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.

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