How the 1980 Olympic Boycott Altered the Career of Olga Mostepanova

The title of this article will probably provoke confusion among fans who know the story of Olga Mostepanova. She is most commonly associated with the 1984 Olympic boycott and as far as most are concerned, Olga Mostepanova was too young and of the wrong nationality to get caught up in the events of 1980. But four years before Olga had to deal with the fallout of the 1984 boycott impacting her senior career, the boycott of 1980 was impacting her junior career.

Like its fellow Eastern Bloc rivals, the Soviet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) program was all about chasing markets. They sought to send their gymnasts to Western countries with large markets, but also a love affair with superstars like Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. Due to its large population, Western Europe was the most ideal location for this role. But because it wasn’t a single country, it evolved into a collection of small markets rather than one big market.

The United States and Japan were different. Both countries were massive markets. Japan not only had a highly successful men’s gymnastics program, but its population was twice that of Great Britain, the second largest country in Western Europe. Meanwhile the United States had twice as many people as Japan. At the time all three countries had a premier gymnastics event that was well attended by the Eastern Bloc.

Olga Mostepanova

In Great Britain that competition was the Champions-All which had been founded in 1974. In Japan it was the Chunichi Cup founded in 1970, while the United States had the American Cup which was created in 1976. All three competitions were highly prestigious assignments for Soviet gymnasts, but there was a hierarchy in place. The Soviets had a habit of sending their most promising prospects for a future All-Around (AA) title to the Chunichi Cup and American Cup. The Champions-All assignments were awarded to gymnasts who were competing for one of the final spots on the Olympic team. By 1980 the Champions-All had been held on six occasions with six Soviets being sent to the British competition. Three of them were Olympic alternates in 1972, 1976, and 1980.

But in 1980 the Soviets had a dilemma on their hands. Immediately following the 1980 boycott the Chunichi Cup (December 1980) and the American Cup (March 1981) were two key events on the upcoming calendar following the Moscow Olympics. But both competitions were held in countries that had boycotted Moscow and the Soviets were not going to support the very countries that had tried to disrupt their Olympic Games. The 1980 Chunichi Cup would prove to be the only time it was ever held without a Soviet gymnast in attendance, while the 1981 American Cup was also held without Soviet gymnasts.

Olga Mostepanova’s career hadn’t even started and she was already missing out on the two most prestigious assignments the Soviets typically bestowed on their young gymnasts. Olga Mostepanova crashed onto the scene in 1980 and it was the most ill-timed arrival for a young junior prospect. Of all the Soviets gymnasts who were named to Olympic teams in 1976, 1980, and 1984, Olga Mostepanova is the only one who appeared at neither the American Cup nor the Chunichi Cup.

Olga Mostepanova (center wearing a stripped shirt)

But Olga did the exact same thing in 1980 that she would later do four years later in 1984, make the best of a bad situation. The British competitions were the last viable option for the Soviets and it just so happened that Great Britain was the highest ranking WAG program from outside the Eastern Bloc that hadn’t boycotted the 1980 Olympics. The British were going to get rewarded with a visit from the whiz kid of the Soviet program, Olga Mostepanova.

Mostepanova’s first trip to England actually came three months before the Olympics at the 1980 Champions-All. Olga Mostepanova performed amicably having recorded the highest score on beam, while also tying for the highest score with another gymnast on both vault and floor. That’s 3 of 4 events where Olga Mostepanova recorded the highest score in the competition. But Mostepanova finished 3rd in the AA due to a disastrous performance on the uneven bars with an 8.700 being the official score. The competition report noted her bars routine was “very difficult.” While it didn’t say she fell on the uneven bars, it described her as coming to “a grinding halt.”

Despite finishing in 3rd place, there was nothing to be ashamed of. Olga Mostepanova had beaten two highly successful gymnasts even while recording an error. The two gymnasts who finished behind her (4th & 5th) would finish 10th (Radka Zemanova) and 16th (Krassimira Toneva) in the Olympic All-Around just three months later. That was Olga’s performance with a bad score dragging down her overall average.

