The Fall of Eastern Europe Visualized

Data Crunch #8.1

During Cold War, women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) was dominated by Eastern Europe. The collective winning percentage of the Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Poland was staggering. At the height of their success these nations were winning nearly every medal available. Today that is no longer the case. The balance of power has shifted in the favor of China and the United States with other Western nations acting as a strong supporting cast. Only the Russian program has retained some form of success. They exist as a reminder of what once was.

In this article I will compile graphs demonstrating when precisely Eastern Europe went from being the seat of power in WAG to suffering a near total collapse. A few things I first need to clear up:

A) Winning percentage is defined as “gold medals won.” This data only focuses on wins (gold medals). Silver and bronze medals are not included. In the event of a tie, Eastern Europe receives a partial win based on how many gymnasts it tied with. For example if a Romanian and American gymnast share a gold medal, Eastern Europe gets 50% of that medal. If Romania, Russia, and China split a gold medal in a 3-way tie, Eastern Europe gets 66% of that medal.

B) Eastern Europe is defined as the Eastern Bloc, which are the seven nations listed in the first paragraph of this article. As well as their successor states. Uzbekistan is treated as an Eastern European nation because it was once part of the Soviet Union.

C) Germany from 1896-1936 and 1991-present is not counted as part of Eastern Europe. The Unified German teams of the Cold War (1950s and 1960s) are counted as Eastern Europe. This is because the “unified” German teams weren’t unified at all in WAG. They were actually East German gymnasts competing under an Olympic flag.

D) The events I selected are the World Cup, World Championships, European Championships, and Olympics. They were the four most prestigious events of Cold War era WAG. Eastern Bloc gymnasts are typically measured by how many medals they won in these events. The data is below.

If you are wondering why Eastern Europe seems to fall and then promptly recover in the early 1990s, it is because of Shannon Miller. Kim Zmeskal, Kim Gwang Suk, Luo Li, and Mo Huilan all contributed by winning gold medals of their own, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to Shannon Miller. In future articles you will see me refer to the “Shannon Miller Exception” where I talk about how great she was, and how she was virtually the only gymnast from the pre-2000s who had repeat success against Eastern European gymnasts.

Without having to face gymnasts from China or the United States, Eastern Europe retained a higher winning percentage at the European Championships compared to the World Championships and Olympics. But you can still see the same decline starting in the early 2000s that occurred with Eastern Europe in other major competitions. I excluded team results from the data for two reasons. First because results from the 1990s in that event are not easily available. Secondly, it’s a relatively new event and I didn’t want to compare it alongside data from the 1950s-1980s where only individual events were contested.

Link to: The 1963 Boycott

The results from 1963 can be explained by the 1963 Boycott which I wrote a whole article on (linked above). The 2012 results were the result of Romania and Russia “clicking” at the same time. Catalina Ponor, Sandra Izbasa, Larisa Iordache, Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova, and Maria Paseka were all present at that competition.

The World Cup is unusual compared to the other three major competitions. It has been held sporadically and under a wide range of formats. Making things even more confusing, at times it isn’t all that clear if the World Cup is simply a recycled name, or a genuine attempt to link the various competitions that were held under that specific name. But one thing that is clear, the current World Cup has no relation to the “old” World Cup which were never held multiple times in the same year.


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