To give a brief intro: My goal with this project was to find unrealized talent. Trying to find gymnasts who were better than their medal counts indicate. Analyzing gymnasts who finished just off the podium (4th place) seemed like a natural place to start. The results were satisfying. The gymnasts who finished first and second were athletes who I have long felt were significantly underrated and I’m thrilled to have come across data that bolsters their case as great gymnasts.
After going through the data, I picked the eight most extreme cases of a gymnast routinely finishing in fourth place. The eight gymnasts I chose were selected based on frequency, losing the highly coveted All-Around (AA), Olympics vs World Championships, and whether they found redemption elsewhere in their career. But before I begin there is one statistic I want to emphasize.
Fifty gymnasts have finished in fourth place more than once in their careers. Of those gymnasts, 21 did it a third time. There are ten gymnasts who did it four times or more. Of which one did it five times and another did it six times.
Finishing in fourth place multiple times is more common than one would assume. If there is an example that you are wondering why I omitted, it is because of the sheer volume of gymnasts who have done it. Below are the first four gymnasts who I have dubbed, the “Queens of 4th Place” and the second group is in Part II. Only fourth place finishes in individual events are counted unless otherwise noted.
Moya has the distinction of finishing in fourth place on two occasions. Moya’s story may not sound all that bad considering 49 other gymnasts have done the same. But it was the way Moya lost that made her story so unique. Moya finished in fourth place at the 2000 Olympics, twice. Unlike other gymnasts who have the unfortunate distinction of finishing fourth, Moya never found redemption elsewhere in her career.
Moya never won an Olympic medal. Nor did she ever win a medal at the World Championships. Usually when a gymnast fails to win an individual medal they can at least find solace by earning a team medal instead. That wasn’t the case for Esther Moya who competed for Spain. In Moya’s era the Spanish program was just good enough to be close to a podium finish in the team competition, but not close enough to actually win a medal.
At the 2001 World Championships Esther Moya led the Spanish team to a fourth place finish. After Moya retired she was retroactively given another fourth place finish. When China was stripped of their 2000 Olympic bronze medal in the team competition, the fifth place Spanish team became the new fourth place finishers. Thus Esther Moya has the technical distinction of finishing in fourth place on three occasions at the 2000 Olympics.
That wasn’t the only run of bad luck Moya had that year. At the 2000 European Championships Moya finished fourth in the the team competition and again in the All-Around. But she managed to win a bronze on vault. For a gymnast who never won a medal of any kind at the Olympics or World Championships, it would prove to be the highlight of her career.
Moya was a member of the the best performing Olympic team as well as the best performing World Championships team in Spanish history. She finished in fourth place on team, vault, and floor in an Olympic Games. And yet, Esther Moya has only a bronze medal on vault at the European Championships to show for her impressive career. She is the only gymnast in this 2-part series who has no medals of any kind at the World Championships or Olympics.
Every once in a while women’s rtistic gymnastics (WAG) produces a gymnast where fans universally agree that she is a gymnast of renowned talent, only to watch that gymnast finish her career without winning an individual medal. Usually it comes down to injury, not making a World Championships/Olympic team because her program was so stacked, issues with mental composure, country limits, or simple bad luck.
Shang Chunsong was different. With Shang it wasn’t that she had a glaring flaw holding her back. She was in the thick of things at the 2015 World Championships and the 2016 Olympics, but had to keep settling for fourth place. Most notably, Shang Chunsong had back to back fourth place finishes in the AA at these two competitions. In 2015 and 2016 Shang was on something of a redemption tour seeking to make up for missed opportunities earlier in her career.
Shang had qualified to the AA at both the 2013 and 2014 World Championships but on both occasions fell in AA finals. She was also knocked out of beam finals in 2014 due to country limits. At the 2015 World Championships Shang Chunsong was in top physical form and had overcome previous obstacles with mental composure. The stars had aligned in her favor but it wasn’t enough. Shang finished in fourth place in the AA and again on floor.
