The 1981 World Championships Conspiracy Theory (Part II)

Note: This is a two part series
Link to Part I

If the Soviets wanted to win the All-Around (AA), they had to beat the East Germans. And that involved beating Maxi Gnauck. In her career Nadia won 28 medals in the four major Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) competitions. Maxi won 27. If not for the 1984 boycott Maxi would have finished her career with more WAG medals than Nadia herself. Maxi was as formidable as any gymnast the Soviets had ever spared with and 1981 was her year. She had entered the 1981 World Championships as the top ranked gymnast and she proved that ranking correct in the early stages of the competition. During her team optionals performance Maxi had the highest score on vault, bars, and beam. But when Maxi performed on floor something unexpected happened.

Maxi’s Scratch on Floor

As Maxi started her second pass she suddenly stopped, reached down to grab both of her ankles, and then walked off the apparatus with a slight limp. Maxi would score a 2.500 and it would drop her to a 77th place finish in qualifying. Maxi had just been eliminated from the All-Around and the floor exercise in event finals. But Maxi had still qualified on the other three apparatuses in event finals and she then proceeded to win gold on each of those three events.

The Aftermath (Part I)

These circumstances started to feel a little too strange for some, and speculation began that something conspiratorial was at play. How could an athlete that was too injured to qualify to the AA suddenly be healthy enough to win every event she participated in during event finals? Maxi’s injury on floor had occurred during her second rotation of team optionals and yet she was able to put up top scores on the two remaining rotations.

Maxi walking off the floor with her coach

In a press conference afterwards Maxi stated she had aggravated an old ankle injury that bothered her in backward tumbling. That was the official explanation, and it was up to everyone else to decide whether they believed it or not.

In his report of the competition, Ward Black (writing for the USGF Magazine) openly hinted at speculation that Maxi wasn’t truly injured. Had Maxi been ordered to take a dive to ensure the Soviets win the AA on Soviet soil? Had a deal been made where the Soviets would be given the AA and floor while the remaining three medals went to Maxi and the East Germans?

The Aftermath (Part II)

Although it must be stressed that Maxi was more than capable of winning her vault, bars, and beam medals fairly. Any conspiracy (had it occurred) would likely have been along the lines of the Soviets agreeing to not rig the results in their favor during event finals if the East Germans didn’t contest the AA.

The circumstances of Maxi’s floor routine make such a conspiracy more believable. Whereas the Romanians and the Soviets had far too much strife with each other to ever be accused of joining forces to split medals, it sounded exactly like something the East Germans and Soviets would do. The two Olympic powers had made it a habit of always finding ways to work with each other. The Cold War was littered with examples of the Soviets and East Germans working together to undermine the integrity of WAG competitions. In her autobiography Olga Korbut would specifically cite the East German-Soviet “alliance” as the reason she won a gold on every apparatus, except for the uneven bars, which always seemed to go to the East Germans.

If the East Germans were the queens of the bars, the Soviets were queens of the floor. It was an apparatus the Soviets prioritized winning in event finals. The way Maxi had scratched ensured the Soviets would win their two most important individual events, but left the three remaining events to the East Germans. The East Germans ended up with more medals, but the Soviets won the highly prestigious AA and retained a medal on their most important apparatus. It was the perfect setup for a medal split that left both nations satisfied.

If an incident involving both the East Germans and the Soviets wasn’t enough to raise alarms over possible collusion, it was the gymnast involved that raised suspicion even more. Maxi had finished second in the AA at the 1979 World Championships, the 1980 Olympics, and the 1980 World Cup. Each time she lost to a different Soviet gymnast. Ward Black would claim these defeats were the result of politics. And three years later Maxi would vocally support the 1984 boycott, adding more speculation to her cooperation (either willingly or via coercion) with the political powers that be of Cold War era athletics.

With both the Romanians and Maxi Gnauck out of the picture, the only gymnasts left to challenge Olga Bicherova for the AA were her teammates. When qualifying was over the six Soviet gymnasts had swept the top six spots. But only three could advance due to country limits. Bicherova advanced to the AA along with her teammates Elena Davydova and Maria Filatova.

Maria Filatova

Davydova had qualified in first place and in an era with carry over scoring, was the favorite to win. But a disappointing result on balance beam (scoring 9.350) would drop her to bronze. Maria Filatova was the last challenger left. But Filatova was at a disadvantage. Whereas Bicherova was the political favorite, Filatova was a political outcast suffering discrimination from coaches in the twilight of her career. Filatova had been made to go first in the lineup during the team competition which had the effect of lowing her scores. Her low scores would prove critical when they carried over into the AA. Filatova would contend that had the Soviets put her anywhere other than first in the lineup, (even second) she would have been the World Champion. Instead she had to settle for the silver medal.

Davydova (L) Bicherova (M) and Filatova (R)

And just like that, after a series of bizarre (some would say suspicious) set of events, when all was said and done, it would be Bicherova standing at the top of the winners’ podium. It was not the same girl or even the same competition that the Soviets had envisioned with Mukhina at the 1980 Olympics when they wanted a hometown girl to win a major gymnastics event in Moscow. But it was close enough. Bicherova’s win would ultimately be a face saving measure for the Soviet athletic hierarchy. It wasn’t an attempt at an apology or atonement, but the sport moving on from one of the most tragic events in its history and conducting itself as if nothing had ever happened.

