The Wolf Turn Was as Popular 50 Years Ago as it is Today (Part II)

In Part I of this series I highlighted examples of Cold War era gymnasts in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) who performed “true” wolf turns. Now I’m going to cite examples of gymnasts who performed skills that feature similar turning motions, but aren’t quite the same.

Nellie Kim

Nellie Kim performed a wolf turn spinning from the opposite direction at the 1975 USSR Cup. Although it should be noted she used her hand to perform the turn. Nellie would later take this move out of her routine ahead of the 1976 Olympics. Following the Olympics she brought this move back for the 1977 European Championships and even upgraded it, adding a second twist.

Aniko Ducza 1962

Hungarian gymnast Aniko Ducza won a bronze medal on beam at the 1962 World Championships. One of her elements was a predecessor to the same motion Nellie Kim would incorporate a decade later, although Nellie did it with additional spins.

Vera Caslavska

At the 1964 Olympics Vera Caslavska performed a motion very similar to a wolf turn. She performed a complete rotation but didn’t have her leg fully extended. Caslavska would again perform this skill at the 1966 World Championships. To this day Caslavska remains the only gymnast who won an Olympic gold medal in all five individual events.

Larissa Latynina 1962 World Championships

At the 1962 World Championships Larissa Latynina performed the same type of move as Caslavska. For those who don’t know, Latynina is the most decorated Olympian after Michael Phelps.

Polina Astakhova

Polina Astakhova had choreography which can be interpreted as half a wolf turn. It was likely this particular skill that served as the blueprint for future Soviet gymnasts such as Natalia Kuchinskaya and Ludmilla Turischeva. They would later expand this body-motion into a full wolf turn. As for Polina, she won ten Olympic medals and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only Caslavska and Latynina have more Olympic medals in women’s gymnastics.

To finish this article, I’m going to cite four examples as to how the wolf turn has either influenced gymnastics history over the years, or exemplifies a larger overall theme.

Olga Korbut’s Legacy: Bars vs. Beam

Olga Korbut achieved widespread media praise for her uneven bars work, but the gymnastics establishment reacted differently. The gymnastics establishment appreciated her bars work for popularizing the sport, but it wasn’t respected in the way her beam work was respected. The Korbut Flip on bars was quickly mastered by rival gymnasts and then rendered redundant by the rise of giant swings in the immediate aftermath of the 1976 Olympics. Korbut’s uneven bars routines have practically nothing in common with modern bar routines.

Korbut on balance beam was different. The gymnastics establishment immediately saw it as a game changer. Korbut defied the trend of wolf turns. And in the end, Olga was ahead of the curb in that regard. It took years for the rest of WAG to come around, but coaches en masse would eventually stop prioritizing wolf turns and focused on moves in the Korbut style instead. Korbut is absolutely part of the foundation for modern beam routines and her rejection of the wolf turn is one small example of how Korbut’s philosophy impacted beam work as a whole. It is an example where her bars work was more influential outside the sport (fans), but inside the sport (gymnasts and coaches) it was her beam work that was more influential.

Bela Karolyi being anti-establishment and the different philosophies of the Romanian and Soviet programs.

In the early 1970s the Romanian program found itself largely mimicking the behavior of the Soviet program. Both programs emphasizing the wolf turn serves as an example of their shared gymnastics philosophy. But as Bela gained influence within the Romanian program, it correlated with the wolf turn being deemphasized in Romania. The wolf turn is one minor example as to how Bela completely revamped Romania’s approach.

It is also an example of Bela’s vision for Romania was to rebel against the WAG establishment. The Romanians started shifting away from the wolf turn before the Soviets did the same thing. The wolf turn was the ultimate establishment skill due to it being over a decade old by the time of the 1976 Olympics. And Bela seemed to want nothing to do with it.

What makes the differing attitudes towards the wolf turn particularly noteworthy is that it reflected the differing attitudes the two programs had towards incorporating ballet into their training. The Soviets emphasized ballet training in and around the 1976 Olympics whereas the Romanians didn’t. The ballet background of the Soviet gymnasts made it easier for them to learn moves such as the wolf turn. This was a fundamental reason as to why it was so popular within the Soviet program. Bela Karolyi with his newer approach wasn’t emphasizing ballet training nor wolf turns.

The 1972 and 1976 quads popularized gymnastics, whereas the 1980 and 1984 quads built modern gymnastics

You can’t recite the history of women’s gymnastics without mentioning the contributions of Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. Together they were responsible for popularizing WAG and raising it to the level where it instantly became one of the most-watched Olympic sports. But right as that was happening and particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, WAG was experiencing a fundamental shift.

The mainstream style of gymnastics in 1972 and 1976 was critical to building the popularity of the sport, but the routines of that era have little in common with modern gymnastics. Following the 1976 Olympics, skills requiring belly-beats and standing on the bars quickly fell out of favor. By the 1980 Olympics Natalia Shaposhnikova (giant-swings), Elena Davydova (Tkachev) and countless others had made it apparent that the apparatus was heading in a new direction. It was a direction that unlike the Korbut-era, remains a core component of the modern uneven-bars.

