When Simone Biles withdrew from five of six events at the 2021 Olympics, she provoked a national conversation on athlete care. Simone set a standard that no matter how important the Olympics are, the well being of an athlete always comes first. Her decision dominated headlines and went viral on every social media platform imaginable.
This story generated a discussion, and through that discussion it brought newfound attention to one of the most obscure sports stories in of all time.
For those questioning the validity of Simone Biles’ decision, the invocation of Elena Mukhina’s name neutralized any criticism. By the time all was said and done, social media posts in support of Simone were outperforming equivalent posts criticizing her, sometimes by as much as a 50:1 ratio.
While Simone had generated a discussion regarding herself, that discussion had trickled down into a discussion about Elena Mukhina, where many learned about her story for the first time. Just how well known did Elena Mukhina become as a direct result of Simone Biles? The graphic above was taken from Google Trends and the search term “Elena Mukhina.”
It is very possible that Elena Mukhina is currently better known in 2021 than at any time during the period in which she was actually alive. If that may sound like an extreme assertion, on July 28th, 2021 the New York Times choose Mukhina as the header image for an article featuring Simone Biles. The article then spent its first three paragraphs highlighting Mukhina and describing her story.
The significance of this particular 2021 article is that it was roughly equivalent in scope and size to any New York Times article mentioning Elena Mukhina in the past. Despite winning an All-Around title in 1978 and her high-profile injury in 1980, it is in 2021 that Mukhina experienced one of the largest surges in press attention.
Despite Mukhina’s high status in the gymnastics community, gymnasts who don’t go to the Olympics do not receive much coverage in mainstream media compared to gymnasts who formally compete in the Olympics. Nor was Mukhina particularly well positioned to earn headlines for herself as she competed in an era where Nadia Comaneci captured all the attention, and Soviet athletes were generally seen as unlikable due to their country invading Afghanistan coupled with the 1980 Olympic boycott that followed.
The 2021 Olympics proved to be something of a second chance for Mukhina to get the attention she always deserved after decades of being an obscure sports story. How much attention did Mukhina receive compared to other gymnasts? In the below graphic I compared Mukhina’s name to Morgan Hurd’s name on Google trends. It demonstrated more people searched for Elena Mukhina in 2021 than people searched for Morgan Hurd at any point in her career, including her 2017 All-Around Championship.
It is up for readers to decide for themselves what constitutes being a well-known name and whether such status currently applies to Mukhina. But the most surprising result I found while playing with Google Trends, Mukhina apparently recorded more searches than 2021 Olympian Grace McCallum as seen in the graphic below.
Perhaps the McCallum vs. Mukhina comparison is a demonstration of how disproportionate Olympic coverage of various Olympic gymnasts can be. Where an American who didn’t win an individual medal receives attention that pales in comparison such as a legend like Simone Biles. Or perhaps this is all a lesson that Simone is such a powerful figure, she can prop up any figure, even if that figure is only loosely associated with her and passed away 15 years ago.
I still don’t know if it is appropriate to describe Mukhina as someone who is now “well-known.” But one thing is clear, significantly more people today know the story of the courageous Soviet gymnast who overcame so much, only to break her neck shortly before the 1980 Olympics than they did a few weeks ago. And the person single-handedly responsible for that is Simone Biles.
It was always my dream for Elena Mukhina to receive this kind of attention and recognition. For years I held out hope that perhaps an event would occur that would cause more people to learn about what is simultaneously one of the most inspiring and tragic sports figures I have ever come across. But never in my wildest dreams did I expect it was going to be Simone Biles who would do this for Elena Mukhina.