While browsing Facebook, I came across a fascinating picture of the Soviet gymnastics team from 1990. The picture appeared in a Japanese magazine called “Sports Eye.” It was provided by one of the contributors to Gymn-Forum and she took the extra step of identifying most gymnasts by name. There is a lot to unpack with this picture, but before I start talking about who is in it, I’ll give readers the chance to quiz themselves and test their gymnastics knowledge.
1) How many gymnasts in this picture went to the Olympics?
2) How many appearances did they make in an Olympic Games?
3) How many gymnasts went to multiple Olympics?
4) How many gymnasts changed nationalities?
5) How many different flags did the gymnasts in this picture compete under?
6) How many gymnasts can you name?
How many gymnasts in this picture went to the Olympics?
The first six faces/names are relatively easy for those who are familiar with late era Soviet gymnastics. They can be found in the left side of the second row. They are Tatiana Gutsu, Svetlana Boginskaya, Natalia Laschenova, Oksana Chusovitina, Elena Grudneva, and Tatiana Lysenko. The final gymnast who competed on the 1992 Olympic team is a young Roza Galieva who is sitting in the first row.
The final three Olympic gymnasts are more difficult. Also in the first row is a young Oksana Knizhnik. She competed at the 1996 Olympics for Ukraine and is an example of a former Soviet gymnast representing a post-Soviet nation. The next “gymnast” in this picture is a trick question. It is one of the coaches, Elvira Saadi.
Saadi went to two Olympics under the Soviet flag. Her inclusion in this picture is particularly noteworthy because Saddi is from Uzbekistan. Saadi, Galieva, and Chusovitina all come from Uzbekistan and are the most successful gymnasts the country has ever produced. It is incredible to see all three of them in one picture as they are the Holy Trinity of Uzbek gymnastics. It also begs the question, where is Tatiana Groshkova who was being coached by Saadi at this time?
The final Olympic gymnast is the little known Ludmilla Prince who represented Latvia at the 1996 Olympics. The presence of three Latvian gymnasts in this picture is heartbreaking. Latvia was surging in 1989 and had dominated domestic USSR competition. The growing strength of Latvia had reached a point where they could have qualified a full team to the Olympics and perform fairly well in the team competition.
Latvian athletes were eligible for the 1992 Olympics only on a sport-by-sport basis. Gymnastics was one of the sports that opted not to allow Latvians entry into the Olympics. Nearly every Latvian gymnast retired as a result of the decision. Ludmilla Prince was one of the few who pressed on. Nothing seemed to stop Prince from achieving her Olympic dream. As early as 1993 television commentators had spoken negatively on her body type and implied it was a disadvantage. Nor did age slow Prince down as she was one of the oldest gymnasts in attendance at the 1996 Olympics.
This picture is somewhat significant as Ludmilla Prince didn’t receive major assignments as a Soviet gymnast which implies she only rose to prominence because the Soviet Union broke apart. This picture proves that narrative incorrect as her inclusion alongside so many top-ranked Soviet gymnasts demonstrates the USSR saw her as someone of significance.
How many appearances did they make in an Olympic Games?
Boginskaya and Chusovitina account for half of the Olympic appearances in this picture (10). Roza Galieva and Elvira Saadi add an additional four Olympic appearances. The remaining six gymnasts each have one Olympic appearance. There are also two additional Olympic appearances that could be credited to this picture. Oksana Chusovitina is still an active gymnast and qualified to the 2021 Olympics. Ludmilla Stovbchataya is also in this picture and was an alternate on the 1992 Olympic team.
How many gymnasts went to multiple Olympics?
This was answered in the above question. Saadi and Galieva each went to two Olympics. Svetlana Boginskaya is a 3x Olympian and Oksana Chusovitina is a 7x Olympian going on eight.
How many gymnasts changed nationalities?
