Thoughts on the Data: Which Countries Have Produced the Most Medalists?

Data Crunch #5.11

I crunched the numbers trying to figure out how many different gymnasts have won a medal for each country. Only individual medals won at the World Championships and Olympics are counted. The data can be found here. Below I wrote up some thoughts on the results of the data.

The Legacy of the Soviet Union

The United States didn’t pass the Soviet Union until the 2017 World Championships. It’s a testament to the dominance of Soviet gymnastics that it took 25 years after the USSR broke apart before another country finally surpassed their tally in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG).

The Differences Between China and Romania

China having nearly the same gymnasts as Romania is a bit ironic. Romania has been competing since the early 1950s and has been present at more competitions than any other country with the exception of the United States. China on the other hand is a more recent power having attended only three major competitions prior to 1981. Yet somehow these two nations are separated by just one gymnast.

China surpassing Romania is an early indication of Romania’s fall from grace as a “Big Four” power. But the more significant factor is the different tactics the two nations employ. China emphasizes specialists and Event Finals (EF) while historically being weak in the All-Around (AA). Romania historically has been the exact opposite by producing a long list of famous AAers, and then depending on those same gymnasts to be their medal favorites in Event Finals. In other words, China hedges its bets on a wide range of gymnasts who have specified tasks. Romania hedges its bets on a small number of gymnasts who are expected to win across a wide range of events.

The Changing of the Guard

The United States surpassed the Soviet Union at the 2019 World Championships thanks to the success of Sunisa Lee. But it just so happens that Stuttgart-2019 was also where China finally surpassed Romania after Tang Xijing and Li Shijia medaled for the first time in their respective careers.

It’s not so much a coincidence that we are seeing such a reshuffling among the top nations, but an acknowledgment of how much time has passed. Eastern Bloc WAG history is no longer recent. In 2018 Europe celebrated the 29 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall had stood for only 28 years and has now been down for longer than it had been up.

In the 2017-2020 Olympic quad gymnastics is experiencing something similar. The Olympics and World Championships were held a combined 28 times during WAG’s Cold War era (1948-1992). The 2020 Olympics will mark the 29th such competition since the Soviet Union last competed under the Unified Olympic flag at the 1992 Olympics.

The post-Cold War era is starting to become comparable to the Cold War era in length. As a result Soviet WAG will inevitably lose its status as the program that did the most to shape the history of the sport, and see that assertion become more and more true for the United States with each passing day.

Concluding Thoughts

Three countries in the top seven no longer exist. Despite what I said above about the legacy of the Eastern Bloc becoming less relevant, its legacy will still be strongly represented in the standings of various Olympic sports for quite some time.

Russia and Ukraine are both in the top ten despite the two countries not making their debut until 1993. It speaks to the rich WAG history of both countries that they have produced a broader range of gymnasts compared to countries like France and Great Britain, despite having much younger programs. This is especially true for Ukraine and speaks to just how strong they were in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their program was a lot more than just Lilia Podkopayeva.

France being the highest ranking program from outside Eastern Europe, China, and the United States shouldn’t be surprising. In 2005 Marine Debauve became the first gymnast from Western Europe to win the AA at the European Championships. She was also the first gymnast from Western Europe to win the European uneven bars title since 1963. In 2000 France became the first country from Western Europe to win a European title on floor (Ludivine Furnon).

In the 1990s a pair of French gymnasts (Isabelle Severino and Furnon) became the first and second gymnasts from Western Europe to win an individual at the World Championships since 1954. In 2004 France (Emilie Le Pennec) was the first country from Western Europe to win a gold medal at the Olympics since 1956. France has been responsible for most of Western Europe’s breakthroughs in the last three decades. It’s something the country doesn’t get enough credit for. Their longstanding ability to produce a wide range of gymnasts capable of winning medals is under appreciated.


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