One comment/phrase that I see all the time in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) is the notion that gymnasts frequently “skip” the World Championships being held the year after the Olympics (Post-Olympic Worlds). This narrative was particularly strong during the Tokyo quad as fans debated the legitimacy of Morgan Hurd’s All-Around (AA) title in 2017. But it has continued to appear because of Covid-19.
Currently, FIG is slated to hold a World Championships only a few months after the 2021 Olympics in what is a very abnormal scheduling pattern. The competition is only six weeks away and already it has been impacted by a number of high profile pullouts. The reaction from WAG fans is frequently that of a “so what” attitude. That these pullouts were destined to happen regardless of Covid-19 and the funky schedule. And that the 2021 World Championships won’t be inherently different than other post-Olympic Worlds such as 2009, 2013, and 2017.
This article is my attempt to disprove those assertions. That contrary to frequent commentary, gymnasts don’t skip these competitions in large numbers. Or at the very least, the frequency at which these withdrawals occur is not as common as it is often said to be. I classify this narrative as something that is “95% a myth.” The 5% being an agreement that yes, we do see high-profile withdrawals on some occasions. That there is an argument to be made that a couple of post-Olympic Worlds do skew towards the bottom in quality of the competitive field when all World Championships are ranked. That the entire premise of this topic is subjective in nature and thus the opinions of each fan can’t simply be refuted with numbers.
But the other 95% is the argument that even the weakest of the post-Olympics World Championships have only a minuscule drop-off compared to World Championships in other years. Making them so close to your typical World Championships that they could never be classified as less prestigious, less important, or in a lower tier. That there is a case to be made that on some occasions, a post-Olympic World Championships had an even stronger competitive field than other competitions later on in the same quad.
In this article I’m going to briefly recap the history of every post-Olympic World Championships, starting from when they were first created in 1981. At first I will be giving brief overviews of each World Championships, but the closer I get to present day, the more detailed I will get in my summaries.
1981 World Championships
Reigning Olympic Champion Elena Davydova and second-place finisher Maxi Gnauck both returned for the 1981 World Championships. Also in attendance was Maria Filatova, Steffi Kraker, and Ma Yanghong. All three are members of the Hall of Fame and if not for the 1980 boycott, all three of them would be 2x Olympians.
This competition also marked the debut of Lavinia Agache and Olga Bicherova. Agache would prove to be one of the most decorated gymnasts of the 1981-1984 quad. Bicherova would go on to be one of only three gymnasts to win the AA at the World Cup, World Championships, and European Championships.
Ironically, both Bicherova and Agache outperformed some of their more famous teammates. In the four major gymnastics competitions of the Cold War, Bicherova won more individual medals than Natalia Yurchenko and Olga Mostepanova won combined, while Lavinia Agache recorded a higher medal tally than Aurelia Dobre.
1985 World Championships
The AA silver medalists of both the 1984 Olympics (Ecaterina Szabo) and 1984 Alternate Olympics (Hana Ricna) returned for the 1985 World Championships. Olga Mostepanova who is widely regarded as the best gymnast of 1984 also returned. This competition would be the debut of Dagmar Kersten and Daniela Silivas. Kersten would win two medals at the 1988 Olympics while Silivas would go on to be one of the most iconic gymnasts of all time. Also in attendance were Natalia Yurchenko, Elena Shushunova, and Oksana Omelianchik.
If you wanted to find which competition had the most iconic start list, the 1985 World Championships would certainly be one of the top-contenders in that discussion
1989 World Championships
This competition was won by 3x Olympian Svetlana Boginskaya. Other veteran gymnasts in attendance were Silivas and 1987 AA Champion Aurelia Dobre. Deliana Vodenicharova and Natalia Laschenova were two additional returning Olympians who would have highly respected gymnastics careers. Amongst the notable gymnasts making their debut were Yang Bo who would be one of China’s top gymnasts of the era, Henrietta Onodi who would go on to be a 2x Olympian, and a very young Kim Gwang-Suk who would be a future World Champion on the uneven bars.
Like 1981, two returning AA medalists from the Olympics were in attendance. This competition was also marked the highpoint of Olesia Dudnik’s career. Another stronger All-Arounder in attendance was Cristina Bontas. She finished 4th in the AA at the 1992 Olympics, won an AA medal at the 1991 World Championships, and also finished 4th in the AA at the 1989 World Championships.
1993 World Championships
Every gymnast in the top four of the AA standings is a member of the Hall of Fame and combine for eight total Olympic appearances. The presence of Oksana Chusovitina, Lavinia Milosovici, and Lilia Podkopayeva add three more members of the Hall of Fame who were in attendance. This competition would also feature 2x Olympian Roza Galieva and Elena Piskun who is on the relatively short list of gymnasts who won gold medals on two different events in Event Finals.
Gymnasts who were present at the 1993 World Championships are 6th (Gina Gogean), 7th (Lavinia Milosovici), 10th (Simona Amanar) and 12th (Shannon Miller) on the all-time combined World Championships/Olympics medal count. Once again, two AA medalists from the previous Olympics were in attendance.
1997 World Championships
This is the competition where Svetlana Khorkina achieved breakout success and started her run of dominance. Also appearing were two of the most famous vaulters in the history of the sport, Elena Produnova and Simona Amanar. Simona would go on to be the official winner of the 2000 Olympic Games and she is on an exclusive list of gymnasts who have won AA medals in two different Olympics. The previously mentioned Gina Gogean was in attendance while a pair of relatively young gymnasts entered the competition looking for redemption after a disappointing 1996 Olympics, Alexandra Marinescu and Dominique Moceanu.
