The Year Without Gymnastics

If you were to pick the most frustrating word in Olympic sports, the term “boycott” would certainly be one of them. The best known examples in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history are the two Olympic boycotts that occurred 1980 and 1984. They were heartbreaking for the athletes and tainted the final results. But they weren’t a total loss.

Despite the boycott, most of the top gymnasts made it to the 1980 Olympics. The 1984 Olympics were not as fortunate as every Eastern Bloc power except for Romania were absent from Los Angeles. But there was an alternate Olympics held in Czechoslovakia where Olga Mostepanova gave the performance of a lifetime and recorded an astonishing Perfect 40.

In both 1980 and 1984 there was no shortage of non-Olympic meets ranging from dual meets to the American Cup and similar style competitions held in other nations. There was even a World Cup held in 1980 and a Junior European Championships in 1984.

But 1963 was different. Back in the 1960s WAG was not as developed as it was in later decades. In this era of gymnastics there would be only one major competition each year. The European Championships were held once every two years in odd numbered years. In even numbered years the World Championships and Olympics were held once every four years. Thus the Olympic quad would be:

Year #1: European Championships
Year #2: World Championships
Year #3: European Championships
Year #4: Olympic Games

Not only were these the only major events of the Olympic quad, they were practically the only events entirely. Non-major WAG events were incredibly scarce in the 1960s. The World Cup wouldn’t be created until 1975, the American Cup in 1976, and the Junior European Championships in 1978.

The European Championships were considered equal in prestige to a World Championships and were at times openly touted as a mini-Olympics. This was due to the sport being absolutely dominated by Eastern Bloc countries. From 1952 to 1980 they won 99% of all Olympic medals. (1)

Larissa Latynina

The 1960s were plagued by a wave of boycotts in the Olympic sports in various non-Olympic competitions. The issue at hand was the status of East Germany. The international governing body of each Olympic sport, as well as the varying hosts of the events in which their competitions were being held all had different attitudes towards East Germany. Controversy would arise when the East German athletes were excluded entirely. And even when the East Germans were included, sporting events were still thrown into chaos when the East Germans were allowed participation, but couldn’t use their national symbols. The question of East Germany had led to an Eastern Bloc boycott of a prestigious ski jumping competition in early 1960, and in 1967 the World Championships in weightlifting were canceled entirely.

Women’s Gymnastics had managed to avoid this issue thanks to the 1958 and 1962 World Championships being held in Eastern Bloc countries. The 1957, 1959, 1961, and 1965 Women’s European Champions were also held in Eastern Bloc countries. But this would not be the case in 1963 when the Women’s European Championships were to be held in Paris. Without the presence of an Eastern Bloc host to force event organizers to accept East Germany, the East Germans would not be protected. In response to “slights” against East Germany, the remaining members of the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Poland withdrew from the competition.

East & West Germany competing under a unified flag in 1964

With the Eastern Bloc gone the European Championships featured a largely irrelevant field. Unlike the 1984 boycott, there wasn’t a strong Romanian program to salvage the situation. The 1963 European Championships have the distinction of being the weakest competitive field of any major competition in the history of WAG far surpassing even the weak field of the 1984 Olympics. The 1963 All-Around (AA) podium featured gymnasts who finished 32nd, 58th and 25th at the 1962 World Championships. Only two of them made it to the 1964 Olympics where they finished 40th and 42nd in the AA.

Thus 1963 can be appropriately labeled “the year without gymnastics” due to its lack of a high level international competition where the top gymnasts squared off against each other. The only competition that results are available for featuring the Eastern Bloc were various dual meets. Most of which were against each other and none of them featured the Soviet Union, which was the top ranked WAG program of the day. The second strongest program was Czechoslovakia and their top gymnast Vera Caslavska was not included in a dual meet.