The 2016 Olympics was the fourth major competition of Shang’s career making her an established veteran on the tail end of her career. Her window of opportunity was rapidly closing. Shang again finished fourth place in the AA. Her performance in the Olympic AA was remarkable considering Shang had been dealing with a fever that had cost her five days of training and threatened her spot on the Olympic team. Shang managed to overcome her ailment in the AA, but elsewhere it had hampered her performance. Shang failed to win an individual medal at the 2016 Olympics.
When Shang learned the results of yet another fourth place finish, she broke into tears and images of her reaction was widely circulated in the media. Shang is the only gymnast in all of WAG history to have finished fourth in the AA on two occasions and never won an AA medal at any point in her career. In fact, she never won any individual medal in her career. Out of 21 gymnasts who have finished in fourth place on three occasions or more, Shang and Svetlana Baitova are the only gymnasts who never won an individual medal elsewhere in their careers.
The most frustrating part of the Shang Chunsong’s story is that she did everything right. She had the talent to be a medal winner, wasn’t disproportionately dealing with injury problems, and wasn’t a case of bad mental composure ruining the career of a gymnast who was a shoo-in for a medal. Shang Chunsong was the complete package who should have gone down as a gymnast that had won anywhere from three to six medals. Instead she would end up with zero medals.
But Shang is a fighter. In her remarkable life story she had overcome poverty, malnourishment, and had been the breadwinner for her family at an incredibly young age due to her athletic career. The 2016 Olympics was her last major competition, but Shang appeared on the Chinese domestic circuit as recently as 2019. Still looking to get that coveted individual medal in international competition.
While it is not all that unusual for a gymnast to frequently finish in fourth place, it typically happens to a gymnast at the World Championships. Tell that to Anna Pavlova who finished in 4th place on four occasions, but three of them occurred in Olympic competition. Of the ten gymnasts with that many career fourth place finishes, Pavlova is the only one who had a majority of her fourth place finishes come at the Olympics.
Pavlova is tied with Eva Bosakova for the most fourth place finishes at the Olympics. Among them, the 2004 All-Around. Her four career fourth place finishes would prove costly. Despite her status as a fan favorite, Anna Pavlova’s 2004 bronze medal on vault was the only individual medal of her career. Her medal count would be significantly better if those fourth place finishes had resulted in medals instead.
Erika Zuchold’s career hit a rough patch from the very beginning. In an era where the World Championships were held just once every four years, Zuchold would have to wait until the 1964 Olympics to make her debut. When the time came to participate in her very first major international competition, Zuchold missed the Olympics due to injury. This delayed her debut by two more years. Despite being on the scene for three years in East German domestic competition, Zuchold entered the 1966 World Championships having never competed in a major competition of any kind. That includes the European Championships.
Erika won a silver on vault but her team finished fourth. The more interesting result was Erika’s fourth place finish in the AA. Erika would also finish fourth in the AA at the Olympics, on two occasions. Zuchold has the unfortunate distinction of finishing fourth in the AA in back-to-back Olympics. Her three career fourth place finishes in the AA is the most of any gymnast. But the good news for Zuchold is she did get redemption.
Erika Zuchold won a silver medal in the AA at the 1970 World Championships. But what makes her story so bizarre is the four-year World Championships schedule of the era. Erika competed at every Olympics and World Championships from 1966 to 1972 and finished fourth or better on every occasion. This in an era with absolutely no country limits and Erika had to go up against the full might of the Soviets.
It is a staggering testament to her immense talent, but also the absurdity of Erika’s situation that she has only a single AA medal to show for such an incredible streak. Erika has the distinction of having 75% of her competitions result in a fourth place finish in the AA.
Erika was a revolutionary gymnast who played a big role in changing the makeup of the sport to favor younger gymnasts. Her flic-flac on beam proved a key moment in the development of WAG. It would be accurate to say Zuchold was a critical predecessor to both Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut.
All of Erika Zuchold’s career fourth place finishes came in the AA. But Erika would win plenty of medals elsewhere. She won five medals at the World Championships and another five at the Olympics. Of the eight gymnasts I have profiled as “Queens of 4th Place,” Erika Zuchold is the only one who was inducted into the Hall of Fame.