While working on Data Crunch #5 (link here) I noticed something unusual with Russian gymnasts. Russian “fan favorites” almost always go one of two ways. Either they win medals at a staggering rate. Or they break our hearts as they display tons of promise, but can never seem to hit their stride.
To recap Data Crunch #5 for those who haven’t read it, a gold is worth three points, silver is worth two points, and bronze is worth one point. Only individual medals are counted.
This isn’t a “let’s crap on Russia” post. The following Russian gymnasts combine for a staggering 99 points:
Statistically, Russian gymnasts have put up some of the highest point totals. It’s the six following Russian fan favorites that combined, account for only 12 points.
Oksana Fabrichnova (1 point)
Fabrichnova is best known for her famed dismount on the uneven bars. She was a core member of the Russian team in the immediate aftermath after the fall of the Soviet Union. Injuries would start to catch her in the run up to the 1996 Olympics. Adding to her problems was the nationality change of Roza Galieva which took up an additional spot on the Russian team. This was also occurring alongside the rise younger gymnasts looking to usurp established veterans like Oksana. Five members of Russia’s 1996 Olympic team were younger than Fabrichnova.
At the 1993 World Championships Fabrichnova finished 5th in the All-Around (AA). But three years later she found herself in the role of alternate on the 1996 Olympic team. Fabrichnova would go down as one of the most iconic Russian gymnasts to never have made an Olympic team. The only individual medal of her short-lived career was a bronze on the balance beam at the 1994 World Championships.
Elena Produnova (3 Points)
Very few gymnasts have had more success than Produnova in getting their name associated with a legendary move. Almost 20 years after the North Koreans first attempted it, Produnova was the one to finally complete it successfully and get the “Vault of Death” named after her. Despite being retired for nearly two decades now, only a handful of those in women’s artistic gymnastics have used it in a major competition. And even fewer have been able to do it as well as Elena Produnova did.
But for one of the most legendary names in vaulting history, Produnova never won a medal on the vault. At the 1999 World Championships Produnova finished in 4th place on four of the five individual events and didn’t win a single individual medal. Produnova did win two individual medals at the 1997 World Championships (AA and floor) and another at the 2000 Olympics (beam).
But all three of her individual medals were bronze giving Produnova just three total points.
Anna Pavlova (1 point)
Despite being one of the most iconic Russian gymnasts of her generation, Anna Pavlova’s bronze medal on vault at the 2004 Olympics was the only individual medal of her career. She finished in fourth place on four different occasions. Her performance at the 2008 Olympics was marred by a string of mental errors. Mental errors that cost Pavlova her best opportunity to add to her medal count. It also strained her relationship with Russian team officials.
Her 2008 performance combined with a string of major injuries in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Olympics ensured that Pavlova would never again represent Russia in a major competition. She changed her nationality to Azerbaijan and even won a medal at the 2014 European Championships. But the aging veteran who at this point was well past the typical retirement age was unable to replicate the success she had had back when she was a decade younger.
Tatiana Nabieva (2 points)
I call these gymnasts “fan favorites” for a reason. Everyone seems to love Nabieva. Her attitude and the general way she conducts herself is completely at odds with the typical behavior of an elite level gymnast. But everything Nabieva does always occurs while maintaining the standards of sportsmanship and integrity. And fans love her for that.
In much the same fashion as Fabrichnova built a legacy for herself on the uneven bars with an iconic named move, Nabieva has an iconic bars skill as well. The “Nabieva” is one of the hardest moves on the uneven bars. It is the go to retort against those who think modern uneven bar skills aren’t as awesome as the Korbut Flip.
Unlike Fabrichnova and Produnova, Tatiana Nabieva actually won a medal on the apparatus she is famous for because of a signature move. Nabieva is also the first gymnast on this list who won more than bronze. She won a silver on the uneven bars at the 2011 World Championships. But unfortunately for Nabieva, that was the only individual medal of her career. Even worse, Nabieva failed to make the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams. She is listed alongside Fabrichnova as one of the best Russians to have never made an Olympic team. The good news is Nabieva is still active and even competed in 2019. Her career is not yet over.
