The Most Popular Leotard in Gymnastics History (Part I)

Note: There are so many gymnasts who wore this leotard that I had to break this article up into three parts.

Part II: United States, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Davydova
Part III: Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and RG

At the 1980 Olympics Elena Davydova won the All-Around (AA) while wearing a pink leotard with white flowers on it. The leotard has since become iconic due to both its original and beautiful design, but also its association with an Olympic Champion. Even though this leotard is most frequently associated with Davydova, she was by no means the only gymnast who wore it. The leotard in question was worn by a majority of the famous gymnasts who competed in her era.

It was by far the most popular leotard in the history of elite gymnastics having been worn by roughly 30 Olympians in a six year period spanning from late 1978 to early 1983. Its recurring presence in pictures has become a running gag among fans of golden era women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). It can be appropriately labeled “the leotard worn around the world.”

Before I can continue, I must preface this article by mentioning that virtually all the work in this article was available to me thanks to Facebook-Gymternet. Most of these pictures come from a thread where a Facebook gymnastics fan group was challenged to see how many gymnasts they could track down who wore this particular leotard.

The resulting thread received 200+ responses. Among its participants were a couple of Olympic gymnasts, as well as many of the top content producers of Cold War era gymnastics. Among those who participated were those who help update gymn-forum and one of the top experts on Romanian gymnastics history. Further photos were provided by Karen Louise Hollis.

Elena Davydova

The leotard in question was this pink colored leotard that often appears as red when photographed due to color filters. Even though it was pink in color, most fans refer to it as red due to the way it appears in pictures. The leotard itself came in multiple colors. The red-looking version was the the most popular color.

Stella Zakharova

However a sizable minority of gymnasts wore a blue version of the same leotard. Most notably 1980 Olympian Stella Zakharova.

Valentina Shkoda

There was also a green version of the leotard. Soviet gymnast Valentina Shkoda was the only picture provided of a gymnast wearing neither the red nor the blue versions. The leotard was made by a Japanese company called “Sasaki.” Multiple Facebook who were young gymnasts at the time described it as a leotard they wanted, but were unable to purchase due to its price. It was said to be quite expensive for the time compared to other options.

The leotard exploded in popularity shortly before the 1980 Olympics and maintained a high level of popularity over the next few years. By the 1984 Olympics its popularity had waned and made only occasional appearances for the rest of the decade. The trend was started by Nellie Kim who was the first gymnast to debut it during a Soviet display meet in England in November of 1978.

Nellie Kim

And if you are wondering, Nellie Kim wore the red version.

Nellie Kim

Eight months later the leotard appeared at the 1979 World Cup thanks to the Czechoslovakian team. The Czechoslovakians brought two gymnast and each wore the famed white-flower leotard. Vera Cerna on the left wore the blue version, while Eva Mareckova on the right wore the red version.

(From L to R) Stella Zakharova, Emilia Eberle, Vera Cerna, Nadia Comaneci, Kathy Johnson, Nellie Kim, Steffi Kraker, and Eva Mareckova

The time clock is obstructing Cerna’s leotard, but she definitely wore it. She finished 6th in the AA at both the 1978 and 1979 World Championships. Cerna was the 1979 gold medalist on the balance beam, but her career ended under tragic circumstances when she suffered a broken vertebrae just weeks before the Olympics. After two months in the hospital Cerna regained the ability to walk, but her gymnastics career was over.

Vera Cerna

Mareckova and Cerna weren’t the only Czechoslovakian gymnasts to wear it, Alena Drevjana wore the blue version. She finished 5th in the AA at the 1984 Alternate Olympics and also attended the 1988 Olympics.

Alena Drevjana

Jana Labakova wore the red version. She was a member of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams for Czechoslovakia.

Jana Labakova

It is important to remember that this was a Japanese leotard and it was the Czechoslovakians who first used it in a major competition at the 1979 World Cup, which was held in Japan. Czechoslovakian gymnast Jana Rulfova wore it at another Japanese competition, the 1979 International Junior Championships. Rulfova finished 6th in the AA.

Jana Rulfova

But coming in ahead of her were Ni Pei Yao (3rd) and Wu Jiani (4th) of China who each wore the red version. Of the six highest ranking gymnasts at this Japanese competition, half of them wore the flower leotard.

(From L to R) Wu Jiani, Anca Kiss, Rodica Dunca and Ni Pei Yao.

I couldn’t find any evidence that China’s most iconic gymnast Ma Yanhong wore this leotard, but the 2nd and 3rd most notable Chinese WAGs of the era did. The first was Chen Yongyan who participated in the 1980 Alternate Olympics and was the team captain of China’s 1984 Olympic team. She was one of China’s first medal winners in WAG having won two medals at the 1981 World Championships. She is married to Li Ning who won six medals at the 1984 Olympics.

Chen Yongyan

The other prominent Chinese WAG was Wu Jiani. She is best known for being the mother of American gymnasts Anna and Andrea Li. Wu Jiani’s career is virtually identical to that of Chen Yongyan. She also missed out on her first Olympics due to the 1980 boycott, won two medals at the 1981 World Championships, won a silver medal on bars at the 1982 World Cup, and capped off her career with an appearance at the 1984 Olympics.