In the early 1980s the exact same shift also occurred on other apparatuses with the introduction of Yurchenko-style vaults in 1982, while in 1983 Olga Mostepanova introduced the “Onodi” which is a beam skill that is highly revered even to this day. The downfall of the wolf turn correlates with this same period where classical apparatus work was getting thrown out, and replaced with skills that are still relevant to this day.

The irony here is that the downfall of the wolf turn in the 1970s came to symbolize WAG heading in a new direction with more acrobatic emphasis, only for this very same move to make a 21st century comeback. Yet the 20th and 21st century styles couldn’t be any more different. Which brings me to my next point.

The artistic emphasis of classical gymnastics vs the modern gymnastics emphasis of acrobatic elements.

The wolf turn has the distinction of being a skill that achieved widespread popularity in two different eras, decades apart. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the wolf turn was fundamentally an artistic move. Gymnasts of the era utilized their ballet training to not only perfect their form as they completed their wolf turns, but to combine it with something else, usually a leg split of some kind.

In the classical era, a gymnast was expected to maintain full control over her body from the start of the skill upon its final completion. She was expected to master the skill so well that by the time it was done, she had enough body control to easily transition into a second skill. It is for this reason that gymnasts in the classical era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s rarely botched their wolf turns.

This all sounds like a stark contrast to wolf turns in the modern era where all the emphasis is on a gymnast trying to complete as many rotations as she is physically capable of. Often times completing her final rotation when she is at her absolute limit and is barely able to maintain control. The classical philosophy of the wolf turn demonstrating complete body control/expression (artistry) has given way to the more acrobatic concept, where a gymnasts strives to prove her talent by completing more spins than her competitors, which is fundamentally an acrobatic concept.

The wolf turn is perhaps the single greatest example of how much WAG has changed over the years. This same skill has been widely performed 50 years apart, but the approach coaches/athletes take towards it between the two different eras are on opposite ends of the artistry vs acrobatic spectrum. The wolf turn symbolizes how artistic interpretations of a skill can be converted into an acrobatic interpretation. It also exemplifies how there are different ways to approach difficulty. One approach is based on trying to incorporate a skill into a transition with a difficult second skill. Another approach is to attempt as many rotations as possible with a single skill.

The reappearance of the wolf turn was not the result of modern coaches taking influence from wolf turns of the past, which is why the classical era wolf turn and the modern wolf turn have so little in common. But rather, modern coaches took a page from rhythmic gymnastics and applied it to artistic gymnastics.

It is yet another example where the wolf turn hints at a larger overall theme. In this case, rhythmic gymnastics helping to influence the development of artistic gymnastics. The history the the wolf turn doesn’t single-handedly prove all the prior points made in this article. But its rise, fall, and the different artistic/acrobatic interpretations it has experienced over the years does fit into larger overall themes. There are few skills in the modern Code of Points have the ability to correlate with macro gymnastics themes that have impacted the development of the sport over the decades. But the wolf turn is exactly that.

It is practically unheard of to find a skill that was popularized and universally performed in two different eras, let alone two eras separated by 50 years. Yet the wolf turn exemplifies this because it is a skill with so much history associated with it. To demonstrate just how far back the history of this skill goes, let me introduce Eva Bosakova.

Eva Bosakova

Eva wasn’t the first WAG to debut an eponymous skill, but she was the first to debut an eponymous skill that everyone remembered. Her cartwheel on beam in the early 1950s was as revolutionary as Olga Korbut’s 1972 Olympic routines. Bosakova started the trend of gymnasts working difficult acrobatic elements into their routines. It was due to Eva Bosakova that gymnastics fans and the media started paying any attention at all to the concept of an eponymous skill.

Immediately following her cartwheel Eva Bosakova transitioned into a turning motion. While I wouldn’t call it a wolf turn, it is impossible to deny that Bosakova didn’t use the exact same turning motion that would serve as the foundation for the modern wolf turn. It was only a matter of time before another gymnast came along and decided to add an extra 180 degrees to Bosakova’s turn. The foundation for the wolf turn was being laid from the very moment WAG pivoted towards eponymous skills.

In the current era, the wolf turn is widely mocked amongst gymnastics fans. And why shouldn’t they? The only exposure younger fans have had with this skill are the error-riddled and frequently botched double and triple wolf turns of the last 15 years. They aren’t as visually appealing as the artistic-laced wolf turns of the cold war era that were almost always done perfectly. Yet behind the modern element is a historic skill that has more historical connotations with it than all but a handful of skills in the Code of Points. It really should be treated as one of the most sacred moves in the history of the sport, even more so when it is realized how many sacred names are associated with this skill.

Elena Mukhina

Link to Part I of this series.

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