The Most Popular Leotard in Gymnastics History (Part II)

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

Part I: Soviet Union, China, Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia
Part III: Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and RG

In Part I of this article I covered some of the communist programs in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) that had associations with the white-flower leotard. There are also numerous American gymnasts who wore the white-flower leotard as well, the most notable example was Mary Lou Retton. The appearance of Mary Lou Retton ensures that virtually every All-Around (AA) podium from 1976-1984 features at least two gymnasts who wore this leotard. This includes not just Olympic AA podiums, but World Championships AA podiums as well.

Mary Lou Retton

Gymnasts featured in Part I and Part II of this article took the following positions in the following Olympic All-Around competitions:

1976 Olympics: 1st, 2nd, & 4th
1980 Olympics: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, & 5th
1984 Olympics: 1st & 2nd

It really can’t be overstated just how popular this leotard was and how successful Sasaki was in getting most of the top gymnasts to wear it. The leotard was of Japanese origin which may explain why Mary Lou Retton wore it. Retton rarely competed outside of North America. One of the few occasions that she did was the 1983 Chunichi Cup. It was the biggest assignment of her career that required international travel, and it just so happened to be a Japanese competition.

Mary Lou Retton

It was while wearing the red flower leotard that one of Retton’s famed attempts at the double-twisting Tsukahara was recorded on video.

Kathy Johnson

Another legendary American gymnast to wear the leotard was Kathy Johnson who is pictured above in the red version. She was a member of the 1980 boycott Olympic team and made her first official Olympic appearance in 1984.

Michelle Dusserre

Michelle Dusserre is the third member of the 1984 American Olympic team who wore this leotard. She was one of the gymnasts who commented on the Facebook thread and wrote “This was my FAVORITE leo!” Dusserre also revealed that she had traded for it during a dual meet featuring the United States and Japan.

Julie Goewey

Julie Goewey was another American gymnast who participated in the Facebook post. She wrote “It was a lucky Leo for me!” and wore the red version.

Lynne Lederer

American gymnast Lynne Lederer was featured on the cover of International Gymnast while wearing the red version.

Zoya Grancharova

Pivoting back to the Eastern Bloc, there was yet another Eastern European program that wore this leotard en masse. Bulgarian gymnast Zoya Grancharova wore the blue version. She is best known for winning the bronze medal on floor at the 1981 World Championships.

Silvia Topalova

Other Bulgarian gymnasts who wore the leotard were Silvia Topalova (pictured above) and Galina Marinova (pictured below). Topalova had incredible longevity for her time having appeared in every major competition from 1978-1985 as well as the 1984 Alternate Olympics. Galina Marinova was a 1980 Olympian.

Galina Marinova

Hungarian gymnast Andrea Horacsek wore the red version of the leotard. The inclusion of Hungary ensures that every WAG power of the Cold War had at least one gymnast who wore this leotard.

Andrea Horacsek

In Part III of this article I will cover the gymnasts from programs who weren’t WAG powers that wore the white-flower leotard, the rhythmic gymnasts who wore it, and there are some miscellaneous items including magazine advertisements featuring the leotard. I’m going to finish this portion of the series by talking about Elena Davydova.

At first glance the white-flower leotard is merely an iconic leotard worn by a gymnast as she went on to win the most prestigious prize in gymnastics. At second glance there is the lesser known story of the leotard that was worn by virtually every gymnast of the era, and its popularity became something of a running gag. But the true meaning of the white-flower leotard is what it came to represent.

For most of the Cold War Japanese WAG was an overlooked program, but they still managed to contribute greatly to the sport. Japan’s contributions to the development and advancement of WAG can not be measured in the number of medals they won. In 1980 Japan was a massive country with a population that was roughly half the size of the United States. Due to the success of its men’s program, the country had developed a strong appreciation for the sport and a rabid gymnastics fanbase.

Natalia Karamushka and Elena Davydova at the 1978 Chunichi Cup in Japan

It quickly became one of the most popular markets for WAG powers representing all sides of the Cold War due to its large size. Japan’s inability to emerge as a WAG power inadvertently made it an even stronger gymnastics market. For a sport dominated by problematic judging that blatantly favored the home team, Japan proved to be an invaluable piece of neutral territory where rival WAG programs could compete against each other on relatively equal footing.

The Japanese media took a similar attitude and rarely played favorites. The Japanese simply wanted to see the best and nationality rarely seemed to matter. So much of the information regarding Eastern Bloc WAG is available thanks exclusively to Japanese fans/media. The Japanese didn’t just cover gymnastics competitions held on the Japanese home islands, but had also frequently sent television crews to Europe.

For a country that has a reputation for being on the technological cutting edge in the realm of electronics, Japanese WAG fans ended up preserving the television broadcasts of more competitions than any other fanbase. Many of them in surprisingly high quality for the era. That is on top of numerous Japanese sports magazines who printed high quality photos of Eastern Bloc gymnasts at a rate just as high, if not higher than other Western countries.

The Japanese contribution to WAG was so significant that I would go as far as to say that this blog would be impossible without it. Numerous articles on this site feature pictures that originated from Japanese sources, and descriptions of competitions that are only available because a Japanese fan saved a copy of the broadcast. The success of the white-flower leotard was not so much a fluke, but an accurate representation of just how much influence Japan had in the sport. Even while their WAG program failed to win a single medal at the World Championships and Olympics from 1968-2008.

Elena Davydova at the 1978 Chunichi Cup

Elena Davydova had first risen to the highest tier of the Soviet program back in the mid 1970s. She had been a legitimate contender for one of the final spots on the 1976 Olympic team, but luck was never on Davydova’s side. Injury, illness, and last minute lineup changes had caused Davydova to not only miss the 1976 Olympics, but every major competition of 1977, 1978, and 1979 as well.

Instead Davydova would have to settle for the 1978 Chunichi Cup in Japan which became the most significant win of her career prior to the 1980 Olympics. It was right after the 1978 Chunichi Cup that Davydova started appearing in this leotard. Davydova did not debut the leotard at the 1980 Olympics. She had worn it for most of 1979 and early 1980. The significance of Davydova being one of the most frequent users of this leotard is reflective of how prior to the 1980 Olympics, her career had been largely defined by a win in Japan.

The flower leotard is ultimately the story of a leotard belonging to an overlooked country being worn by an overlooked gymnast. When Elena Davydova ended up winning the 1980 Olympic AA, she made both herself and the leotard iconic.

Elena Davydova (1979)

Link to Part III: Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and RG

Back to Part I: Soviet Union, China, Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia


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