When Ukraine Ruled Gymnastics

Disclaimer: In this article the term “Ukrainian” in regards to Soviet gymnasts is a comment of their geographic origins and is not a comment on their ethnic identity. This article also has a part two featuring some bonus material that can be found here.

In the late 1980s the Soviet Union was starting to crumble and as a result its famed women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program was about to crumble with it. But right as this was happening Ukraine wasn’t just surging, they were dominating the Soviet WAG scene. In 1989 the following six Ukrainian gymnasts were active at the senior level:

Oksana Omelianchik
Olga Strazheva
Yulia Kut
Ludmilla Stovbchataya
Olesia Dudnik
Natalia Kalinina

Counting the alternate position, all of them made an Olympic or World Championships team at some point in 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1992. It was staggering to see a single Soviet republic be so overrepresented. The six Ukrainians weren’t just participants in the Soviet program, they were leading it.

At the 1989 USSR Championships Ukrainian gymnasts took 9 of the 15 individual medals. In the All-Around (AA) Ukrainian gymnasts finished 1st, 3rd, and 4th. As impressive as Ukraine’s dominance was, so was its diversity of talent. Four different gymnasts (Kalinina, Kut, Strazheva, and Omelianchik) each won a silver medal or better.

Olesia Dundik*

Note: Ukrainian gymnasts are noted with a * in picture captions.

Dudink was nowhere to be found at the 1989 USSR Championships. But Olesia would prove herself elsewhere with a silver medal in the AA at the 1989 USSR Cup and a strong performance at the World Championships that year. Only Stovbchataya didn’t have notable success in 1989. But an 8th place finish in the AA at the 1989 USSR Cup was still a respectable result.

In December of 1989 Oksana Omelianchik reluctantly retired after being forced out by Soviet officials. After an 18th place finish at the 1990 USSR Cup, Strazheva’s career came to an end as well. Ukraine had lost two veteran gymnasts, but Ukrainian WAG wasn’t collapsing, it was reloading.

In that very same year (1990) another gymnast from Ukraine joined the fracas. Svetlana Ivanova was a promising junior who had absolutely dominated the 1988 Junior European Championships. It was perhaps the best performance a Soviet had ever given in the entire history of the Junior European Championships. A coup for Soviet WAG as the Junior European Championships represented the one competition that the Soviets had frequently struggled in against their Romanian rivals.

Top Row: Dmitry Zonin (Tumbling Coach) and Natalia Matveeva (Choreographer) Middle Row: Nadezhda Tarvida, Marina Korolkova, Yulia Kut,* Ludmilla Stovbchataya,* Viktoria Ivkova, and Irina Viatinina. Bottom Row: Svetlana Ivanova,* Svetlana Kozlova, Elena Tkacheva, Elena Levochkina, Tatiana Gutsu* Photo Taken: 1988 USSR Junior Team at Round Lake

But Ivanova would not be the future of Soviet WAG. In fact, by the time of the 1992 Olympics came around she had switched to a completely different discipline of gymnastics. Svetlana Ivanova competed at the 1992 World Championships in acrobatics and narrowly missed out on a medal with a 4th place finish. Instead it would be Tatiana Lysenko and Tatiana Gutsu who would be Ukraine’s future WAG stars.

The 1990 season was one of the most compelling years in the history of Soviet WAG. Svetlana Boginskaya was without question the top soviet gymnast of 1989 and 1991. But in 1990 she spent most of the year battling her Ukrainian teammates for supremacy. She finished second to Natalia Kalinina (Goodwill Games) and Tatiana Lysenko (World Cup). While Boginskaya, Kalinina, and Lysenko were doing battle with each other, commentators had already started to notice the future potential of Gutsu who was coming up just behind them.

Sidenote: Adding to the dynamic, Kalinina and Lysenko were clubmates training alongside each other with yet another Ukrainian gymnast who was frequently appearing in the standings of Soviet domestic competition, Elena Abrashitova. The three gymnasts were something of a trio.

Elena Abrashitova* and Ludmilla Stovbchataya* on tour in the United States (1989)

That was just what was going on at the top of the program. Further down the Soviet hierarchy there were even more Ukrainians looking to make an impact. At the 1990 USSR Championships there were eight Ukrainian gymnasts in the top 15.

With four Ukrainians attending the 1989 World Championships, two in the lineup and two more as alternates, it would be accurate to say half of the USSR’s top gymnasts were Ukrainian. When using the 1990 USSR Cup as a predictor of what their 1990 team would have looked like had there been a World Championships that year, Ukraine would have had four gymnasts in their top-8 for the second year in a row.

In 1991 Ukraine had its greatest run of success, this time with Gutsu, Kalinina, and Lysenko all making the 1991 World Championships team. The trio swept the 1991 USSR Championships thanks to the absence of Boginskaya who had reaffirmed herself as the top Soviet in international competition. Heading into 1992 the question in the (soon to be disbanded) Soviet program was how many Ukrainians would make the Olympic team?