Not counting nationality changes that involved the breakup of the Soviet Union, there are three nationality changes in this picture. Roza Galieva changed from Uzbekistan to Russia. Oksana Chusovitina changed nationalities twice. First from Uzbekistan to Germany, and then from Germany to Uzbekistan.
How many different flags did the gymnasts in this picture compete under?
Using a change in IOC country codes as the definition of a flag change, there were eight in this picture. The first involved the 1988 Olympic team that featured the “URS” country code and was the last time the Soviet flag was present in an Olympic games. The next flag change was “EUN” which is the country code the Unified Team of ex-Soviet states competed under at the 1992 Olympics. This team was represented by an Olympic flag. Next comes the various ex-Soviet states that gymnasts in this picture competed for at the 1996 Olympics. Ukraine (Oksana Knizhnik), Belarus (Svetlana Boginskaya), Uzbekistan (Oksana Chusovitina), Latvia (Ludmilla Prince) and Russia (Roza Galieva). And finally, comes Chusovitina’s nationally change to Germany which is the eighth and final flag the gymnasts in this picture competed under.
There is also a ninth flag change that could also be counted. At the 1992 World Championships the Unified Team of ex-Soviet states competed under “CIS” and used the symbols of that organization. I didn’t include this in the answer total because it is a disingenuous technicality.
How many gymnasts can you name?
Besides the previously mentioned Olympians, there are plenty of compelling gymnasts in this picture who didn’t make an Olympic team. Chief among them are the four non-Olympians who attended the World Championships. They are Ludmilla Stovbchataya Olesia Dudnik, Elena Sazonenkova, and Natalia Kalinina. Also in this picture is Tatiana Ignatova who represented Russia at the 1992 European Championships. And finally, there is Elena Abrashitova who was clubmates with Natalia Kalinina and Tatiana Lysenko.
While it is not unprecedented to see so many Olympians in a single picture, it is rare under this circumstance. The picture involves gymnasts of a single country and is not from a multi-national or ceremonial event. But most importantly, most of the gymnasts in this picture were in the early stages of their career.
The active gymnasts in this picture had recorded just two total Olympic appearances at the time this picture was taken. Seeing pictures of an elite gymnast when she was at a young age it cute. But it is special when it involves multiple elite gymnasts. It serves as a reminder that their athletic prowess was so remarkable that they were identified as someone with potential at an early age.
Fans of military history use the term “the class the stars fell on” to describe the senior military officers who came of age during World War II. During the largest mobilization in American military history there was a surge in the number of officers that had to be promoted. More officers were promoted to the rank of general than ever before, as well as the higher 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ranks. Hence the expression, the stars falling on them.
The Soviets of the early 1990s experienced a similar situation. As the Soviet Union broke apart, a landmass that was once limited to sending only six gymnast to an Olympic Games could theoretically send as many as 90 gymnasts. At the 1996 Olympics 24% of the participants in women’s artistic gymnastics came from a post-Soviet nation. The Soviets of the early 1990s were the class the Olympics fell on.
Gymnasts in this picture would ultimately make a total of 91 appearances at the Olympics, World Championships, European Championships, and Asian Games. The inclusion of the Asian Games in this list reflects that the breakup of the Soviet Union was to the advantage of some Soviet gymnasts, but also to the detriment of others. Oksana Chusovitina competed at the European Championships as a junior, only to be rendered ineligible for European competition before she could attend as a senior. Unlike the European Championships, the Asian Games were held only once every four years.
Chusovitina and Galieva could only watch as seven other gymnasts in this picture received assignments to compete at the 1992 European Championships. They would make a profound impact with four of them finishing in the top six of the All-Around. Ex-Soviet gymnasts who were slated to compete as a unified team at the upcoming Olympics successfully swept the beam podium and finished in the top four spots on the uneven bars at the 1992 European Championships.
Note: Chusovitina eventually did make it to the European Championships due to her German nationality change.