Vera Caslavska

Sweden and the Netherlands competed against Eastern Bloc countries in dual meets, and both got slaughtered. Sweden and the Netherlands had won 9 of the 15 total medals (60%) at the boycotted European Championships. Both countries sent their best gymnasts to square off against the Eastern Bloc in their respective dual meets. And the Eastern Bloc countries they faced had been only the fourth and fifth best Eastern Bloc nations. It further cemented the fact that a gymnastics competition without the Eastern Bloc could not be treated as a first rate competition.

But there were other competitions in 1963. The Pan-American Games were held that year. But none of the countries involved were established WAG powers in the 1960s and the competitive field was less than that of even the boycotted European Championships. There was also the men’s European Gymnastics Championships which were a separate competition and held a different country. The men avoided a boycott thanks to their competition being held in a communist country and thus there were no problems regarding the inclusion of East German athletes. And there were still various domestic competitions such as the USSR National Championships which was the closest thing there was to a high level WAG competition in 1963.

As for what would have happened had there not been a boycott? The 1963 European Championships were poised to be an epic showdown between Vera Caslavska and Larissa Latynina. Both of them have resumes that put them in the conversation of greatest of all time. (2) From 1958 to 1962 Caslavska was the upstart gymnast trying to catch Latynina. Every year Caslavska had slowly risen in the standings and in 1962, had finished second to Latynina for the first time.

Vera Caslavska

In each of her previous competitions Caslavska had shown nothing but improvement. As the second ranked gymnast in the world, the only place left for her to go was usurping Latynina and capturing the AA title for herself. Instead she would have to wait one more year. At the 1964 Olympics six years of chasing Latynina finally paid off when Caslavska beat Latynina and successfully defended her status as the top ranked gymnast for the next four years before her final competition in 1968.

At some point between the 1962 World Championships and the 1964 Olympics Caslavska passed Latynina. We don’t know when that happened because of the 1963 boycott. The boycott not only took away what would have gone down as one of the greatest AA battles in WAG history, it makes it impossible to determine who was the best gymnast of 1963.

In 1984 the consensus overwhelmingly agrees that Olga Mostepanova would have trounced Mary Lou Retton because we have the supporting evidence to reach that conclusion by looking at video footage and the results from other competitions that were held that year. In 1963 you have converging trajectories of Latynina’s window of dominance which ended in 1962, and Caslavska’s window which started in 1964. All while there are no other competitions available to directly compare the two gymnasts in 1963. When it comes to 1963, it is essentially a lost year where there is no way to rank the top gymnasts.

As for the Germans, in 1964 they competed under a unified flag for the final time during the Cold War. But that “unification” was a mere technicality. The “unified” German WAG team in 1964 was East German in all but name. The IOC would eventually find a way to bring the boycotts of the 1960s to an end. East Germany was given full status within the Olympic movement in time for the 1968 Olympics. West Germany was given the 1972 Olympics.

Notes:
1) It should be noted that Japan was a notable WAG program capable of winning medals in the mid-1960s. This was something that was something that was overlooked when the European Championships were touted as a de facto World Championships.
2) Yes I know Simone Biles exists and yes she is amazing. Simone, Vera, and Latynina are all on the same footing and it is recency bias that prevents people from looking at Caslavska/Latynina in the GOAT discussion. I’d also throw Nadia into this conversation.

3 thoughts on “The Year Without Gymnastics

  1. I’m glad to see this treatment of the 1963 Europeans. But frankly, the stated rationale for the Boycott doesn’t hold water for me. I would like to see your sources. And once I saw them, I would argue with them.

    First of all, the stated rationale of the massive boycott, “Without the presence of an Eastern Bloc host to force event organizers to accept East Germany, the East Germans would not be protected”, begs the question “PROTECTION OF WHAT?” East Germany (or any Germany at all) hardly had a reputation or standing to protect at the time in the sport of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (although shortly after this, the 1-2 punch of Karin Janz and Erika Zuchold would go a pretty long ways in changing this). The only time German women artistic gymnasts ever won a medal of any sort at a Worlds or Olympics before this was way back at the 1936 Berlin Olympics *on home turf*. At the 52, 56, and 60 Olympics, all of which were held in non-Eastern Bloc countries, there wasn’t a single medal awarded to Germany in the sport of women’s gymnastics. The same can be said for the 54, 58, and 62 Worlds, although the 58 and 62 were held in Eastern-bloc countries (the 54 Worlds weren’t – they were held in Rome). It is true that there were individual German woman medalists at the preceding Europeans, however, and that is all the reputation they had to protect.

