The Queens of 4th Place (Part II)

Link to Part I of this article

Elena Produnova

There are five individual events in gymnastics and at the 1999 World Championships Elena Produnova finished in fourth place on all but one of them. That is right, Produnova finished in 4th place on four occasions at a single competition. Even worse she didn’t win a single individual medal at that competition. But the news does get better. Produnova did win bronze medals on beam, floor, and in the All-Around (AA) elsewhere in her career.

The 1999 World Championships were the only fourth place finishes of Produnova’s career. While she has four career fourth place finishes, she also has three bronze medals which makes her career fourth place finishes seem less cruel. Although it must be brutal to experience that many fourth place finishes in a single competition. But Produnova at least has the solace of winning individual medals elsewhere in her career. Someone else was not as fortunate.

Svetlana Baitova

Svetlana Baitova (1987 World Championships) and Elena Produnova (1999 World Championships) had identical competitions. They both won silver medals in the team competition, failed to qualify to beam finals, but finished fourth in the AA, vault, bars, and floor competitions. Like Produnova, Svetlana Baitova never finished fourth in another competition.

But unlike Produnova there was no redemption for Baitova. The four times she finished fourth at the 1987 World Championships was the closest she ever came to an individual medal. Whereas Shang Chunsong has the second most 4th place finishes among gymnasts who never won a medal, Svetlana Baitova is the absolute record holder in this category.

It must be remembered that Baitova competed for the Soviet Union at a time when the program was fielding the likes of Svetlana Boginskaya, Elena Shushunova, Oksana Omelianchik, and the lesser known Elena Gurova who recorded the first DTY in women’s artistic gymnasts (WAG) history at the age of 12. In order to even be in the position of placing fourth on four different events, Baitova had to first qualify to them and survive country limits. Just getting into those four events is commendable. During the Soviet dynasty there was zero margin for error if a gymnast wanted to advance to the finals. Soviet gymnasts could rank 4th or 5th best in the world on a particular apparatus and not make it to Event Finals because of country limits.

What Baitova did at the 1987 World Championships marked the beginning of gymnastics fans debating the concept of a “Queen of 4th Place.” Baitova’s experiences are frequently told as a story of heartbreak, irony, and simple bad luck. But behind it all is one of the more admirable performances in WAG history. Baitova was dealing with country limits and lineup order holding her back. And yet she still qualified to four of five individual events which is something for her to be proud of. A testament to the talent she had even though she never got to prove her talent in the form of medals.

Beth Tweddle

This is where we get to the interesting aspects of what it means to be a “Queen of 4th Place.” The final two gymnasts have amassed so many fourth place finishes that it becomes less about irony or bad luck, and more about empirical evidence proving the greatness of the particular gymnast in question. It is completely logical for the gymnasts who amassed the most amount of fourth place finishes to be those who “flew under the radar.”

To routinely finish in fourth place a gymnast has to be good enough to be a frequent medal contender on a wide range of events, but not good enough to frequently win. This is why Larissa Latynina, Simone Biles, and Svetlana Khorkina each have just one fourth place finish in their respective careers. For them a bad day was winning a bronze medal. Thus a Queen of 4th Place is someone who is a strong gymnast from her era, but not an overly dominant one.

Even before this project I’ve long felt Beth Tweddle was a criminally underrated gymnast. In Data Crunch #5.23 (LINK HERE) Beth Tweddle recorded 12 points. To put that in perspective, that is the same point total as Alicia Sacramone and Henrietta Onodi. It is one point less than Shawn Johnson. All three of them are in the Hall of Fame. Beth is not.

Only four Americans have higher point totals than Tweddle. Beth’s 12 points is the same number of points as the combined point totals of seven prominent Russian gymnasts: Roza Galieva, Oksana Fabrichnova, Elena Produnova, Anna Pavlova, Tatiana Nabieva, Angelina Melnikova, and Elena Eremina.

Beth Tweddle accomplished a lot. While her name is widely known among gymnastics fans, her legacy is far greater than most realize. Beth won six medals in her career. Despite an impressive career, she finished in fourth place on five occasions and could of had a significantly higher medal count. But what makes the analysis of Beth’s status as a “Queen of 4th Place” so compelling, it is that half of her medals are gold in color. Many of these Queens hovered around 3rd and 4th in the standings. Most of the time they weren’t gold medal threats. Beth completely bucks the trend by being a three-time World Champion and won gold medals on two different apparatuses.

