The Disputed Olympic Medals in American Gymnastics

Note: This is Part II of a 2-part article. The link to Part I can be found here.

This article will cover two topics. The first topic has to do with the disputed Olympic medals the United States has in men’s artistic gymnastics (MAG). It will also use the issue of disputed medals to answer the question of “when did the American MAG program lose its status as the program with the most Olympic medals?” There are three possible years (1952, 1960, and 1968) that could be argued.

The United States won a medal at the 1924 Olympics. With 29* medals in 1904 and 16 medals in 1932, the United States put up a firewall of 46 medals in program history that took decades for the rest of the world to catch.

It would end up being Switzerland that would finally pass the United States in 1952. Switzerland had a very strong MAG program and benefited from the stability of being neutral in both world wars. The third most decorated MAG program was Germany who had four gymnasts from the 1912 Olympics die in World War I and the nation was uninvited to both the 1920 and 1948 Olympics.

Switzerland would end the 1952 Olympics with 47 Olympic medals in program history. And this is where we get to the complexity of when did the United States officially lose the status of most decorated Olympic program of all time.

The United States would lose the record by just a single medal (47 versus 46). And that would make all the difference as Switzerland would cease to be an Olympic power after the 1952 Olympics. Instead two entirely new MAG powers would rise from scratch, Japan and the Soviet Union. And because neither had won a medal prior to World War II, both had to start their medal counts from zero.

That one medal difference between Switzerland and the United States translates to a 16 year difference between the United States losing the record to Switzerland in 1952, or to the Soviets in 1968. But what if there were more medals that the American MAG program could claim? Well…

The reason I included asterisks for the American medal total (29 medals) from 1904 is because the IOC and Madmen databases only agree on 26 medals. Both databases count three medals for the Americans that the other database does not. Combined, the two databases count 32 medals for the Americans.

The first three medals were won by the Americans in an event called “field sports” and is often described as a triathlon. The three events in question were the 100-yard dash, long jump, and shot put. And if you’re thinking “hey aren’t those all track and field events?” That’s exactly what the IOC thought as well and their database classifies those events as track and field events (otherwise known as athletics/world athletics).

To simply things, field sports involves an event that was performed as part of a competition belonging to Olympic sport A (gymnastics), that included events only from Olympic sport B (track & field), and followed a format that would later become Olympic sport C (triathlon). The IOC recognizes 32 medals for the Americans, but only 29 of them as gymnastics medals.

The Madmen database classifies field sports as MAG medals because they were held as part of an Olympic gymnastics competition during the same time and at the same location as the MAG events. They were contested by the same athletes who also participated in the other gymnastics events. Two of the podium finishers in field sports also won medals in other gymnastics events. The “real” track & field events were held almost two months after field sports.

More hilariously, the three events within field sports were scored on a 10.0 scale. That means that at one point in Olympic history, runners ran a 100-yard dash, and rather than having their results recorded based on a timer, they were given a score by judges based on how well they ran. The winner of the 100-yard dash was actually given 11 points. Apparently the judges decided to disregard the 10.0 scale because this is early Olympic history where no matter how ridiculous things get, they always get a little bit more ridiculous.

Julius Lenhart

The second trio of disputed medals have to do with a gymnast by the name of Julius Lenhart. Lenhart won three medals including gold in both the AA and team events. These are the two events that are considered the most prestigious medals in a modern gymnastics competition. The problem is that Lenhart wasn’t an American. He had been living in America from 1903-1906 before returning back to his native Austria. Research by historians have revealed that at no point did he ever have American citizenship.

Lenhart competed as a member of the American delegation and even represented the city of Philadelphia, which won the team competition against 12 other teams that each represented a different American city. He was part of a wave of immigrants from central Europe that came to America and brought with them a passion for gymnastics. In this era immigrants had made vital contributions to the American gymnastics program and were well represented at the 1904 Olympics.

It also raises questions regarding nationality. Back in 1904 the concept of competing only for the country you are a citizen of existed, but it wasn’t well enforced. Madmen takes the position that Lenhart was Austrian and gives Austria his two individual medals and his team medal is listed as a mixed team. The IOC feels differently and awards all three medals to the United States.

The IOC has been reluctant to retroactively change nationalities from the early Olympic games. Regardless of his Austrian identity, Lenhart qualified to the Olympics through an American gymnastic club that was serving as an American team. He competed with the understanding that he was representing the United States. Lenhart is one of many examples from this era of debatable nationality. While his case is rather straightforward, other examples are more complex and the issue of precedent also must be considered.

With these disputed cases in mind, it now comes time to answer the question of when did the United States lose its status as the most decorated Olympic MAG program.

-If you strictly follow either the Madmen or IOC databases it would be 1952.

-If you award field sports and Lenhart to the United States, it would be 1968.

-If you award Lenhart’s individual medals to Austria but allow the United States a claim to his “mixed team” medal and field sports, it would be 1968 albeit in a tie with Switzerland.

You could also make this a question of combined medals in both women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) and MAG. The answer would be 1960 albeit in a tie with Switzerland. The Olympic medal American WAG won in 1948 would put them in a tie with Switzerland. But because this is a question of counting medals against the Soviets with WAG medals included, they would catch the United States much faster. The United States would just barely fend off the USSR at the 1956 Olympics with 47 medals for the Americans and 45 medals for the Soviets. But the 26 medals the USSR won at the 1960 Olympics would easily break the record.

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