Whereas the famed “class the stars fell on” operated at a time where funding and government support for the military was at an all time high, the exact opposite was true for Soviets gymnasts of the early 1990s. They witnessed a catastrophic loss of funding and a mass exodus of top coaches taking jobs in Western countries, training gymnasts to compete against them. All while former teammates had to compete against each other. Five gymnasts in this picture attended the 1996 Olympics. Interestingly enough, all five of them represented a different country at the 1996 Olympics. One former Soviet gymnast who is not in this picture made the World Championships team of Canada (Lena Degteva).
The experiences of early 1990s gymnasts varied widely. Top ranked gymnasts such as Lilia Podkopayeva and Svetlana Khorkina almost certainly lost medals in the team competition as a result of the USSR breakup. They also had the additional pressure of being the face of two newly established Olympic programs. But Khorkina may not have become a 3x Olympian had the Soviet Union never collapsed. Oksana Chusovitina and Svetlana Boginskaya would have likely seen their post-Barcelona careers turn out far differently had the Soviet Union never broken apart.
Other ex-Soviets benefited in the form of receiving assignments and Olympic berths they otherwise never could have obtained. But with newfound opportunity also came tremendous pressure to perform. In some cases, gymnasts who could barely make the top 20 in a Soviet National Championships had to be serviceable gymnasts in the 2-4 spots on a team capable of making a Team Finals (the six best teams).
Gymnasts as young as 12 underwent a crash course in geopolitics as it had to be explained to them that a cherished friend on the team now lived in another country. That the top-rate training facilities they had access to was now unavailable because it belonged to a different country. The team they dreamed of representing no longer existed.
“And when we came back it was very hard to realize that there was no more of the Soviet Union team.”
But that was probably less complex than the question of “are we or are we not a single team?” Ex-Soviet gymnasts competed in a combined National Championships in 1992. Five weeks later they competed as separate countries at a prestigious competition held in Moscow. Two weeks after the Moscow competition they attended the World Championships under the banner of a single country. Then one month later they appeared at the European Championships as separate countries.
Does that sound confusing? Well, it gets even more complex. At the 1992 Olympics ex-Soviet gymnasts competed under qualification rules as if they were a single country, but during individual competition they competed under the flag of their respective countries. Tatiana Gutsu would later reveal she was surprised when the Ukrainian anthem was played for her at the 1992 Olympics. In a ten month window Tatiana Lysenko was represented by a different flag in four consecutive medal ceremonies.
Even after the 1992 Olympics ended the conundrum continued. Despite the breakup of the Soviet gymnastics system now being fully complete, ex-Soviet gymnasts still trained together at Round Lake to prepare for the post-Olympic victory tours. Once more ex-Soviet gymnasts were training as if they were a team, a team that no longer existed.
But this picture shows the team that existed before things came apart and a powerful sports dynasty came to an end. Below is a description of where each gymnast can be found in the picture.
Starting on the left side, the gymnast in the black shirt is Tatiana Gutsu. Next to her in the green shirt is Ludmilla Stovbchataya. Next to Ludmilla in the blue shirt is Oksana Chusovitina. Next to Oksana in the pink shirt is Natalia Kalinina. To the right of Natalia is Tatiana Lysenko. Using Stovbchataya (green shirt) as a reference, behind her on the left is Svetlana Boginskaya. Behind her on the right is Natalia Laschenova.
Olesia Dudnik is directly behind Chusovitina and Kalinina. Directly behind Olesia and with her face partially obscured is Elena Sazonenkova. To her right and the gymnast standing directly behind Kalinina (pink shirt) is Elena Abrashitova. On the right side of Abrashitova and standing directly behind Lysenko is Elena Grudneva.
In the back row, the second coach from the right is Elvira Saadi. Standing directly in front of Saadi and wearing a blue and pink stripped leotard is Tatiana Ignatova. On the left side of Ignatova is Ludmilla Prince. In the bottom row and using the coach in the middle (red shirt) as a reference, to the left of her the gymnast (looking away) is Oksana Knizhnik. On the right side of the coach in the red shirt is Roza Galieva.