    So that leads to the other point, already largely addressed in the paragraph above – “favoritism” in the non-Eastern bloc. Well, the Eastern-bloc women dominated the sport at the World/Olympic level starting in 1934 (with the exception, again, of the 1936 Berlin Olympics). No matter where an Olympics/Worlds/Europeans was held in the years leading up to this, THEY WON! And, as I repeat below, any possible anti-Eastern Bloc (or at least anti-Slavic) bias wasn’t existent in Paris, before, at the 1924 Olympics (detailed later), at least not among individual medalists (5 of the top 6 all-arounder, including all of the top 3, were from Slavic nations, and nearly half of the apparatus medalists were from an Eastern/Slavic nation).

    My theory is that the real reason all of those Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1963 Paris Europeans had to do with Yugoslavia. They were an Eastern-bloc country, BUT THEY ATTENDED! (Think of this paralleling Romania’s Olympic boycott defiance in 1984). And Mirjana Bilic’s AA victory there remains, to my knowledge, by far the greatest quantifiable victory by an individual Yugoslavian woman gymnast EVER. IIRC, they have never produced an individual medalist at the World/Olympic level, and as a team, they only medalled before this once (ever?) at the 1938 Worlds (team silver).

    Personally, I think this was really nasty divisive forces at work (at the Olympics/Worlds/Europeans before then) against Yugoslavian women. The possible reasons for this were: 1) They were a small, less-powerful country. 2) Unlike Czechoslovakia, (also a small, less-powerful country), they hadn’t established such a reputation yet like the Czechoslovakians had (repeat World AA Champ Vlasta Dekanova, World AA Medalists Zdenka Vermirovska, Matylda Palfyova, World/Olympic Beam Champion Eva Bosakova, ‘unofficial’ Olympic AA Champ Zdenka Honsova, plus 3 World/Olympic Team titles). The Yugoslavian women only ever one 1 team medal

    AND

    3) The Yugoslavian *MEN* had tremendous successes in the past (3 World AA Titles (Sumi in 22 and 26, Primozic in 30), and, most of all, Stukelj’s Olympic AA title in 1924 (***ALSO IN PARIS***)). Say, for example, the men had tremendous successes, but their women’s program met with the opposite, that could really inflame Yugoslavian men and women, especially if their women really were any good. There is a Youtube video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7mSRbFINkA&lc=UgxyRPgoo5HYNz6w5114AaABAg.8W_MsCsCHV-9PZvQXur_JK ) showing AA Champ Bilic on FX for about 20 seconds and what little I saw there would put her close to the highest competitive ability of any woman at the time. Although women had started performing full-twisting layouts (Grossfeld – 60 Olympics), very few were doing it yet in 1963. Latynina wasn’t. I don’t remember if Caslavska did. But Bilic’s layout had quite a bit of amplitude for the time, and was pretty aggressive, and her artistic presentation / dance wasn’t lacking. I personally think that the Yugoslavian women were probably being underscored in the extreme in the years from 1948 to 1963, and the other Eastern Block countries boycotted, with the exception of the Yugoslavians, with the hopes/expectations that if the Yugoslavians attended, they would finally get at least table scraps. I think it was done out of good sportsmanship.

    Also, some coincidences, in addition to what I have already stated before (Stukelj 1924 Olympic AA Champ in Paris in 1924 – the highest individual honor ever awarded to a Yugoslavian male gymnast, and fellow compatriate Bilic’s being 1963 European AA Champion, also in Paris – the highest individual honor, that I know of, ever awarded to a Yugoslavian female gymnast). Here are other coincidences.

