If you have ever heard the name “Larissa Latynina” then you have most likely heard of her legendary Olympic medal record. Latynina retired after having won 18 Olympic medals. Latynina would have the distinction of being the most decorated Olympian in any sport for 48 years before being passed by Michael Phelps. If Latynina has by far the most WAG medals at the Olympic level, why isn’t the same true for the World Championships?
The answer lies in the increase in frequency in which the World Championships (Worlds) are held. Currently Worlds are held in every non-Olympic year. Prior to the 1990s they were held once every two years. And prior to 1978 they were held only once every four years. As a result modern gymnasts have more opportunities to win Worlds medals. And the results speak for themselves.
-Of the six gymnasts who have medaled a dozen times (or more) at Worlds, Latynina is the only one who didn’t compete in the 1990s or later.
-Of the 20 most decorated gymnasts in Worlds history, 16 of them (80%) competed after 1978 when Worlds started being held more frequently.
Alicia Sacramone is a perfect example of this trend. Of Alicia’s ten Worlds medals, four of them came on vault. If Latynina wanted to win four medals on vault, it would have taken her a minimum of 13 years to accomplish such a feat. Alicia did it in only six years and could have done it in as little as five years had she medaled at 2009 Worlds. Alicia also won four team medals. Like the vault, it would have taken Latynina at least 13 years to win four medals in the team competition.
Alicia Sacramone has as many Worlds medals as Vera Caslavska who is one of the most successful gymnasts of all time. Their equal medal counts drives the point home that modern gymnasts are at an advantage over gymnasts who competed prior to the late 1970s when it comes to racking up medals at the World Championships over the course of their careers.
But what if this wasn’t the case? What if the 1950s and 1960s had a modern scheduling format? How much damage would Latynina have done? How many medals would she have won? The answer to this question is actually surprisingly easy to answer.
Because a European gymnast won almost every Olympic medal from 1952-1980, a medal won at the European Championship’s is virtually identical in difficulty to winning an Olympic medal. Therefore the medals Latynina won at the European Championships can be “converted” into Worlds medals. Only one Olympic medal was won by a non-European in this era. And that was a bronze from Japan in the team competition which is irrelevant to Latynina’s medal record as the Soviet team never fell below silver in its entire history.
While Europeans dominated the Olympics, they weren’t quite as dominant at Worlds. During Latynina’s career Japan won nine individual Worlds medals and two additional bronze medals in the team competition. By “Japan” I mean Keiko Ikeda who won eight of those individual medals. But Keiko Ikeda’s performances do little to change Latynina’s results. Half of Keiko Ikeda’s individual medals came at the 1954 and 1966 Worlds. These were the first and last competitions of Latynina’s career. In 1954 Latynina seemed to be too young and inexperienced to have a notable impact. By 1966 she was “over the hill” and was being surpassed by a younger generation of Soviet gymnasts. The results of these two Worlds are not being changed since they actually happened and we know for a fact Latynina lost.
It is only in regards to Keiko Ikeda’s career from 1955-1965 where she won four individual medals that it is possible Keiko Ikeda could have knocked Latynina off a podium had she been allowed to compete at a European Championship. Of the 14 medals Latynina won at the European Championships, only two of them were bronze, and both came on vault. Vault was Latynina’s weakest event and the only event she was vulnerable on.
Vault was Keiko Ikeda’s weakest event as well. Keiko Ikeda has the distinction of medaling on five different events at the World Championships, but she never medaled on vault. Keiko Ikeda was effectively “mismatched” against Latynina having the same weak event as Latynina and being far weaker on vault than Latynina who won three Olympic medals on that specific apparatus. Under the best case scenario, even if Keiko Ikeda beat Latynina, Latynina would still have finished on the podium due to the bulk of her European Championships medals being silver or better.
Taniko Mitsukuri is the only other Japanese and thus non-European gymnast who won an individual Worlds medal in this era. But like the situation with Keiko Ikeda, that medal came at the 1966 Worlds which is competition that is irrelevant to Latynina’s medal tally as previously mentioned. In every event of every Olympics and World Championships of Latynina’s career from 1956-1964, she placed higher than every non-European gymnast. Even under the most generous logic, it can’t be argued any of the medals Latynina won at the European Championships wouldn’t have been won if non-Europeans were allowed to compete.
