Is it Harder to Win Medals in Men's or Women's Gymnastics?

Debating in which sport, men’s artistic gymnastics (MAG) or women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) it is easier to win medals in is a topic I’ve seen a ton of commentary on in over the past year. It’s a topic gymnastics fans frequently debate and I feel it’s time to finally settle the question once and for all. So which sport is it easier to win medals in?

The answer: Both

No, really. On paper this looks like a really simply question, but it is anything but. The data can be interpreted in multiple ways resulting in different answers. At the heart of the issue is that MAG has eight events whereas WAG only has six. With two additional events, surely the answer must be MAG? The problem with this logic is versatility. WAG athletes are typically more versatile than MAG athletes. Male gymnasts have more events, but have a low chance of winning across a wide range of events. Female gymnasts have less events, but have a higher chance of winning a majority of them.

The above data demonstrates this phenomena. When you look at the higher medal totals, MAG clearly has the advantage. But as the threshold is lowered, the advantage swings in favor of WAG. Wherever the threshold is chosen (4 vs 6 medals) will depend on which gender is the correct answer.

The data shows MAG and WAG are evenly matched when it comes to six medals. But of the eight times a women has won six or more medals, half of them occurred at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, back when WAG had a 7th event. In WAG Daniela Silivas (1988) is the only athlete to do it at the Olympics from 1972-present.

When it comes to MAG, none of their high medal totals are recent either. Of the four instances of a gymnast winning seven medals or more in a single Olympics, the most recent occurrence was the 1980 Olympics. At those games Alexander Dityatin won eight medals, but such an achievement was clearly aided by the 1980 boycott which knocked out three top MAG powers (United States, Japan, and China).

When looking at four or more medals won in a single Olympics, not only does it happen more frequently in WAG, but the trend actually pertains to the gymnasts of today. Since the 1992 Olympics it has happened 13 times. Nine of which came in WAG. On paper it looks like WAG and MAG hold a 9:4 ratio, but there is more to it than that. It happened nine times in WAG by nine different gymnasts. In MAG the four occurrences came from just two gymnasts, Alexei Nemov and Vitaly Scherbo.

So you can say “hypothetically a male gymnast can win more medals” or “the men have more opportunity to win medals.” But that is a discussion based on the drawing board. What is more likely to happen is WAGs will win four or five medals and make it a routine occurrence. Even when adjusted to five or more medals, it has happened an equal amount of times at the Olympics in both MAG and WAG since 1992.

This entire question is almost always brought up in the context of comparing Vitaly Scherbo (33 medals) and Simone Biles (30 medals). Both gymnasts have one instance of winning six medals in a single competition. But when the threshold is lowered to five or more medals in a single competition, Simone did it five times, Scherbo did it on only two occasions. Simone averages 5 medals per competition. Scherbo averaged only 4.125 medals per competition. Simone won medals at a higher rate than Scherbo despite having two fewer events to compete in.

Svetlana Khorkina and Alexei Nemov

Simone clearly benefits from the high versatility rates of WAG that has produced so many gymnasts capable of winning four or five medals. Both Aliya Mustafina and Nastia Liukin hit the five medal mark in their careers. What makes Simone unique is that she can hold the “five medals per competition” average for so long.

To recap: If you want to make the claim that it is easier to win medals in MAG than WAG, the concept is true for only a minuscule number of gymnasts. Those who have Michael Phelps level of talent and don’t come around that often. Meanwhile the claim overlooks just how common it is for female gymnasts to win 4 or 5 medals in a single competition.

Now you may think I’m pointing in the direction of claiming it’s easier to win medals in WAG than MAG, but now I’m going to throw another wrench in the discussion. Career longevity. The top female athletes typically retire after only 1 or 2 Olympics. Often times when a female gymnast makes it to her second Olympics, she’s only a shell of her former self. Meanwhile male gymnasts typically compete at 2 or 3 Olympics. Men may have a harder time winning medals in gymnastics, but does the longer career offset that disadvantage?

