In my last two data crunches I tried to find the most dominant performance in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history. First I used margin of victory (MOV) and in my second attempt I used apparatus placement. Both metrics provided great insights, but also had some drawbacks. This data crunch is the third metric that I have come up with to measure dominance. In this metric I will use the number and type of medals won (their medal haul) in a single competition to measure success.
The system is rather simple. A gold is worth three points, silver is worth two points, and bronze is worth one point. Only individual medals will be counted as not to punish gymnasts who competed for nations that aren’t established WAG powers. If there is a tie, both gymnasts get the full point total. For example Elena Shushunova and Oksana Omelianchik each get three points for their 1985 tie.
To be clear, this is distinctly different from MOV and apparatus placement as those metrics only look at success in the All-Around (AA). Using the number of medals won (medal haul) is a measure of success in event finals. Only AA Champions are included in the data. At the top of this article is a link to the full data set with the gymnasts ranked by highest to lowest point totals. A graph of all AA Champions is located below:
What stands out about the results is the similarity to MOV. Vera Caslavska (1968) and Larissa Latynina (1958) lead the way with 14-points. These are the same two competitions that had the highest MOVs under the 80 point and 40 point codes that were in use from 1952-2005. Helena Rakoczy’s 1950 performance, which was the highest MOV of all time, is close behind with 13 points.
But what I love about this metric is how difficult it is for a gymnast to reach a high point total. Only ten gymnasts have reached doubled digit points totals. And the list of gymnasts who have done so are some of the most impressive names in WAG history.
Larissa Latynina: The most decorated Olympian of all time after Michael Phelps.
Vera Caslavska: The only gymnast to win Olympic gold on all five individual events.
Ludmilla Turischeva: Has nine Olympic medals and is one of just three gymnasts with medals in three different Olympics from 1972-present.
Simone Biles: I don’t think this needs an explanation.
Maria Gorokhovskaya: The current record holder for the most medals in a single Olympics by a female athlete in any Olympic sport. The record is 67 years old and hasn’t been broken and is unlikely to be broken anytime soon. It is one of the few examples of a sports record that can be described as unbreakable.
Nadia Comaneci: The first gymnast to score a Perfect 10 at the Olympics.
Lilia Podkopayeva: At the peak of her career she dominated in a way that hadn’t been seen since Nadia and wouldn’t be repeated until Biles. Her wins came with a MOV that was double that of any other competition of her decade. She held both AA titles (Worlds and Olympics) at the same time, the only gymnast to do that from 1976-2015.
Svetlana Khorkina: At the time of her retirement she was the record holder for the most medals at the World Championships and had the most moves named after her in the code of points.
The remaining two gymnasts are Elena Mukhina and Helena Rakoczy. Rakoczy’s success can be attributed to a very weak field. It is a competition that I generally throw out because it is too much of an outlier. In Data Crunch #2.2 I explain why. However Mukhina’s success was against a legit field. But more significantly, Mukhina did it on her very first attempt. Khorkina, Podkopayeva, Biles, Turischeva, Caslavska, and even Latynina failed to reach the ten-point mark in their first Group-1 event (Worlds or Olympics). They needed to build up their names, gain experience, and develop confidence before they could hit ten-points. Mukhina did it without any of that.
Gymnastics fans who know the name “Mukhina” remember her more for the tragic circumstances that ended her career. But before that happened, Mukhina was the story of gymnast who came from out of nowhere to dominate the gymnastics scene and was competing at a level that was in-line with an all-time great.
I’m glad this data was able to demonstrate her greatness. First by putting her at a level shared only by gymnastics that can be classified as all-time greats. And again by showing how rapid and unexpected her rise was. This isn’t the only example where Mukhina stands out in data. In Data Crunch #3.1 her 1978 AA victory ranks as one of the best of all time. Mukhina’s 1978 victory is even more impressive considering data crunch #3.1 is a measure of dominance in the AA. This current data crunch is a measure of success in event finals. Mukhina is putting up top results in two metrics that are designed to measure completely different things.
Only one gymnast (Vera Caslavska) had the same amount of success in both data crunches. In fact, of the 11 gymnasts who hit the 8-point benchmark in Data Crunch #3.1, Mukhina and Caslavska are the only two who reached the 10-point threshold in the current data crunch as well. In other words, Mukhina and Caslavska are in a tier of their own.
If it isn’t already impressive enough that Mukhina was able to do something that has only been matched by Caslavska, she also has the highest medal count in the four major WAG events (Euros, Worlds, Olympics, and World Cup) by a non-Olympian. A record Mukhina still holds even 40 years after her 1978 win.
And perhaps most staggering of all, Mukhina is doing all of this with just one data point to work with as 1978 was the only time she every competed at the Group-1 level. Every other previously mentioned gymnast competed in multiple Group-1 competitions and thus had multiple opportunities to put up a comparable performance. Mukhina’s athletic prowess is vastly under appreciated.
The “9-point club” is also quite prestigious with:
Elena Shushunova: One of only six gymnasts that won both the Olympic AA and Worlds AA titles.
Shannon Miller: The best American gymnast after Simone Biles.
Aliya Mustafina: Has seven Olympic medals, one of only nine gymnasts who has won an AA medal in two different Olympics, and is currently training for her third Olympics.
Rounding out the list with eight points are Kim, Dobre, and Liukin, all of which are among the most iconic gymnasts of their respective generations.
Because the data only includes AA Champions, every gymnast in this data crunch has at least three points. There have been five occasions where a gymnast won the AA and failed to win a single medal in event finals. Four of these occasions happened at the World Championships. Gabby Douglas is the only gymnast who did it at the Olympics.
And this is where comparing medal counts across various Olympic quads causes problems. An AA champion has scored at least eleven points on ten occasions in WAG history, but only two of those occasions (2014 and 2018) came in the last 40 years. And in both instances it was Simone Biles. Of the nine times an AA champion scored four points or less, every instance of that happening has occurred within the last 40 years. Three of those instances have come in the last decade. Over the last 40 years the typical medal haul for an AA champion has been trending downwards. The reason for this is specialization.
During the Cold War gymnasts were required to compete on all four events. It was practically a requirement to have strong routines in every event. But starting in the early 1990s a series rule changes allowed for gymnasts who were strong on just one event (specialists) to make an Olympic team. This meant that rather than having to distribute their training time equally among the four events, some gymnasts could focus their training time on only their single best event. The result was the medals in event finals became more difficult to win. It put AAers such as Gabby Douglas at a disadvantage as they had to divide their training time across all four events. Meanwhile some of their top challengers could focus the bulk of their training time on only one or two events.
And this is the very same problem that I ran into with Data Crunch #3. I wanted to find a way to compare victories from different generations, but the impact of specialization continues to skew the results. While the medal haul metric is by no means perfect, it has minimized the problems more than previous attempts and is thus an improvement. But at the very least, it is a compelling narrative to talk about which gymnast won the most impressive array of medals in a single competition. This data crunch does exactly that by providing the data on AA Champions with the best medal haul.