    1a) BILic, Mirjana (1963 European AA Champ)
    1b) BILes, Simone (2013 World AA Champ)
    Both of their sunames begin with “BIL”, and are 5 letters long. Biles’s 2013 World title (her first in a long string of major international (World/Olympic) titles = 50 YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Bilic’s European AA Title (1963/2013), the only major AA title for a Yugoslavian woman, ever.

    2) 30 year anniversary from Bilic’s 1963 European AA victory – Lavinia Milosovici wins the 1993 World Championships beam title, completing her collection of World/Olympic apparatus titles (only 3 women have ever achieved this, the other 2 being Latynina and Caslavska, and no, neither Comaneci nor Biles have achieved this). Milosovici is Yugoslavian-Romanian. (Her father was Yugoslavian and her name is Yugoslavian). To tie this in with the 50 year anniversary ‘coincidence’ with Biles, another great Black USA gymnast, Dominique Dawes, was maybe the single-most-instrumental gymnast, other than Milosovici, herself, in Milosovici’s very special victory as her mistakes on beam opened the door for Milosovici – a fully-hit beam set from Dawes would have probably been the biggest threat to Milosovici getting that beam title (as well as perhaps a fully-hit beam set from China’s LI Li).

    And let’s not forget the coincidence with all of this and Nadia Comaneci. Of all the Romanians and Romanian names that could have made history, what were the odds that it would be a Romanian with an ethnically Yugoslavian name (rather than an ethnically Romanian or Hungarian name which were and are far more numerous in Romania than ethnically Yugoslavian names). Perhaps Simone Biles, Lavinia Milosovici, Dominique Dawes, and Nadia Comaneci are all head-nods, to a degree, to Mirjana Bilic and an undersung Yugoslavian legacy in the sport of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, as well as head-nods to each other.

    No scientific/empirical ‘proof’, but it would make a piece of petrified wood raise its eyebrows.

    I can’t believe that it was only within the last couple of days that I started putting all of this together.

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  2. 20 Year Anniversary: In 1983, Dmitry BILozerchev wins his first of 2 World All-Around Titles, which, upon winning his 2nd in 1987, becomes only the 4th man to do so (3 more, since, have done this). The next year, at the “Alternate Olympics”, he posts an AA Final 6-event total of 59.85, which, I think, remained a higher such 6-event AA Final total than any at a Worlds/Olympics in the 10 Era.

    40 year Anniversary: In 2003, finally, a USA Male, Paul Hamm, wins a World AA title (which he would follow up with his Olympic AA Win the next year). With U.S. Nationals AA titles won both years, this could be considered the USA equivalent to winning gymnastics’ “Triple Crown” of European, World, and Olympic AA Titles.

    The above two I realized within the last couple of days. BILozerchev’s 20 Year Anniversary mark is obvious. Hamm’s 40 Year Anniversary mark does not carry the “BIL” equivalency, but after the thought I put into it, it makes a ton of sense to me. But the following I just thought of when I started writing this. It’s something I “had to look for”, but once I found it, it also made a lot of sense to me.

    10 Year Anniversary: In 1973, at the European Championships, Zoltan Magyar wins his first major Senior International title on Pommel Horse. It is his first of A WHOPPING 10 titles on this apparatus at the European Championships, World Cup, World Championships, and Olympic Games. He remains one of the very most prominent of all Apparatus Specialists in the history of the sport. I don’t have the ‘database’ that I used to that helped me discover all kinds of statistics, but I am pretty sure that I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Artistic Gymnasts who have won that many titles on an individual event at the level of such major international games.

    And as I alluded to earlier, Bilic’s compatriate Miroslav Cerar also ties in with this in a HUGE way, which as I am writing this now, I am only now realizing to its full extent. The same year that Bilic won her European AA Title, Cerar successfully defended his AA Title from the previous European Championships in 1961, becoming the ONLY male from neither the Soviet Union nor a post-Soviet republic to win multiple European AA Titles. (I figured that out some time within the last few months). On top of that, he won a total of A WHOPPING 7 titles on the Pommel Horse (the SAME EVENT as Magyar) at the level of the European Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games (he won two at the latter). (I should also add that his wife and son were both extremely prominent Slovenian politicians, with his son becoming Prime Minister of Slovenia).