Olga Mostepanova

Officially, Olga Mostepanova was the third best gymnast at this competition. But the results could easily be interpreted to argue Mostepanova was the most talented gymnast in attendance due to her results on the other three apparatuses. Had Olga competed cleanly and gone 4-for-4, she possibly could have won. In doing so she would have beaten Rodica Dunca and Katharina Rensch. Beating two gymnasts who finished 7th and 9th at the 1980 Olympics.

Based on her 1980 appearance at the Champions-All, Olga Mostepanova had given indications that she was a top-10 gymnast in the world even while still a junior. And Olga had the charisma to go with her athletic ability. International Gymnast made sure to note that “Olga Mostepanova of the Soviet Union largely monopolized the attentions of the media on the women’s side.” It was also at this competition that Western audiences got their first glimpse of Mostepanova’s famous “Flight of the Bumble Bee” floor routine.

But the 1980 Champions-All wasn’t the performance that made Mostepanova famous. The performance had gone largely overlooked as gymnastics fans were too busy focusing on the rapidly approaching Olympics to pay attention to the gymnast who wouldn’t turn senior until three years from now. Eight months later Olga Mostepanova returned to England for the 1980 Coca-Cola International with her Flight of the Bumble Bee floor music in hand. Now that the Olympics were over, this time the gymnastics community was going to give her its undivided attention.

Strangely enough, it was this performance that Olga Mostepanova seemed to crash onto the scene, even though the results weren’t as impressive as her performance from earlier in the year. Mostepanova finished 4th in the AA while participating in an apparatus finals on three events. She won a bronze on beam and a gold on floor. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this competition was Olga finished one spot ahead of Marilena Vladarau in the AA. Vladarau was a veteran gymnast who was part of Romania’s legendary gold medal winning team at the 1979 World Championships.

But nevertheless, this competition received more attention (despite being less prestigious) and footage of it is available on YouTube. Olga Mostepanova made the cover of International Gymnast because of this competition with the caption: “Newest sensation from the Soviet camp.”

Olga Mostepanova cover of International Gymnast

The competition report called Mostepanova a “very serious-minded little girl, although she can smile when she wants to.” It also said “for one so young, Mostepanova’s work is beautiful.” Lastly, the report defended Mostepanova’s routines calling them “understandable in the routine of a 12-year old!”

The gymnastics community was rightfully flabbergasted at a gymnast having so much success at just 12 years old and Mostepanova’s run in 1980 can rightfully be described as legendary. But while the international gymnastics community was losing its mind over how a 12 year old could be so good, within the Soviet program there must have been snickers at the reaction. What no one else knew at the time, Olga Mostepanova’s age had been falsified by two years.

Olga Mostepanova was actually a 10 year old.

For a story that is already insane, Mostepanova’s exploits are even more remarkable with that detail in mind. When Olga Mostepanova appeared at the 1980 Champions-All and outscored two Olympians in an Olympic year, she did it while at the age of 10 years & 3 months.

By Soviet standards, the career of Olga Mostepanova was highly unusual. Making a trip to Japan was practically a rite of passage for Soviet gymnasts. Yet Olga Mostepanova never competed in a major Japanese competition. Soviet gymnasts spent so much time in Japan that it is usually a matter of “when” not “if” I find photos of them in Japan. But that has not been my experience when researching Olga Mostepanova. Instead, she is the one gymnast I keep finding in British sources time and time again.

Olga Mostepanova

On one occasion, Olga Mostepanova graced the cover of a program for the British Junior Championships, even though it was a domestic meet with no foreign athletes in attendance. It seemed the British had so much respect for Olga, they figured there was no better candidate to serve as a role model for their young up and coming stars.

This isn’t a sad story. This isn’t the story of how Mostepanova was robbed by the 1980 Olympic boycott as well. It didn’t so much as rob Mostepanova of a junior career, but forced her into making adjustments. Considering how she performed at these two British meets, Olga Mostepanova adjusted quite well.

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