Natalia Kalinina,* Tatiana Gutsu* and Tatiana Lysenko*

With the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991, the now former Soviet (FSU) gymnasts found themselves representing their newly independent countries in the buildup to the 1992 Olympics. But they would also be competing in the Olympics as a unified under the Olympic flag.

At the 1992 European Championships the FSU gymnasts competed while representing their own countries. This time Lysenko and Gutsu had established themselves as the unquestioned leaders of the FSU. Boginskaya finished 5th in the AA with another Ukrainian (Stovbchataya) finishing right behind her in 6th place.

At the 1992 CIS Championships which had replaced the USSR Championships, just like what had been consistently happening in previous years, four Ukrainians finished in the top eight. But when the Olympic team was selected, only Gutsu and Lysenko had made the team with Stovbchataya being the alternate. Kalinina was left off the team entirely despite finishing 5th at the CIS Championships.

It was one of the most controversial team selections in Soviet WAG history. The Soviets (Unified Team) not only left a popular gymnast off the team that appeared to have the results, people quickly made the connection that it was done to limit the number of gymnasts from Ukraine. Perhaps even Stovbchataya who had just put up a sixth place finish at the 1992 European Championships could have made the team if the Soviets (Unified Team) truly wanted her.

Natalia Laschenova, Oksana Chusovitina, Natalia Kalinina,* Tatiana Groshkova, Tatiana Lysenko,* and Tatiana Gutsu* at the 1990 USA-USSR Dual Meet

There would only be two Ukrainians on the 1992 Olympic team, but that was more than enough for Ukraine to leave its mark. Of the five individual medals the Soviet (Unified Team) won, all of them were won by Ukrainian gymnasts. Among their combined medal haul, the highly coveted AA title that was won by Gutsu.

In retrospect, it was hardly surprising that Ukrainian gymnasts had been the dominant force of the ex-Soviet program at the 1992 Olympics. The seed had been planted four years earlier at the 1988 Soviet-East German Dual Meet. The dual meet was held once a year and the Soviets were known to enter only their most prized junior prospects in this particular competition. In 1988 five of the six Soviets competing were from Ukraine, (Gutsu, Kalinina, Kut, Stovbchataya, and Dudnik).

The 1992 Olympics would be the last notable competition for Tatiana Gutsu and alongside Kut and Dudnik, she was among the gymnasts who didn’t compete into the next Olympic cycle. Stovbchataya, Kalinina, and Lysenko all competed into the next Olympic cycle. The three veteran gymnasts would be role models for the next gymnast in the revolving door of Ukrainian WAGs, Lilia Podkopayeva.

Podkopayeva would go down as one of the greatest gymnasts in WAG history. She won the AA title at the 1995 World Championships and the 1996 Olympics. In doing so Lilia became the first reigning World Champion since Ludmilla Turischeva in 1972 to win the Olympic AA title. It wouldn’t happen again until Simone Biles came along.

Elena Shuiga,* Oksana Mantis,* Lilia Podkopayeva,* Natalia Paramonova,* Luda Shiporenko,* Olga Sheiko,* and Elena Hemp.* (Lilia’s clubmates at Dynamo Donetsk)

As soon as Lilia had come crashing onto the scene, she had disappeared. Podkopayeva had been among the many casualties of Ukraine’s ill-fated run towards the 1997 World Championships where they fielded just four gymnasts after suffering a rash of injuries. She never returned to high level gymnastics.

Lilia was gone but Ukraine still possessed talent within its ranks, most notably Viktoria Karpenko. Despite her association with the late 1990s, Karpenko had actually been a member of Ukraine’s 1995 World Championships team. And had been promoted to the national training center as early as 1993. Injuries had prevented Viktoria from appearing at both the 1996 Olympics and the 1997 World Championships. It had not gone unnoticed that the last two Olympic Champions were from Ukraine, and speculation was swirling that Ukraine was on the verge of doing it for the third time in a row.

Karpenko was every bit as good as the hype. In 1998 she became one of the few foreign competitors to win the American Cup. In Japan she beat both Simona Amanar and Svetlana Khorkina at the 1997 Chunichi Cup. In 1998 Karpenko returned to the Chunichi Cup where she beat Amanar for a second time in a competition that was also attended by Elena Produnova and Andreea Raducan.

Viktoria Karpenko* and Olga Teslenko* (1998 Chunichi Cup)

These wins validated the hype surrounding Karpenko who went down in history as an example of a gymnast who is respected for possessing raw athletic that her medal tally does not accurately reflect. Oleg Ostapenko called her the most talented gymnast he ever had in his program. It was high praise from the man who had worked with Kalinina, Lysenko, and Podkopayeva.

