Gymnasts Who (Almost) Swept a Competition

In a previous article I talked about the gymnasts who recorded a sweep by winning a medal on all five individual events at a single competition. Now I’m going to talk about the gymnasts who only narrowly missed that feat. The following gymnasts won four individual medals at a single Olympics or World Championships, only the finish in 4th place on the one event they failed to medal in.

Aurelia Dobre: 1987 World Championships

The 1987 World Championships are legendary for the Romanian program upsetting the Soviet Union to snag the gold medal in the team competition. What made it so successful was the breakout success of Romania’s Aurelia Dobre. Entering the 1987 World Championships Dobre had had a noteworthy junior career, but wasn’t expected to shake things up in her very first year at the senior level.

Dobre proceeded to do exactly that when she made her senior-level debut in a major competition of any kind at the 1987 World Championships. Prior to the 1987 World Championships Dobre had no prior experience at the European Championships, World Cup, or Olympics. That didn’t seem to matter as she won the All-Around (AA) and won medals on three of four events in Event Finals (EF). The lone event Dobre failed to medal on was a fourth place finish on the uneven bars.

What Dobre had accomplished at the 1987 World Championships was magical due to her breakout success and the gymnasts who seemed to come from out a nowhere. Fans fell in love with her and Aurelia established herself as a legend. But when the raw data is looked at, the numbers reveal the legend is every bit as good as advertised. In Data Crunch #3.3 Dobre’s 1987 victory measured as the fourth best AA win of all time. That is without factoring in her strong performance in event finals adding a near-sweep to her accomplishments, a feat that is relatively rare for an AA champion.

Aurelia did all of this at 14 years of age and is the youngest AA champion at the World Championships who won her title without an age falsification scandal. And yet there is more to talk about when it comes to these 1987 World Championships. Elena Shushunova medaled on every event at this very same competition. The 1966 World Championships are the only other occasion where one gymnast recorded a sweep and another gymnast recorded a near sweep. At the 1974 World Championships Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Turischeva both swept a competition.

Mary Lou Retton: 1984 Olympics

Mary Lou Retton is most famous for her victory in the AA, but she also had a decent medal haul in EF. This included a silver on vault, a bronze on bars, 4th on beam, and bronze on floor resulting in a near-sweep. Whereas with any other gymnast such a medal haul would be impressive, for Retton that is really not the case.

The 1984 Olympic boycott had a profound impact on women’s gymnastics. Nations who participated in the boycott accounted for 66% of medals won at the 1983 and 1985 World Championships. While the commentary revolves around whether Olga Mostepanova would have won the AA had she been allowed to attend, what doesn’t get talked about as much is the impact it had on Event Finals.

The critical thing to understand when it comes to applying the impact of the boycott to the 1984 Olympics is that the biggest issue was depth. The further you go down the standings, the less legitimate each result becomes as the hypothetical placement of missing gymnasts adds up. While there are many who will say Retton’s gold medal in the AA was dubious, her results in event finals where she placed lower in the standings have even less legitimacy due to the previously mentioned issue regarding depth.

Retton could not have completed a near-sweep if not for a critical fourth place finish on the balance beam. That boycotted 1984 beam final featured only one returning gymnast from the 1983 beam final. And it was the gymnast who had finished in last place in 1983. Even with seven of eight gymnasts missing, Mary Lou Retton still couldn’t medal. That particular detail regarding how Retton managed to secure a high enough result on her weakest event nullifies Retton-1984 as a legitimate example of a near-sweep.

Putting all of that aside, from a pure numbers standpoint Retton-1984 is by far the weakest example of a near-sweep. There have been 14 sweeps and 7 near-sweeps for a total of 21 such occasions. I often “weight” medals by awarding 3-points for a gold medal, 2-points for silver, and 1-point for bronze. The other 20 sweeps/near-sweeps came from gymnasts who recorded an 11-point average. Retton scored only 7 points and her point total was dead last. Retton simply didn’t have the level of dominance as other examples on this list.

