by 1976. She was superior in talent to Bogdanova (thus having the ability to learn it faster) and had a head start over Mukhina. Having this move displayed at the 1976 Olympics could have been a classic Olympic moment and a lost opportunity for the sport.

Instead the Korbut Flip would slowly fade away. The move is most commonly associated with Olga Korbut and Elena Mukhina, but in an ironic twist neither would win a World Championships or Olympic title on the uneven bars. The only gymnast who ever won a gold medal using the Korbut Flip was Annelore Zinke. And she did it while competing against Korbut herself.

Kim (L) Nadia (M) & Zinke (R)

How Zinke would have performed against Turischeva, Nellie Kim, and Nadia is difficult to answer. Turischeva returned in 1976 considerably improved and was closely behind Nellie Kim. So it can’t be argued Turischeva’s 1976 AA bronze only happened because Zinke was not there. Turischeva’s poor showing at the 1975 European Championships was an outlier in her career. Zinke needed to show considerable improvement and upgrades in the buildup to Montreal if she wanted to do better than a fourth place finish in the AA. I would also caution against arguing she was in the same class as Nadia and Nellie Kim. Both had years of strong showings at the top junior international competition of the era (Druzhba). Zinke did not. Both dominated event finals at the 1975 European Championships by medaling on every event. Zinke medaled only on the uneven bars in event finals. More significantly, Zinke had lost the bars title to Nadia at that competition and she was not the favorite for Montreal.

Those are the arguments against Zinke. The argument in favor of her comes down to her rapid progress. Zinke’s failures and lack of wins can largely be forgiven as she was in the very early stages of what was a promising career. She was still gaining experience, building her reputation, and learning the ropes. There is a strong possibility that she could have soon become a consistent medal winner. Zinke had a non-existent junior career. Nor did she compete in the prestigious non-Big Four competitions of the era such as the American Cup or the Chunichi Cup. Nor does she have any notable results in domestic East German competition. The only results at the East German Championships and East German Cup listed for her on Gymn-Forum are results where she finished off the podium.

Zinke on Beam at 1975 Euros

Her entire career comes down to just two competitions (1974 World Championships and 1975 European Championships) that were held only six months apart. Zinke’s time as a first rate gymnast was the shortest of any athlete in WAG that I have ever come across. Yet in those two competitions she was brilliant and it begs the question of what she could have done if she was given more time.

As for Zinke, she would disappear and would be lost in the shuffle of the media sensation over Nadia. Little attention is paid to the East German program as the Romanian and Soviet programs would emerge as the most memorable programs of the era. The website Gym Media would cite journalist Hans-Juergen Zeume claiming the East German press was barred from talking about Zinke. It would have reflected poorly on both their government and their Olympic program to acknowledge that they had lost their top gymnast to a catastrophic injury. The East Germans wanted her legacy to disappear. Worst of all, they were successful in accomplishing that. Zinke became the most obscure gold medalist of the 1970s. There is hardly any information available on Zinke and only on rare occasions does a gymnastics website profile her. It wasn’t until December of 2018 that an article available on the web did a major profile on her. It was only then that I first learned about what her life was like in retirement. She became an elementary school math teacher.

  1. Olympics, World Championships, European Championships, and World Cup

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