Note: This is a two part series
Link to Part II
The 1981 World Championships would be a rather controversial competition. It would be a competition rife with allegations of age falsification. But it would also devolve into speculation that the Soviets had worked behind the scenes to ensure not just that a Soviet gymnast would win, but that the right Soviet would win. It wouldn’t be complaints over scoring that would make this competition controversial, but a series of incidents that appeared to work so perfectly in the favor of the Soviets, that some refused to believe such incidents had occurred naturally. It is simply put, a gymnastics conspiracy theory.
The story starts with the 1976 Olympics. It was at these games that Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a Perfect 10 at the Olympics. For the Soviets, this could not have come at a worse time. The next Olympics were slated to be held in Moscow. The last thing the Soviets wanted was to be embarrassed by their Romanian rivals in front of home crowds at the next Olympics. The Romanians wanted nothing more than to do exactly that.
For both the Romanian and the Soviet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) programs, political pressure from the government had come down ordering the teams to have success at the Moscow Olympics. When dictators start demanding wins, the athletes lose. And while both sides dug in, the gymnastics governing powers would pour gasoline on an already raging inferno.
In 1972 Olga Korbut made WAG famous with her dazzling routines. When Olga Korbut competed at the 1972 Olympics, WAG only had one major event per year. The popularity created by Olga Korbut expanded interest in the sport and the ruling powers of gymnastics responded by greatly expanding the number of gymnastics competitions.
From 1967-1973 there were only seven major gymnastics competitions. From 1975-1981 there were 14. In just a two year stretch from 1978-1979 there were five major competitions. Unsurprisingly, the injury rate skyrocketed. The 1979 World Championships has the distinction of being the most injury plagued gymnastics competition of all time. Most of the top gymnasts had missed it including the All-Around (AA) Champions of 1976, 1978, and 1980. And still both sides dug in.
Both the Romanian and Soviet WAG programs were at their breaking point by the time of the 1980 Olympics. In the end Soviet gymnast Elena Davydova would be the AA champion. But the Romanians weren’t going to concede that easily. Nadia had shared the silver medal with the East German Maxi Gnauck. The Romanians would allege that the scores had been rigged. Allegations that were widely circulated, but were unfounded.
In most Olympic quads the period after the Olympics would provide the gymnasts with badly needed downtime to recuperate. But this quad would be the exception as the 1980 World Cup was being held just three months after the Olympics. But in 1981 the stakes would become even higher. There were already two major events in 1981 with both the European and World Championships being held that year.
Envious of the Soviets hosting the Olympics, the Romanians wanted an Olympics of their own. But Romania was too poor and too small to ever win an Olympic bid. So they had to settle for the University Games instead. Romania would host the 1981 University Games and it would be their attempt to replicate a major Olympic style event.
The 1981 University Games have the distinction of being without question, the most rigged gymnastics competition ever held. On the WAG side Romania won gold on every event. Due to country limits the maximum number of medals a single nation could win was 12 medals. Romania won 11.
On the men’s side things were even worse. There are eight events in men’s gymnastics and Romania won medals on seven of them. Five of them were gold including the AA and team competitions. Unlike their counterparts in WAG, the Romanian men’s team was by no means a gymnastics power. These results were completely out of line for a program that failed to medal in every major gymnastics competition from 1980-1987. In his competition report for USGF Gymnastics, Makoto Sakamoto said the judging “may ruin the sport of gymnastics” and that the Romanians had been “gifted beyond imagination.”
Heading into the 1981 World Championships the Romanians were in serious trouble. They had spent the last Olympic quad in a war of attrition against the Soviets. This had caused both programs to rapidly burn through gymnasts. The Soviet Union was a significantly larger country and could replace its loses, the Romanians couldn’t. All while the Romanian program had pushed even harder than the Soviet Union by treating the University Games as another Olympics. Then to add to their troubles, earlier in the year three of their top coaches had defected. The Romanians were going to be weak by the time of the 1981 World Championships and now they had to go back to Moscow.
Moscow was also hosting the 1981 World Championships. Having already burned the Soviets with rigged judging at the 1981 University Games, and having attempted to delegitimize the scoring of the 1980 Olympics, all bets were off regarding how the Romanians were going to be treated in their return to Moscow. And the Romanians decided it was better to keep Nadia off the team than see her brand diminished by losing to the Soviets.
Romania would finish fourth at the 1981 World Championships and failed to medal. That may not sound shocking in the current era of WAG. But back then such a prospect was unthinkable. The 1981 World Championships was the only time from 1976-2008 that the Romanian program would fail to win a team medal. It was even more absurd given that from 1976-2004, Romania won a silver or better on all but three occasions. In fact, Romania wouldn’t win any medal at all during the 1981 World Championships, the only competition that was true for from the period of 1976-2010.
