In this article I’m going to discuss what is one of my favorite gymnastics photos. The photo features (from left to right) Camelia Voinea, Daniela Silivas, Elena Shushunova, Oksana Omelianchik, Vera Kolesnikova, Natalia Yurchenko, and Ecaterina Szabo. It was taken at the 1986 World Cup where Silivas, Szabo, and Voinea represented Romania. Yurchenko, Shushunova, and Omelianchik represented the Soviet Union. Kolesnikova was the Soviet alternate.
What I love about this picture is it gives a different dimension to the Soviet-Romanian rivalry. The showdown between the Soviets and the Romanians in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) can be described as one of the most tense rivalries in all of sports. And yet as this picture shows, to the athletes who were actually involved in it, it was anything but.
The Soviet-Romanian rivalry was defined by the geopolitical rift that existed between the two countries. Despite being a member of the Warsaw Pact, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had based his entire foreign policy on openly opposing the Soviet Union. He frequently broke with Soviet foreign policy positions and denounced the USSR on various occasions. Romania’s decision to attend the 1984 Olympics and defy the Soviet led boycott is a textbook example of Ceausescu’s anti-Soviet behavior. The 1984 Olympics are often seen as the most defining moment of Ceausescu’s anti-Soviet foreign policy.
Both countries were communist, but each felt their interpretation of communism was superior. The nations saw success in sports as a tool to promote the idea that their system of government was superior.
WAG quickly became the most important sport in the Romanian-Soviet rivalry. With six events being contested, a single WAG team could win as many 12 medals in a single Olympics. This wasn’t just a possibility, but due to the high versatility rates of WAG, it was typically expected that the Soviets were a threat to win eight medals collectively as a team. And a country needed just six athletes to field a team.
Women’s gymnastics was one of the most cost effective sports to invest in which is why most of the communist world had top tier WAG programs. The high versatility rates of WAG also had a secondary effect. Women’s gymnastics frequently produced an athlete who won as many as five medals in a single competition, and sometimes even six. What this meant was that WAG not only provided ample opportunity to win medals, but it was highly likely that the sport would produce one of the most decorated athletes in any given Olympics.
And the stars quickly followed. Not only did Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut achieve superstar levels of fame, but they are two of the best examples of an Olympian becoming an effective tool of soft power. In the case of Nadia, her shadow looms so large that she is as well known as any Romanian landmark or head of state.
Note: To simplify the concept of soft power, it is how well a country’s culture and knowledge about its people/history is projected in other countries. Hollywood is an example of a soft power tool.
As the significance of WAG grew, so did the emphasis on a “win at all costs” mentality. The athletes of both sides paid a high price for it. Both programs have heartbreaking stories of athlete mistreatment and it didn’t seem to matter that the sport had reached a point where many of the athletes were just 13 years old.
When most sports rivalries are discussed, they are frequently measured in terms of how much hatred exists between both teams. In sports television, it is not unusual to include footage of a brawl from the previous matchup to promote a game. As this picture shows, the Romanian-Soviet gymnastics rivalry was nothing like that that. Despite its status as one of the most high stakes rivalry there ever was, the assertion doesn’t extend to the athletes sharing a mutual dislike for each other.
For most of the Romanian and Soviet gymnasts, they were too young to understand the significance of what it meant to their respective governments when they delivered an Olympic All-Around (AA) title. They also lived very sheltered lives where so much outside information was kept from them. They knew they were supposed to beat each other, but they also knew their adversaries were equally talented. More importantly, despite a language barrier, they could relate better to each other based off their shared experiences than anyone else in this world.
When we think of the interactions between the Romanians and Soviets, we typically think of them in leotards. The handshakes during warmups and the congratulatory kiss on the cheeks as they collect their medals and mount the podium. What the television cameras don’t show, was the times they interacted outside the competition hall.
I love that this picture shows what the true relationship between the two teams were like. But I also love this picture because of who is in it. Every gymnast in this picture can be classified as iconic, meaning even those who aren’t strongly invested in gymnastics history are likely to be familiar with these seven gymnasts.
Camelia Voinea: Member of three Romanian teams including the 1988 Olympics. She is the mother of Romanian gymnast Sabrina Voinea.
Daniela Silivas: Member of four Romanian teams including the 1988 Olympics. She remains one of the most popular gymnasts of all time.
Elena Shushunova: Winner of the 1988 Olympic AA title and Co-Champion of the 1985 AA.
Oksana Omelianchik: Tied Shushunova for the 1985 AA title, she was one of the fan favorites of the 1980s. Her floor choreography/musical choice selection remains legendary.
Vera Kolesnikova: Winner of the AA at the 1986 Goodwill Games, she is the mother of 2012 Olympian Viktoria Komova.
Natalia Yurchenko: Won the AA in 1983, had name is instantly recognizable due to the popularity of her vault style.
Ecaterina Szabo: Member of four Romanian teams, won four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.