In her career Latynina won 14 Worlds medals. Converting her 14 medals from the European Championships, that brings her new total to 28 Worlds medals. But what about team medals? Since the European Championships in Latynina’s era did not have a team component, shouldn’t she have won some team medals had they been held in a World Championship format? The answer is surprisingly, no.
During Latynina’s career from 1954-1966 she only participated in three European Championships. Each one occurred in the year immediately following the Olympics. Under modern rules there would be an individual Worlds, but no team component. This actually helps the “conversion of European Championships medals into Worlds medals” logic as it makes the two different competitions similar in format and thus more directly comparable.
With 28 medals it’s time to move on to the three “missing” years in Latynina’s career. The most notable instance was 1963 where a boycott knocked Latynina out of the European Championships. Given that Latynina won six medals at the 1962 World Championships and another six medals at the 1964 Olympics, she certainly would have won five medals had the 1963 European Championships had not been boycotted on top of a sixth medal had it been held in a Worlds format with a team component. This brings her total to 34 medals.
Latynina’s next notable missing year is the 1959 European Championships which she missed due to maternity leave. I will not be changing this result as it is improbable that Latynina could have gone 13 years without some form of hiatus. If Simone Biles gets 2017 off than surely Latynina would have missed a year as well.
The final missing year is 1955 and this is not as simple as the 1963 boycott. The European Championships weren’t available to women until 1957, so Latynina didn’t have a major event that year. At the 1956 Olympics Latynina dominated winning five medals and placing fourth on beam. But at 1954 Worlds Latynina was quite atrocious (by her standards) with a 14th place finish in the All-Around (AA) and qualifying to only one apparatus in Event Finals.
Wedged between a bad 1954 and a great 1956, how would she have performed in 1955? The answer lies in Latynina’s performance on the domestic circuit. Latynina finished second at the USSR Championships that year. That’s actually a strong result for Latynina given her career long struggles to win USSR domestic competition. The majority of her major international medals came in years where Latynina didn’t win the USSR Championships and/or USSR Cup. Latynina’s 1955 domestic results mirror that of her domestic results in years where she had great success at the World Championships/Olympics but had only minor success in Soviet domestic competition.
Latynina’s 1955 season would likely have been as successful as her 1956 Olympics based on her domestic results. Therefore, if a Worlds were held that year, she would likely have won five more medals assuming she fails to medal on one event as had been the case for her at the 1956 Olympics.
That brings us to a final projection of 39 Worlds medals. And that is a projection based on trying to be as fair and accurate as possible using her results in other years as a guidance. I came to that number after giving no leeway to wishful thinking and minimizing hypothetical thought. There’s also a more optimistic projection.
The optimism is in regards to 1952 and1953. In 1952 Latynina competed at the USSR Championships. She wasn’t good enough to make the Olympic team, but her results were significantly stronger than her 1954 performance. The same is true for Latynina’s 1953 season. Not only was Latynina stronger in domestic competition in 1953 than she was in 1954, but strong enough to have been potentially named to a team and be a medal contender had there been a Worlds that year.
Latynina’s 1954 results are something of an outlier relative to 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. Was her poor performance in 1954 the byproduct of youth/inexperience? Or was she dealing with an injury or illness that hampered her all year? Working on the assumption that 1954 is an outlier, it can be argued that Latynina was capable of winning medals. Given that Latynina struggled in both domestic and international competition in 1954 which was extremely rare, 1954 looks like an outlier due to an injury or illness rather than her being incapable of better result.
She could have won a maximum of five Worlds medals in 1953. That would bring her total to 44 Worlds medals as a somewhat realistic projection, but comes with a bit of generosity. You can even squeeze things to 46 medals if you assume she wins a medal on every event for all the hypothetical Worlds that this article has created.
The conclusion is Latynina would have won a minimum of 39 medals. She likely would have been somewhere in the low 40s. Her absolute maximum would have been 46 Worlds medals.
That’s before you factor in Latynina’s 18 Olympic medals which actually becomes only 17 medals. Since we are working under modern rules, Latynina loses the Olympic medal she won in a discontinued event. But that would still leave Latynina with 63 total medals.