Karpenko won the silver medal in the AA at the 1999 World Championships, and appeared to have another AA medal in the bag at the 2000 Olympics before a disastrous floor performance dropped her to 12th place (counting Raducan). Karpenko’s high profile fall at the Olympics is one of the most devastating highlight reels a gymnastics fan can watch. It documents a gymnast experiencing Olympic heartbreak in the worst possible way. But the footage also marks something that went beyond Karpenko herself, it marked the death of Ukrainian gymnastics.

Memorable gymnasts would continue to carry the Ukrainian flag, and some had even managed to win gold medals. But things were never going to be like they once were. Ukraine was no longer one of the leaders in the sport, but a country that could only occasionally upset the medal race. The golden era of Ukrainian WAG had died with Karpenko’s Sydney floor routine.

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the transition of WAG being dominated by communist countries, to its current form. The sport is currently ruled by countries that have either large population bases (Russia & China), or small countries with large concentrations of wealth (Belgium & the Netherlands). Ukraine had neither and as a result, the sport left them behind.

Ukraine spent the 1990s losing its coaches to rival programs. For the coaches that left, it was often because Ukraine lacked the funds to pay them a livable wage. For the gymnasts they left behind, there was nothing left to do but carry on. Ukraine wasn’t just suffering on the coaching front, its economy and population base had nosedived as well.

Ukraine’s GDP per capita would eventually become only half that of Mexico and the population of the entire country shrank by 18% in the years since Gutsu’s historic win in 1992. Replacing old gymnastics equipment was close to impossible in a country struggling to fill its basic needs, a strong club system modeled after the American program and funded by parents with disposable income was unthinkable.

Elvire Teza, Alexandra Marinescu , Adriana Crisci, Ludmilla Ezhova and Karpenko*

Karpenko truly was the last of her kind. Future Ukrainian gymnasts would never enjoy the same access to top-rate coaching, state of the art facilities, or be products of Soviet talent scouts who delivered the most athletically gifted children in the country to sporting officials. Even if Ukraine found another gymnast with talent like Karpenko, would they be able to properly train her?

Note: Only four years had passed from the time the Soviets removed Omelianchik from their training camps to Karpenko’s first arrival at the national training center. It is mind blowing how close the careers of Omelianchik and Karpenko actually were.

No changes to the gymnastics format such as the elimination of compulsories, the introduction of open-ending scoring, or modifications to country limits was going to fix things. Ukraine was destined to join Bulgaria, Belarus, and Romania in the graveyard of Eastern European WAG powers. Programs whose downfall was linked to the exact same problems. In every case the core issues triggering their decline had little to do with gymnastics, but the demographic imbalance in an era where favorable demographics is key to success. The downfall of these historic programs was heartbreaking to witness, but also inevitable.

Anastasia Bachynska* and Diana Varinska*

But unlike its fellow Eastern European rivals, Ukraine is currently experiencing an upswing. The relatively young Anastasia Bachynska and Diana Varinska have proven to be as popular as they are talented. The program is currently in the hands of Oleg Ostapenko who returned to Ukraine in 2017. He is the coach most commonly associated with Ukraine’s glory days of the past.

There is more reason to be hopeful for Eastern European WAG. As these countries continue to pivot towards the European Union, so does the prospect of reversing the economic decline that has hastened the fall of their WAG programs. In the past Ukrainian coaches built legendary gymnasts by mastering the vast resources of the old Soviet arsenal. Now they have had two decades to learn alternative training methods to make up for equipment they no longer have.

The return of Oleg Ostapenko isn’t so much a fluke, but an example of a documented trend. It is an established trend that immigrants are more likely to return to their homeland as they grow older. Wishing to spend their twilight years in the land of their birth. With so many of Ukraine’s coaching departures occurring decades ago, it is only becoming easier to convince some of them to come back.

Lilia Podkopayeva*

With Ostapenko, Bachynska, and Varinska at the helm, Ukraine may be on the verge of a resurgence. The beginning of Eastern Europe turning the corner as it has figured out how to overcome its demographic disadvantage. The last 20 years being merely a temporary dark age as Eastern Europe sought to learn the lessons of how to transition from a communist model, to a western model. All while dealing amidst a cloud of economic upheaval. For as bleak as Ukraine’s current situation may be, there has never been more hope for the country that tomorrow will be better.

The more cynical perspective is to liken the presence of Ostapenko as trying to fix the Titanic with duck tape. His current contributions being only a temporary reprieve in an era where Ukraine continues to find itself bogged down due to circumstances beyond its control. It is yet to be known which scenario will be the future of Ukraine, but what is known is that 2020 will be different.

Ukraine is one of the few countries still committed to attending the 2020 European Championships. Alongside their old Romanian rivals, the two countries are expected to dominate the competition and could possibly win every medal available. There will be questions about the ethics of competing in the middle of a pandemic and the legitimacy of medals that were won in a competition with so many high-profile withdrawals. But for the first time in years Ukraine is entering a competition with the expectations of a heavy favorite. If only for a little bit, things will be as they once were.

Link to bonus material: When Ukraine ruled figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics.

Tatiana Gutsu*

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s