And this would be the first notable issue with the 1981 World Championships. Were the Romanians treated fairly? On one hand, they were weak. On the other hand they had performed well below their typical standards and had gone to extreme lengths to alienate the Soviets in the last year and a half. Had the Soviets conspired to kick the Romanians while they were down?
But the controversy over the 1981 World Championships would not be about the Romanians. The controversy would originate specifically due to the void left by the Romanians. With the Romanians out of the picture, the top rival of the Soviets would revert back to East Germany. And that is where the conspiracy theory involving the 1981 World Championships begins.
The Soviets had won the 1980 Olympics but their win had come at a high price. Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina was left paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a training accident two weeks before the Olympics. It wasn’t a simple coincidence that Mukhina had broken her neck. It was the byproduct of another political demand.
Moscow was the seat of power within the Soviet Union and Soviet officials had long been incensed that the Moscow gymnastics clubs had underperformed in competition. And what better time for the Soviet Union to finally see its Moscow clubs perform well than to have a hometown girl win the Moscow Olympics?
The Soviets wanted a gymnast from Moscow to be the star of the 1980 Olympics, and they pushed Mukhina to the point of no return in their attempt to get one. Mukhina was gone but the vision of having a hometown girl win a major competition in Moscow remained.
The Soviets found Mukhina’s replacement in a young junior prospect by the name of Olga Bicherova. For all the greatness that was Elena Mukhina as an athlete, her constant sad demeanor had been a liability for the Soviets. Olga Bicherova in contrast always seemed to come off as a bundle of joy and had a natural ability to be photogenic. Bicherova’s puffy cheeks gave her a baby face appearance further making her appear more youthful. Her youthful appearance was exactly the type of image the Soviets had long been looking for, but never seemed to be able to find.
During the 1970s and heading into the 1981 World Championships the Soviet WAG program had produced a lengthy list of talented gymnasts. But every single one of them didn’t have major success until they were in their late teens. Nadia had proven that a young gymnast couldn’t just dominate the sport, but that young athletes were incredibly popular. Nadia had taught the gymnastics community a lesson that sports such as figure skating, swimming, and diving had known for decades. Younger athletes are more marketable than their older counterparts.
The Soviets didn’t just want to beat Nadia, they wanted her marketability as well. But there was also a tactical element at play. Bicherova was the future of the sport. The 1980 Olympics were over and it was time to start thinking about 1984. It was time to discard the veterans and start investing in the younger generation who needed experience and big wins that would bolster their reputations. This would give them a leg up in future competitions. Olga Bicherova seemed to check all the boxes. Even her first name was perfect as it reminded people of Olga Korbut. Bicherova had satisfied all the political demands by being highly marketable, a strong prospect for the 1984 Olympics, and was from Moscow.
The evidence of favoritism towards Moscow gymnasts by the Soviets in this period is that both Olga Mostepanova and Olga Bicherova had their ages falsified. Both gymnasts were from Moscow and are the only two cases of age falsification that have been alleged against the Soviets. Mukhina remained a contender for the 1980 Olympic team despite placing 14th in the USSR Championships shortly before the Olympics. Bicherova was named to the 1981 World Championships team despite placing 23rd at the 1981 European Championships.
In both cases the Soviets had forgiven Mukhina and Bicherova for performances that would have been major career setbacks for other gymnasts. Bicherova’s entry into the 1981 European Championships at the alleged age of 12 is particularly noteworthy as the Soviets typically skewed older in their major competitions. It was a complete deviation from typical Soviet behavior. But perhaps the most damning evidence comes from Nellie Kim who is quoted as saying the following about Mukhina:
This was a mistake, in my opinion, because, a month or two before that, she already gave signals that she better not compete. She was from Moscow, and I think, since the Olympic Games were in Moscow, it was very important to have somebody from Moscow on the team. There was big pressure on this girl.
Press reports reveal that the Soviets originally announced Bicherova was to be the alternate for the 1981 World Championships only to add her to the starting lineup at the last possible moment. It is a type move that closely mirrors the 1976 Soviet Olympic team where political influence forced a last second substitution.
Bicherova’s version of events are slightly different stating that the coaches had seven gymnasts competing to the last moment for six team spots. It is possible that both versions are true and are two different stories that occurred in succession. In both cases, Bicherova wasn’t informed she was competing until two hours before the competition was to start.
Note: This is a two part series
Link to Part II