Filatova (L) & Bicherova (R)

But for all the doubt over Bicherova’s win, she still put up the highest score in the AA. If new life scoring had been in effect, Bicherova still would have won. While Filatova was discriminated against by the Soviets during the team stages, her lineup order was random in the AA and Bicherova still outscored her. Davydova had a bad beam routine, but Bicherova still beat her across the three remaining events. Bicherova outscored Davydova on vault and floor while only narrowly being outscored on bars. Davydova and Filatova both have valid claims that they may have been the better gymnast at the 1981 World Championships, but both claims rest exclusively on using carry over scoring to beat Bicherova.

And Davydova and Filatova aren’t the only two Soviets who had to walk away from the 1981 World Championships questioning “what if?” Soviet gymnast Natalia Ilienko had won the compulsories, but two bad routines in optionals demoted her to sixth in qualifying and out of the AA thanks to country limits.

Filatova & Bicherova

While there was considerable controversy at the 1981 World Championships, one thing that wasn’t controversial was Bicherova’s scores. Competition reports do not take issue with the way she was scored. If the Soviets wanted to rig the scoring in Bicherova’s favor, they would have made their top gymnast and defending Olympic champion Davydova go first in the lineup rather than Filatova. Maria Filatova’s rift with Soviet officials was unrelated to Bicherova. It was a spat that appeared to continue well after Maria retired.

And as for Maxi, she certainly was the best gymnast at the 1981 World Championships. For all the speculation over there being a conspiracy to knock her out of the AA, there is absolutely zero evidence of one. The theory of Maxi taking a dive rests entirely on the events surrounding her injury being too unusual to be believed as spontaneously occurring. High level athletes put in so much work to get to the elite level and are driven by such a competitive spirit, that most would be offended at the mere suggestion that they took a dive in a major competition. And WAG is a sport where it is not unheard of for athletes to be too injured to compete on one event but can manage the same injury through other events as the injured part of the body is not critical to their remaining routines.

Maxi Gnauck

Maxi’s “injury” at the 1981 World Championships involved her ankle. Shortly after the 1981 World Championships Maxi would have surgery on her ankle and it would limit her in 1982. It is the single biggest argument that Maxi withdrew from the 1981 World Championships for legitimate reasons.

Bicherova wasn’t an accidental champion. She proved her own brilliance by scoring a Perfect 10 in the AA. While Nadia broke the Perfect 10 barrier at the 1976 Olympics, no gymnast had managed to do it at the 1978 and 1979 World Championships. It was Bicherova who finally broke that barrier at the World Championship level. Bicherova would go on to win the AA at the 1982 World Cup and the 1983 European Championships. Ludmilla Turischeva and Elena Shushunova are the only other gymnasts who won all three of those titles.

Bicherova collecting a trophy.

Bicherova would be the most decorated Soviet of the 1984 Olympic quad. Her nine individual medals in the four major WAG competitions are more than the number of medals Olga Mostepanova and Natalia Yurchenko won combined. It can not be disputed that Bicherova did not have the talent of a top tier gymnast. Bicherova is an incredibly humble athlete and would quickly concede that there were “many” gymnasts who could have won the 1981 World Championships. She would also cite Davydova and Filatova as gymnasts she envied.

Bicherova being crowned as AA Champion

Even by WAG standards Bicherova was abnormally small. American gymnasts Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera openly doubted Bicherova’s official age. American television commentators listed her as 4’ 6” and 65 pounds and would go as far as to claim she was likely 10 or 11. Well below the age limit of 15 years old that Bicherova was competing under. Bicherova is widely believed to have been one month past her thirteenth birthday at the time of the 1981 World Championships. International Gymnast listed her as a confirmed case of age falsification. Various pages of the official website for Russian gymnastics has Bicherova listed with contradictory birth years. Regardless of whether the falsification was by one year or two years, it would still make Bicherova the youngest World Champion in gymnastics history.

The 1981 World Championships would be dominated by age falsification allegations. Former Romanian coach Bela Karolyi had defected earlier in the year and unleashed a firestorm by revealing all the Romanian gymnasts with falsified ages. According to Bela, half the Romanian team was underage with Lavinia Agache and Cristina Grigoras being 13 years old while Mihaela Stanulet was 14. The age falsification of Agache was especially egregious as McNamara claimed Agache had told her she was 13 when they competed against each other at the American Cup earlier in the year. The 1981 World Championships was the first time the 15 year old age limit was in effect, and it appeared the communist countries had no intention of abiding by it.

The age falsification scandal would be one more example of where so many incidents seemed to come together to ensure Bicherova would be the winner. There was Bicherova’s questionable selection to the Soviet team, the injury to Maxi, the implosion of the Romanians, her age falsification to grant her eligibility, and then three of her teammates faltering either in qualifying or during the AA.

Filatova (L) and Bicherova (R)

The age falsification looks especially unnecessary given that the Romanians were weak, the Soviets had homefield advantage and the defending Olympic champion Elena Davydova. And it couldn’t be argued that the Soviets felt Bicherova was better than Davydova. At the 1981 USSR Championships Bicherova finished fourth while Davydova won the AA. What was the point of even bringing Bicherova to these 1981 World Championships if not because she was a political favorite?

And yet there is no solid evidence that the competition ever was rigged to ensure Bicherova would win or that Maxi took a dive. The entire sum of the controversy is that the chain of events were too coincidental and too perfect for the Soviets and Bicherova to believe they ever occurred naturally. Or maybe there was no conspiracy at all? Perhaps the Soviets brought Bicherova to the 1981 World Championships thinking she would only serve a secondary role to Davydova and was there to gain experience for future competitions, only to the surprise of everyone, Bicherova won.

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