None of this is to say Retton was a bad gymnast. Being able to win five medals plus a fourth place finish at a boycotted Olympics is impressive. This is only to say she doesn’t belong in the same tier as the other gymnasts on this list. Retton has this distinction on a technicality and nothing more. Mary Lou Retton won in 1984 with a boycott knocking out most of her competition. She also had the benefit of home field advantage which was just as critical of a factor as the boycott itself. Yet even with two major advantages coming to Retton’s assistance, her performance still looks weak relative to the performances of other gymnasts on this list.

Nadia Comaneci: 1976 Olympics

If Aurelia Dobre is a legend within the gymnastics community, Nadia’s fame transcends gymnastics and even the most casual of sports fans are familiar with her story. Nadia’s near-sweep at the 1976 Olympics was quite impressive considering the Soviet team she was squaring off against that featured the likes of Nellie Kim, Olga Korbut, and Ludmilla Turischeva.

And yet even Nadia, the most iconic gymnast of the pre-Simone era never completed a sweep in her career. It is a testament to just how hard winning a medal on every event truly is. Nadia’s best result was instead a near-sweep which came due to a 4th place finish on vault at the 1976 Olympics.

Karin Janz: 1972 Olympics

Karin Janz can be described as one of the greatest gymnasts to have never won the All-Around at the World Championships or Olympics. Despite having seven Olympic medals in her trophy case, Janz was even better than her medal count suggests. In Data Crunch #10 Karin Janz-1972 is one of just two occasions where the All-Around silver medalist statistically outperformed the All-Around Champion by a significant margin.

Janz won a medal on the first three events in EF, but finished fourth on floor. However, this was the last time an EF was held without country limits. Had country limits been in place, Janz would have won a bronze on floor and completed the sweep.

Simone Biles: 2013 World Championships

Simone Biles has never failed to medal in the All-Around, vault, beam, and floor. Because she is unstoppable in these four events, anytime Simone records a 4th place finish on bars she automatically qualifies for a near-sweep. At the 2013 World Championships Simone recorded the only 4th place finish of her career which also resulted in the lone near-sweep of her career.

In the six major competitions she has participated in, Simone has recorded one sweep and one near-sweep.

Larissa Latynina: 1956 Olympics

Larissa Latynina’s story is identical to that of Simone Biles. Like Simone, Latynina recorded just one 4th place finish of her career. Like Simone, because Latynina was so dominant on all the other apparatuses, any time she finished in 4th place a near-sweep occurred alongside it. The near-sweep occurred at the 1956 Olympics. For most gymnasts, a near-sweep would be the highlight of her career. For Latynina it was a blemish on her outstanding competitive resume.

Latynina’s 4th place finish on beam at the 1956 Olympics was the only time she failed to medal in her career at the Olympics on any event. Because 1956 was the last year women’s gymnastics had seven events, the beam result also costed Latynina the chance to tie the record for the most medals in a single Olympics by a female athlete. Because women’s gymnastics discontinued its seventh event (Team Portable Apparatus) soon afterwards, 1956 was the only chance Latynina had to achieve this record. Instead 1952 Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya holds the record all by herself. It remains unbroken to this day.

As for why Latynina failed to record a sweep at the 1956 Olympics, it can largely be attributed to her still being a relatively young gymnast competing in her very first Olympics. Despite the Olympic AA title and a near-sweep, Latynina was still on the rise. She would record four sweeps in the reminder of her career. For reference, no one else has more than one.

Vera Caslavska: 1966 World Championships

At the 1966 World Championships Natalia Kuchinskaya recorded a sweep and coming up right behind her was Vera Caslavska with a near-sweep. Coincidentally, ironically, and in the “you can’t make this stuff up” category, the 1966 World Championships were identical to the 1987 World Championships. Both competitions featured the AA silver medalist recording a sweep while the AA Champion recorded a near-sweep. Caslavska get her sweep two years later at the 1968 Olympics.

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