Bosakova (L) and Caslavska (R)

Eva Bosakova

The answer you have finally been waiting for. The gymnast with the most fourth place finishes is Eva Bosakova who finished just off the medal stand on six different occasions. Now you’re probably wondering who Bosakova even is. But don’t feel bad, even WAG history buffs aren’t widely familiar with her. Virtually every gymnastics databases that has individual profiles omits her. The FIG website has a page for Bosakova, but no results. In another oversight, FIG lists her with a birth year that is 19 years off her real birth year. In FIG’s data Bosakova was 50 years old when she finished 4th in the AA at the 1962 World Championships. Bosakova is not in the Hall of Fame despite having a competitive resume that is legendary.

Eva Bosakova is currently in a 5-way tie for the 7th most medals in World Championships history. But Bosakova competed in an era where it was much harder to win medals at the World Championships due to it being held only once every four years. Of the six gymnasts who have more medals at the World Championships than Bosakova, all except for Larissa Latynina competed in the 1990s or later. An era where the World Championships are typically held three times in an Olympic quad.

With 15 combined medals at the Olympics and World Championships, Bosakova’s medal count was insane for her era. Larissa Latynina won ten individual medals at the World Championships in her career. Eva Bosakova won eight. Eva Bosakova won multiple medals on bars, beam, and floor. But she wasn’t always an AA contender. The problem for Bosakova was vault. Her vault scores were 33rd, 22nd, and 36th in her three Olympic appearances from 1952-1960.

This was actually somewhat common in Eva’s era to have a top tier gymnast be dominant on three events but lag behind on vault by a significant margin. Agnes Keleti had the same problem. Vault was an apparatus that gave certain gymnasts big problems back then. Yet more absurdly, gymnasts often won in spite of atrocious vault scores. This was true for Bosakova who managed to win a pair of silver AA medals at the 1954 and 1958 World Championships.

But Bosakova was more than a medal winner. Her cartwheel on beam in 1956 was one of the most important moments in gymnastics history. It is the earliest example of a true eponymous skill in women’s gymnastics. It is the point where historical documentation of innovative moves being widely credited starts taking shape in WAG. But Bosakova’s beam routine would lead to something else.

At the height of her career Bosakova found herself at a television studio to record her legendary beam routine. It just so happened that a 14 year old Vera Caslavska was also at the same television studio as part of her ballet class. During breaks in between filming Caslavska approached the beam to try her hand at it. Sensing an opportunity, Caslavska’s mother grabbed some refreshments and offered them to Bosakova. She then tried to engage in small talk with the famous Olympic gymnast.

Bosakova was known for both her gymnastics and her personality. She told the mother the girl was terrible and instructed her to bring Vera to her Olympic gym so she could train her proper. From there on out Bosakova took Caslavska under her wing and the two trained alongside each other. Vera Caslavska went on to become the only gymnast to ever win a gold medal on all five individual events at the Olympics. But one of her coaches would make the claim that Caslavska would intentionally lose competitions early in her career. It seemed Caslavska had too much respect for Bosakova to beat her. A story that seems too far-fetched to be believed, but even if fictional, it accurately describes the mutual respect the duo had for each other.

Bosakova finished fourth in the AA at the 1962 World Championships in what would be her last major competition. It seems illogical for an AA medal contender from a mid-level gymnastics power that needed every top-rate gymnast it had, to suddenly find herself removed from the team. While there are some inconsistencies in the story of how Bosakova found herself off the Olympic team, the most common version of events involve a movie.

Bosakova was asked to film a gymnastics movie in which she refused citing it conflicting with her training schedule for the Olympics. After being threatened with expulsion from the gymnastics team, Bosakova complied and filmed the movie. The decision was then made to expel her from the team anyways. Bringing to an end the legendary career of Bosakova right as she seemed poised for a fourth Olympics.

Bosakova ended her career with the most fourth place finishes of any gymnast with six. There are 21 gymnasts who finished fourth more than once in a single competition. Bosakova is the only gymnast to have ever done that in two different competitions (1956 Olympics and 1962 World Championships). Her three 4th-place finishes in Olympic competition is tied with Anna Pavlova for the most in women’s gymnastics.

Eva Bosakova’s records for most fourth place finishes is a testament to her talent. In an era dominated by Latynina, Bosakova is an example of what the next best tier of athletes were like. She is the most overlooked gymnast in WAG history, one of the most outrageous omissions from the Hall of Fame, a gymnast who won an impressive array of medals, but could have won quite a few more.

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