The uneven bars is usually the most interesting apparatus in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG). It was the apparatus Olga Korbut performed the famed Korbut Flip on which triggered the emergence of WAG becoming one of the most popular sports in the Olympics. When I analyze data in my data crunches the uneven bars skews the results more often than any other apparatus. Lastly, it is the WAG apparatus that has undergone the most change throughout history. First starting off as the WAG equivalent of the men’s parallel bars, in modern times it seems to have more in common with the men’s high bar.
I won’t say the uneven bars is the best apparatus, but it could be argued it is the most interesting. For as interesting as the apparatus itself is, it has also produced some interesting bar workers who have enjoyed significant success on the apparatus.
The most recent gymnast to join the ranks of legendary bar workers, Aliya Mustafina’s legacy is that of a ferocious All-Arounder who has the distinction of being one of the few gymnasts to have won an All-Around (AA) medal in two different Olympics. In spite of all that Mustafina has accomplished in the AA, I believe what Aliya accomplished on the uneven bars to be even more impressive.
Rule changes such as the implementation of a 2-per country limit and the lowering of the number of gymnasts who are allowed to participate in AA qualifications has made it easier to win an All-Around bronze medal. Whereas in Event Finals (EF) the exact opposite is true. The current era of WAG has been dominated by specialists, many of whom compete on only one event.
Mustafina is one of only three women to have won multiple Olympic titles on the uneven bars. In both 2012 and 2016 the gymnast who won silver on the uneven bars had competed on just one apparatus during team finals while the bronze medalist had competed on only two apparatuses. In both 2012 and 2016 Mustafina competed on every apparatus in team finals, and then went on to win gold in the uneven bars finals.
The argument is not that Mustafina is a better bars worker because of her status as a great All-Arounder, but that she goes against gymnasts who have the luxury of being able to dedicate the bulk of their training time on just one apparatus. Mustafina won against them despite having to divide her training time across all four apparatuses and still had enough energy left over to beat them on the uneven bars.
While it is true that the era of specialization first started in Svetlana Khorkina’s generation back in the 1990s, it was still in its infancy and has become more widely adopted in recent years making it a more formidable obstacle in Mustafina’s era.
Like every other gymnast on this list, Khorkina was a very effective All-Arounder who also happened to be a great uneven bars worker. Unlike everyone other famous All-Arounders, Khorkina is widely remembered for her skill on the uneven bars above all her other accomplishments. Her “other” accomplishments include having more AA medals than Mustafina, three of which are gold. In my points data Svetlana Khorkina ranks third among All-Arounders and has twice as many points in the AA as Aliya Mustafina. Khorkina has had more success in the AA than every other gymnast on this list…combined.
And yet Khorkina’s prowess on the uneven bars gets more attention than what she accomplished in the AA, and for good reason. Only six gymnasts have won more than three medals on the uneven bars at the Olympic/World Championships level. Svetlana Khorkina has three more medals than the gymnasts who have the second most amount of medals on the uneven bars.
When you go back to my points metric to factor in gold vs silver vs bronze, things get even more absurd. Svetlana Khorkina has 23 points on the uneven bars with an 11-point lead over second place. To put that in perspective:
-Simone Biles is the best All-Arounder at 18 points with a 4-point lead over second place.
-Oksana Chusovitina is the best vaulter at 17 points with a 3-point lead over second place.
-Simone Biles is the best beam worker at 12 points with a 2-point lead over second place.
-Simone Biles is the best floor worker at 18 points with a 4-point lead over second place.
Svetlana Khorkina’s claim to the title of greatest bar worker in WAG history rests on her dominance in the medal count. Not only does Khorkina have the most wins on the apparatus, she was practically undefeated for a six-year window. From the period of 1995 to 2001 her only loss came at the 1998 World Cup, a competition that can be justifiably omitted from her competitive resume due to it being inconsistent with the Olympic/World Championships in both format and prestige.
You would think Svetlana Khorkina would end this conversation, but any discussion on the uneven bars would be incomplete without mentioning Maxi Gnauck. She is rarely brought up in this conversation largely because East Germany is one of the overlooked/forgotten WAG powers. It didn’t help that Maxi’s career featured two Olympic boycotts which denied her an appearance in an Olympic Games that was widely televised throughout the Western World.
Whereas Khorkina was known for putting up a near-undefeated streak in the dominant years of her career, Maxi took it to a whole new level. Maxi Gnauck made her senior-level debut at the 1979 European Championships where she finished in 3rd place. That was the one and only time Maxi ever lost a bars title in her senior level career.
Counting the World Cup, European Championships, World Championships, Olympics, and Alternate Olympics, Maxi won the gold medal on the uneven bars at every one of those competitions for the remainder of her career. Only the occasional injury and boycott seemed to stop her. Maxi by no means had a short career either. Maxi Gnauck won her first AA medal at the 1979 World Championships and her last AA medal at the 1985 European Championships. This seven year window represents one of the longest careers of any WAG in this respective era. And Maxi was undefeated on the uneven bars for nearly all of it.
