Swiss Gymnastics: A Long History of Overcoming Adversity

Note: I wrote this article in conjunction with a second article on Swiss gymnastics. I highly recommend reading both articles.

Link To: The Swiss Gymnastics Paradox

In the Gymn-Forum database, Swiss athletes in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) don’t begin appearing in major competition on a regular basis until 1971. Switzerland participating at the 1967 European Championships is the only evidence that Swiss WAG even existed prior to 1971. Switzerland has the distinction of being one of the last countries in Europe to build a viable WAG program. Doing so only after most of their regional neighbors had programs with decades of history, and medals in their trophy case.

This happened in the context of Switzerland being a pioneer of the Olympic movement. Having appeared in the Olympics on a regular basis since 1896, which only a handful of countries can say. While Switzerland was spurning the women’s side of the sport, on the men’s side of the sport they were the most successful program up until the 1950s. Switzerland won a medal in the men’s team competition at every Olympics they attended from 1924-1952, while simultaneously having a WAG program that was nowhere to be found.

None of this was a fluke, but a continuation of a trend in a country where opportunity for female athletes was lackluster. Women’s gymnastics made its debut in 1928. In every Summer Olympics from 1928 to 1968, Switzerland fielded a total of 973 athletes. But only 31 of them were female, an atrocious 3% of their total pool of athletes. There is even more context that needs to be provided, Switzerland’s awful track record on women’s suffrage (the right to vote).

Giulia Steingruber serving as the Swiss flag bearing at the 2016 opening ceremony

Entering the 1950s Switzerland had yet to grant women the right to vote. The issue was put up in a national referendum in 1959 and Switzerland voted 67-31 against granting women the right to vote. In 1971 Switzerland reversed course with a second national referendum producing overwhelming support in favor of granting women the right to vote. But Switzerland is a country that emphasizes limited central government and strong local government. Numerous administrative districts were able to continue blocking women from the voting process and one had voted against it via referendum as recently as 1990. In 1991 the federal government of Switzerland was finally able to secure the right for women to vote in every area of Switzerland.

It is not surprising that Swiss WAG appeared to turn the corner in 1971, it was the very same year women won the right to vote in most of Switzerland. But as soon as Swiss WAG appeared to have turned the corner, misfortune struck again. In 1972 Switzerland sent a full WAG team to the Olympics, the first Swiss Olympians in WAG history. What happened next?

Two consecutive Olympic boycotts.

Switzerland has the distinction of being one of just two WAG programs (the other being North Korea) to boycott the Olympics on two consecutive occasions. The more widely known case was the 1980 Olympic boycott. Most European nations had opted against joining the Americans in the boycott. Switzerland was one of the few European countries that decided to participate.

Ariella Kaslin

At the 1972 Olympics Switzerland finished 13th in the team competition. It was decided that at the next Olympics, the team competition would be limited to only 12 teams. It goes without saying that Switzerland was understandably upset over this decision. But then came the chaos.

Not only had FIG cut the team size from 19 to 12, the qualification process in selecting those teams was the worst method ever devised in gymnastics history. I wrote a whole article on it. The process had a glaring flaw that allowed teams to easily cheat their way to an Olympic qualification berth. By the time it was all over, every single country had done precisely that.

Switzerland was guilty, but they were significantly less guilty than everyone else. Switzerland was one of the few countries that had made an attempt to keep faith with the system and not corrupt it. But with every other country cheating the process, Switzerland realized they had to partake in the same behavior or get left behind.

Maria Paseka, Simone Biles, and Giulia Steingruber (2016 Olympics)

The 1976 Olympic qualification process had become so corrupted, FIG took the unprecedented step of completely overhauling the system shortly before the Olympics were to start. Previous Olympic qualification spots were revoked and an Olympic qualifier event in Hamburg, West Germany was quickly put together.

The FIG had gone as far as to disallow judges from any country looking to qualify a team/individual to the Olympics. This effectively meant most of the judges who had taken part in the previous corruption were banned from the competition. The top brass at FIG were in attendance and walking the competition floor in order to monitor the scores as soon as they came in.

Even with those precautions in place, there were still irregularities with the scoring and it had come mainly to the detriment of Switzerland. The Swiss would find themselves missing the 12-team cutoff by one spot. Switzerland had been one of the more honest programs when it came to the qualification process had been rewarded by losing an Olympic spot that had rightfully belonged to them.

Romi Kessler

The Swiss were understandably upset over this. Their response was to protest the 1976 Olympics by not sending any female gymnasts to Montreal. As the 13th ranked program, Switzerland had secured three individual spots in WAG, but these spots went unfilled. If you ever wondered why there were slightly more male gymnasts than female gymnasts at the 1976 Olympics, the missing Swiss women were part of the reason. Other countries that felt slighted by the Hamburg situation also left their individual spots unfilled.

The 1978 World Championships marked the debut of Romi Kessler who wasn’t just the best gymnast in Switzerland, but during her career she was touted as the best WAG in all of Western Europe. But Switzerland failed to build on the momentum of Romi Kessler. From 1988-2000 Switzerland would have only a single gymnast making a single appearance at the Olympics in WAG.

In the modern era, gymnastics is dominated by countries with large population bases, this was one more roadblock Switzerland had to overcome. Ariella Kaslin and Giulia Steingruber would make the Switzerland the smallest country to have any success at all in WAG. And by “any success at all” I mean winning the All-Around at the European Championships and winning a medal at the Olympics. Switzerland had much to celebrate as Ariella and Giulia won medals for their country. Even more so when it is realized what Swiss WAG had to overcome in order to get there.

Link To: The Swiss Gymnastics Paradox

Giulia Steingruber

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