Angelina Melnikova (2 points)
In an era where the veteran Alyia Mustafina and Viktoria Komova were the leaders of the Russian team, Melnikova has been the heir apparent of Russian gymnastics for years. But in her first three major competitions Melnikova would be just good enough to be noticeable, but not good enough to win an individual medal. Melnikova even put up a 5th place finish (AA) and a 4th place finish (floor) at the 2018 World Championships.
At the 2019 World Championships Melnikova again recorded a fourth place finish on bars. She also recorded a pair of bronze medals in the AA and floor exercise. They were the same two events she had narrowly missed out on the year prior. For Melnikova and gymnastics fans, it was a relief to see her finally win the first individual medals of her career. It was something that gymnastics fans en masse were putting at the top of their “wish list” and rapidly becoming a “monkey on her back” for Angelina.
Melnikova is by no means on the downside of her career. Melnikova is a top Russian prospect for the 2020 Olympics and is currently at the top of her game. It would be completely unsurprising if she stayed at this level for another 3-5 years. But gymnastics is a sport where things can unravel for a gymnast very fast. With four consecutive seasons at the senior level on her resume, a high profile junior career, and on the verge of her second Olympics, the question could also be asked about how much longer can Melnikova maintain her top form?
Melnikova’s future can go either way. She could be on the verge of a medal streak, or she could be on her last legs. Neither scenario would come as a surprise. That’s why the medals Angelina won in 2019 were so critical as it at least gives her something in the event that the future does not pan out. But it also leaves fans who absolutely adore Angelina hungry for more as they see her deserving of far more than her current medal tally.
Elena Eremina (3 Points)
Elena Eremina is the textbook example of how quickly things can go awry for an elite level gymnast. At the 2017 World Championships Eremina emerged as a breakout star. She won a bronze in the AA and a silver on the uneven bars. As a first year senior in 2017, Eremina had plenty of good years ahead of her.
Instead Eremina would be sidelined by back problems that would cost her the 2018 season as she recuperated from surgery. As well as significantly limiting her 2019 season as Eremina spent the year slowly working her way back into top form. Whereas Angelina is expected to have success in 2020, Eremina very much remains a question mark. It remains to be seen if the injury problems that caused Eremina to miss two consecutive World Championships were a simple hiccup in an otherwise successful career, or something that will cause her to be a one-hit wonder. At this point, gymnastics fans just want to see her back, even if it is as a supporting member of the team rather than a top contender in the individual events.
Those six gymnasts combined for just 12 points. To put that in perspective, it’s the same number of points Beth Tweddle put up in her entire career. Other Russian gymnasts such as Ksenia Afanasyeva, Maria Paseka, Daria Spiridonova, Ludmila Ezhova, and Natalia Ziganshina scored more points in their careers. Many of them doing so without reaching the “fan favorite” status of Produnova or Pavlova.
There are American gymnasts who have similar stories of a promising career getting ruined by injury or simply bad luck. But unlike their Russian counterparts, similar cases involving American gymnasts saw those athletes having far more success before the sport forced them into an early retirement. Rebecca Bross for example has 7 points. There are 21 Americans who competed from the 1990s-present that finished with 4 points or more. There are an additional six Americans who scored 3 points in their careers.
None of the six Russian gymnasts were by any means bad. Quite the contrary. Very few gymnast get the distinction of winning an individual medal at the elite level. In the case of these six Russians, it’s a question of being expected to win a boatload of medals and the unrealized difficulty of accomplishing such a feat. A gymnastics legacy goes far beyond how many medals a gymnast won and all six of them have built a legacy in other ways.
When it comes to Russian gymnastics, their most iconic gymnasts tend to be “hit or miss.” Is it randomness? Simple bad luck? Or is it an established pattern of bad coaching by Russian officials when it comes to managing their gymnasts with the best potential? Or maybe correlation does equal causation? Perhaps the simultaneous success of Khorkina/Zamolodchikova and later Mustafina/Komova came at the direct cost of other members of the team?