Wu Jiani

There are dozens of high profile gymnasts who wore this leotard, but most of them wore it for only a short stint in their careers before switching to a new leotard. Wu Jiani is the only gymnast I found who wore it as both a child and as an adult.

Wu Jiani

I’ve already covered half of the 1980 Soviet Olympic team (Davydova, Nellie Kim, and Zakharova) who wore the white-flower leotard. As for the remaining members of the 1980 Soviet team, they all wore it as well.

Natalia Shaposhnikova

Natalia Shaposhnikova is yet another example of a Hall of Fame gymnast who wore this leotard. She is one of ten members of the Hall of Fame who wore this leotard.

Maria Filatova

Maria Filatova was a member of the Soviet Olympic team in both 1976 and 1980.

Elena Naimushina and Svetlana Agapova

Elena Naimushina was the sixth and final member of the Soviet Olympic team in 1980.

Elena Naimushina

If you have any doubts as to the identity of the previous gymnast, in this smaller photo you can see Naimushina’s face. She wore the red version.

Natalia Yurchenko

Whereas Elena Davydova wore this leotard and made it famous at the 1980 Olympics, Natalia Yurchenko wore it in a couple of minor domestic competitions in 1983. As it became evident that Yurchenko was the top gymnast in the Soviet program during a pre-Olympic year, the Soviets quickly featured her in a series of gymnastics documentaries.

There are at least three different documentaries from 1983 and 1984 that gave Yurchenko first billing. All of them placed a heavy emphasis on archive competition footage from the competitions in which Yurchenko wore the red version of the leotard. This inadvertently made Natalia Yurchenko one on the gymnasts most frequently associated with this leotard even though she never wore it in a high profile meet.

Yurchenko was one of the gymnasts who participated in the Facebook thread and commented “I loved that leotard!” Her training partner and clubmate Albina Shishova was also shown in one of these documentaries and was wearing the blue version.

Albina Shishova was a popular gymnast in her time. She finished 3rd in the AA at the 1983 European Championships and was also a member of the 1983 Soviet World Championships team. Shishova and Yurchenko were a rare example of a single Soviet club successfully getting two gymnasts named to the same World Championships/Olympic team. Ironically, they also appeared to have shown up to the same competition wearing matching leotards (albeit in different colors).

Valeria Zhidunova

Not as well known as many of her famous Soviet contemporaries, Valeria Zhidunova was a core member of the Soviet team during the 1977-1979 quad. She wore the leotard in 1979. Even though Valeria never made a Soviet team, she left her mark by being the first known case of a WAG performing a Rulfova on beam. Valeria was first seen performing it in training footage in 1978. Zhidunova was also known to wear glasses while performing in competitions.

Tatiana Arzhannikova

There are numerous Soviets who wore the leotard. Among them was the previously mentioned Valentina Shkoda who won the 1982 Soviet-American dual meet. But it was a trip to England for a display tour a few months after the 1980 Olympics where the leotard reached the peak of its popularity with the Soviet team. Elena Davydova did not wear the leotard she made famous, but two of her teammates did. The first was Tatiana Arzhannikova (pictured above) in the red version.

Galina Ionas

Wearing the blue version was Galina Ionas. It was during this particular display that six Soviet gymnasts performed a joint dance routine, and two of them did it while wearing this leotard representing one third of the lineup.

The last notable case of a Soviet gymnast wearing it the white flower leotard was Natalia Ilienko during podium training at the 1983 World Championships.

Natalia Ilienko

As for where the Romanians were in all of this?

Nadia Comaneci and Emilia Eberle

Nadia Comaneci wore the blue version.

Teodora Ungureanu

Teodora Ungureanu (pictured above) and Ecaterina Szabo (pictured below) wore it.

Ecaterina Szabo

It is interesting to note that Romania produced three Hall of Fame gymnasts prior to the late 1980s (Szabo, Teodora, and Nadia). All three of them wore this leotard. Another prominent 1980s Romanian gymnast who wore it was Camelia Voinea. In her time Camelia was a rather well known gymnast. In recent times younger fans are becoming more aware of her career due to the success of Camelia’s daughter Sabrina Voinea.

Camelia Voinea

The two strongest WAG programs of the Cold War had an affection for this leotard, and the same can be said for the East Germans who were the third strongest program of the era. Humorously, 1988 East German Olympic gymnast Dorte Thummler participated in the thread but she didn’t nominate herself, but her teammate Maxi Gnacuk. Dorte posted a YouTube screenshot of Maxi wearing the red version.

Maxi Gnauck

Someone responded by posting the above picture of Maxi. The appearance of Maxi Gnauck is particularly significant. During her career Maxi won 27 medals in the four major competitions of the era. Nadia Comaneci won 28 medals, Nellie Kim won 29 medals, while Ecaterina Szabo won 21. With Maxi being added to the list of famous gymnasts who wore this leotard, all the medal leaders of the era are accounted for in this article.

Silvia Hindorff

Maxi was by no means the only East German gymnast who wore this leotard. Her teammate on the 1980 Olympic team Silvia Hindorff wore the red version (pictured above). Maxi’s teammate on the 1984 boycott Olympic team Astrid Heese also wore the red version (pictured below).

Astrid Heese

Link to Part II: United States, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Davydova


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