As the last paragraph indicates, Maxi also had strong prowess in the AA. Maxi won the All-Around at the 1981 European Championships and was the heavy favorite to win the AA at the World Championships that year until an injury barred her from the AA final. Maxi won a silver in the AA at the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, and the European Championships. On all four occasions she lost to a different Soviet gymnast.
Whereas Mustafina’s career is impressive for the way she did battle against one-event specialists and still managed to prevail, for Maxi Gnauck she was on the opposite side of that trend and was equally as impressive. Maxi competed in an era where aging veterans were given zero leeway to prolong their careers. Gymnasts in Maxi’s era were not only required to compete on all four events, but also had to have a compulsory routine for each event. Effectively meaning a gymnast had to train eight different routines. If Maxi wanted to be a great bar worker, she had to be a great beam worker, floor worker, and vaulter as well if she wanted to appear in an Olympic Games. And Maxi’s competitive resume speaks for itself.
In her career Maxi won 27 medals at the four major competitions of the Cold War era. For comparison Nadia Comaneci has 28 medals and Nellie Kim has 29. But the “27 medals” figure doesn’t demonstrate the medals Maxi almost won. Maxi missed the 1984 Olympics due to a boycott and won five additional medals at the 1984 Alternate Olympics. Maxi can also be described as a “Queen of 4th place” having finished 4th on seven different occasions, four of which came in top level competition (World Championships/Olympics).
Maxi’s uneven bars legacy is that of a gymnast who took the concept of “winning streak” to a whole new level. Khorkina may have more medals, but Khorkina had more opportunity to win medals due to the World Championships being held on a more frequent basis starting in the 1990s. Svetlana Khorkina also benefited greatly from longevity that wasn’t possible in Maxi’s era.
Maxi also made her mark on the uneven bars at a time when the apparatus was experiencing its most significant era of change. It was in this era that Natalia Shaposhnikova introduced giant-swings while Elena Davydova introduced the Tkachev. Perhaps one of the most impressive moments in WAG history, was how quickly Maxi and her contemporaries* made moves like the Korbut Flip obsolete.
*Marcia Frederick, Steffi Kraker, Ma Yanhong, Davydova & Shaposhnikova
I took the time to talk about the finer details of Maxi’s career because she is a WAG legend who slipped between the cracks as most of the attention went to the Romanian, Soviet, and American programs in her time. Maxi Gnauck finished her career in a way that only Maxi Gnauck could. In her final competition Maxi finished 2nd in the AA to a Soviet gymnast, won the gold medal on the uneven bars, and finished in 4th place on vault, beam, and floor.
Polina Astakhova has fewer medals compared to the three other gymnasts on this list, but she can’t be ignored. Polina Astakhova is the third gymnast to be a 2x Olympic gold medalists on the uneven bars, and the only one to do it in the 20th century. It is that designation which single-handedly propels Astakhova onto this list.
Because the World Championships were held only once every four years prior to 1978, Polina had fewer opportunities to win medals and a lone bad performance meant she would have to wait until the next Olympic quad for redemption. This happened to Astakhova at the 1962 World Championships where she failed to win an individual medal despite having significant success at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. Her only medal on the uneven bars at the World Championships was a bronze medal in 1958.
Note: The Olympic quad calendar in Polina’s era was as follows:
Year #1: European Championships
Year #2: World Championships
Year #3: European Championships
Year #4: Olympic Games
At the time the European Championships were considered the top competition in years in which the World Championships and Olympics weren’t held. Polina Astakhova took advantage of this by winning back-to-back uneven bars titles at the 1959 and 1961 European Championships. Polina had the chance to win a third straight title at the 1963 European Championships, but a boycott denied her the opportunity to even try.
Had Polina Astakhova been able to attend the 1963 European Championships, she could have accomplished the 3-peat on the uneven bars which eluded Nadia Comaneci and even Maxi Gnauck. It wouldn’t happen until Svetlana Khorkina accomplished the feat in the late 1990s. The uneven bars has the distinction of being the apparatus non-European gymnasts (United States & China) first achieved breakout success on. But in Polina’s era this hadn’t yet happened, and the titles she won at the European Championships in 1959 and 1961 should be treated as on par with winning a title at the World Championships.
Like the other gymnasts on this list, Polina Astakhova was also a ruthlessly effective All-Arounder. She is one of the few WAGs to have multiple Olympic AA medals. As this post demonstrates, being a great bars worker seems to go hand and hand with being a great All-Arounder. It is up to the reader to decide whether this is merely a coincidence, or if there is a specific reason for its occurrence. This article might be hinting that Nina Derwael is the dark horse contender for an AA medal in Tokyo-2021. But others could argue that He Kexin breaks the trend of AA success correlating to success on the uneven bars.
I started off this article talking about how the uneven bars were the most interesting apparatus in WAG for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons that it is so interesting is how common it is to see gymnasts enjoy repeat success on the uneven bars. There have been three occasions where a gymnast won back to back gold medals on the uneven bars at the Olympics without a tie. Among all other apparatuses, it has happened only one time each. Gymnasts such as Maxi, Aliya, Khorkina, and Polina have left their mark on the uneven bars, the question remains, who will be the next to do it?