When looking at the career medal total at the Olympics, there are 13 gymnasts who have ten or more medals. But only four of them are women. In this regard MAG clearly has an advantage. But there’s one problem. With the exception of Nemov and Scherbo, all of those gymnasts competed at the 1980 Olympics or earlier. Nemov and Scherbo are the only gymnasts remotely close to the current era.

When the Olympic all time medal list is expanded to those who have seven career medals or more, and only those who have competed from 1992-present, WAG has more gymnasts than MAG. There are seven total gymnasts who fit that description. Four of them are women and by the time Simone Biles has her say in Tokyo 2020, she will join the list. In spite of MAG having more events and having longer careers, WAG still manages to find a way to produce more gymnasts under this criteria. All because the versatility rates of WAG are so high.

It must be remembered that you can make a case for both sides. But the case for MAG comes down to the trend being true for only an extremely small number of cases. But for WAG, the trend impacts virtually all of their top gymnasts. Now it’s time to get to the most important debate of all. Vitaly Scherbo and Simone Biles.

Simone Biles is one of the most loved athletes of all time. Scherbo is anything but. Scherbo still has a very strong base of support from those who remember his athletic accomplishments. But many despise him and would rather support the decorated Olympic gymnast who accused Scherbo of raping her when she was only 15 years old.

The rape accusation and having more (combined) medals than Biles makes gymnastics fans quick to dismiss Scherbo’s medal record. Looking to find a reason to dismiss it as a fluke or not as impressive compared to what Simone has accomplished. People generally cite the 1992 and 1996 World Championships as Scherbo having two extra competitions. It was the only time in gymnastics history that the World Championships were held in an Olympic year. But Scherbo won only six total medals at those two competitions. He also “lost” a World Championships as there wasn’t a World Championships in 1990. But at the 1990 World Cup he won four medals and would have certainly won a 5th medal if there had been a team format.

Scherbo was also negatively impacted by the breakup of the Soviet Union. He competed for Belarus, a country that couldn’t win any team medals. He would have had three more team medals if he had competed for a stronger nation. Scherbo has 31 individual medals. For comparison Simone only has 25. For all the advantages Scherbo had, they were almost entirely offset, if not completely offset by the disadvantages he faced throughout his career.

1978 MAG Champion Nikolai Andrianov with 1978 WAG Champion Elena Mukhina. Andrianov is currently 3rd on the all time Olympic medal list after Michael Phelps and Larissa Latynina.

Nor did Scherbo benefit from unprecedented longevity where he used participating in an abnormally high amount of competitions to build up his medal count as Svetlana Khorkina had done. Scherbo competed in eight major competitions throughout his career. For comparison Tokyo 2020 will be Simone’s 7th major competition.

None of this is meant to diminish Simone’s stature and she certainly deserves all the praise she receives. I don’t want to say Simone had an advantage because she competes in WAG while Scherbo competes in MAG or vice versa. The data can be interpreted both ways. It may be true that Scherbo and Nemov, but for MAG that’s where the advantage ends.

It is fair to point out that in modern gymnastics history, Scherbo has 10 Olympic medals, Nemov has 12, and no WAG has more than seven. How could you possibly say WAG has an advantage when looking at that statistic? But you can also point out that 71% of all instances of a gymnast winning four or more medals in a single Olympics happened in WAG. So how can you say female athletes aren’t at an advantage?

As for Scherbo, the rape allegation makes it difficult to talk about his athletic accomplishments. Should we ignore his accomplishments? That’s for the Gymternet and the gymnastics community to decide. But I will say this. There is a fundamental difference between ignoring history and rewriting it. To ignore his accomplishments means we refuse to honor the man. To try to find a reason to claim his accomplishments were less legitimate is a dishonest take. Especially when every attack on Scherbo’s medal record uses logic that applies to all male gymnasts and not just Vitaly. The result is tearing down Alexei Nemov, Kohei Uchimura, and the rest of MAG in an attempt to tear down Scherbo and/or prop up Simone.

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