    One last parallelism here: an extension similar to the Bilic/Cerar/Magyar connection is a connection that brings in…drum roll please…get ready for it…NADIA COMANECI, again. As I said before, I think (but don’t know for a fact), that Nadia’s surname is a Romanianized one of Yugoslavian origin, which would tie her in to this conversation on a number of HUGE coincidences. But consider this, just as Cerar is the only male from neither the Soviet Union nor a post-Soviet republic to win the European AA Title more than once, Comaneci is the only woman from neither the Soviet Union nor a post-Soviet republic to win the European AA Title more than TWICE (in fact, the ONLY other woman to achieve that AT ALL is The Great Svetlana Khorkina). I was just now looking into her name, and although it might not (or might) be of Yugoslavian origin, I am nevertheless not alone in thinking that it sounds more Yugoslavian than strictly Latinate Romanian, although I am pretty sure that Romania is known more than any other country for its being such a Slavic-Latin blend, and even if the surname is not Yugoslavian in origin, it has that sound. Some people have posited that the “eci” is a patronymic suffix, added to the surname Coman, which seems Slavic. “Coman”, additionally, might refer to A WHOLE PEOPLE (The Cumans/Humans), who were of Turkish origin. Nevertheless, the statistical coincidental connection here and the parallelism of the Bilic/Cerar/Magyar connection to the Bilic/Cerar/Comaneci is undeniable. And Comaneci ties directly to Magyar in that the 1976 Olympics is where they both won their first Olympic medals.

    Before I close, a last-minute ‘digression’. In my original response, as I alluded to Dawes possibly being a “Fall Girl” for Milosovici in 1993 (and perhaps for other reasons in other years that quad), if that was the case, then it looks to me like the Romanians and Milosovici returned the favor and were “Fall Girls” for the USA Women and Dawes at the 1996 Olympics where they competed with 1 athlete short and went from being World Team Champions at the 2 preceding World Champions to winning only Bronze as a team at the 1996 Olympics (not that the USA team wasn’t great, BECAUSE THEY WERE). Milosovici, specifically, was both reigning Olympic Champion and reigning European co-Champion on Floor, yet failed to even qualify for the Floor event final, and this can largely be contributed to a very, very simple ‘mistake’ of her not kicking out to the vertical halfway through her ending salto on her concluding tumbling run in the compulsory exercises. IIRC, this was noticed by a number of others. I seem to remember that the judging on this routine was very controversial, as an added administrative level of judging arbitration was brought into place in a very rare fashion, and a whole extra score, added administratively, was balanced against the totality of the rest of the scores, resulting in a score of 9.643, which was practically in unique incremental manifestation in that it was a score not rendered with respect to .0125 increments, but an increment split in half of that at .00625, meaning rather than a 9.625 or a 9.637(5) or a 9.65, (an example of a sequence of the normally only possible immediately proceeding rise in possible scores, on any apparatus other than vault, in increments of .0125), she got a score uniqely rendered halfway between those increments, in-between the latter of the two hypothetical scores I articulated (9.637 and 9.65). With the reigning Olympic Champion and European co-Champion, Milosovici, out of that Floor final, it was made easier for Dawes to get *some* sort of individual Olympic medal, even if only an apparatus final bronze, although it was beyond heinous to begin with that this was Dawes’s only individual Olympic medal ever, and even though Dawes was GREAT to begin with. So, yes, I would say that, in kind, Milosovici was a “Fall Girl” for Dawes, which makes me wonder if being a Fall Girl for a Fall Girl is an act of semi-floccinaucinihilipilification. (And, somewhere among all of this, Mo Huilan of China is irately and deservedly trying to insert herself into this conversation).

    How does one summarize all this in a neat, tidy, concluding paragraph? One doesn’t. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DO SO!!! (other than to say perhaps it was better that I composed this on a phone, rather than on a laptop, because it made me slow down, think, and be necessarily more detailed and complete than usual)

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