It would be criminal to not mention the Chinese team which featured Liu Xuan, Kui Yuanyuan, Meng Fei, Mo Huilan, Zhou Duan, and Bi Wenjing. It was one of the most iconic and compelling lineups in Chinese history. All six members of the team won a silver medal or better on an individual event at some point in their careers. France wasn’t a dominant power in the 1990s, but their 1997 team featured two names gymnastics fans will recognize, Elvire Teza and Cecile Canqueteau. Today fans know her as Cecile Landi.
As was the case before, two AA medalists from the previous Olympics were in attendance. Gymnasts who were present at the 1997 World Championships are 3rd (Svetlana Khorkina), 6th (Gina Gogean), and 10th (Simona Amanar) on the all-time combined World Championships/Olympics medal count. This impressive trio combined for over half of all the individual medals won, including all five of the available gold medals.
2001 World Championships
At the 2001 World Championships Svetlana Khorkina added another AA title to her medal tally. Andreea Raducan also returned. It marked the appearance of the gymnast who had the highest qualifying score at the 2000 Olympics (Khorkina) and the gymnast who had the highest score in the AA finals (Raducan). They are widely considered the two strongest gymnasts at the 2000 Olympics and both appeared at the 2001 World Championships. This competition also featured Elena Zamolodchikova who gave an iconic performance at the 2000 Olympics in which she won two gold medals in Event Finals. Zamolodchikova is a 2x Olympian and member of the Hall of Fame.
2005 World Championships
The American delegation at this competition features gymnasts who rank as the 3rd (Nastia Liukin), 5th (Alicia Sacramone), and 6th (Chellsie Memmel) best gymnasts in program history per my “points” system. It is safe to say that this American lineup was as good as it gets. The non-American field included the previously mentioned Zamolodchikova, the highly regarded Catalina Ponor, and the reigning Olympic Champion on bars in Emilie Lepennec.
It also should be noted that Beth Tweddle was in attendance at this competition. She is incredibly underrated having won six medals in the individual events. Tweddle also recorded a 4th place finish on five different occasions. Statistically, she is one of the most impressive gymnasts of the era. Meanwhile Event Finals featured Anna Pavlova and Cheng Fei on vault. Both are 2x Olympians. Oksana Chusovitina won a medal at this competition while the third ranked gymnast of the 2004 Olympics (Zhang Nan) was also present.
2009 World Championships
This is the competition that probably started the idea of post-Olympic World Championships having weaker fields. The American program experienced four high profile cases of an Olympic gymnast skipping 2009, only to return later in the quad. The 2009 World Championships also suffered from an inability to replace the loss of highly renowned veterans with the emergence of younger gymnasts who would go on to be legends themselves.
After two decades of gymnasts like Shushunova, Boginskaya, and Khorkina being the face of post-Olympic World Championships, the 2009 competition didn’t produce a breakout star with a comparable resume. Instead, two gold medals, one in the All-Around and another on vault went to gymnasts who never won an individual medal elsewhere in their careers. Creating a situation where on two different events, a Champion was crowned who ranks dead last in career accomplishment relative to other Champions on that same event.
At the time Rebecca Bross and Ana Porgras were emergent stars, but their careers did not stand the test of time as an even younger generation led by Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova, Aly Raisman and others carried the day later in the quad. These factors have created a perception that the 2009 World Championships had a weak field, but is that perception fair?
In spite of everything stated above, the 2009 field performed quite well at the 2010 World Championships. The 2010 bars, beam, and floor titles went to three different gymnasts who had won medals at the 2009 World Championships. If the 2009 field was weak, why did they have so much success in 2010?
The bulk of the 2010 medals went to either first-year senior Aliya Mustafina, or returning veterans from the 2009 World Championships. Undermining the narrative that the gymnasts who went on hiatus in 2009 changed the trajectory of the quad.
Elsewhere there were still quality gymnasts at the 2009 World Championships, most notably the Chinese squad. The 2008 Chinese team was dominated by young gymnasts who naturally opted to continue their careers and attend the 2009 World Championships. The four-gymnast delegation featured a pair of 2x Olympians who won gold medals in the individual events at this very competition (Deng Linlin and He Kexin).
It also marked the debut of Sui Lu who was the third Chinese gymnast to win a medal. Sui, Deng, and He were all dominant gymnasts who are all in a statistical tie for the greatest gymnast in Chinese history after Cheng Fei. And finally, the fourth Chinese gymnast was Yang Yilin. She won three medals at the 2008 Olympics including an AA bronze.
2013 World Championships
This was the debut of Simone Biles and the gymnasts she shared the AA podium with were Aliya Mustafina and Kyla Ross. Gymnastics fans don’t need an introduction to Mustafina and Biles, but it should be pointed out that Kyla Ross was a far better gymnast than most people realize.
The early part of her senior career is a story of a gymnast who competed in the Olympics at only 15 years old and was a tad too young to have a powerful presence. The story of her final years at the elite level was that of a highly-capable gymnast who was done in by a growth spurt. In between those two stories is Kyla Ross 2013 and Kyla Ross 2014. The story of a dominant gymnast proving she had the talent to be one of the top gymnasts of the entire decade, but had to settle for “only” two AA medals.
While it goes without saying that Mustafina and Biles were statistically the two most successful gymnasts of the 2013-2016 Olympic quad, what you may find surprising is that Kyla Ross was the third most successful. The 2013 World Championships featured a “perfect” AA podium. The three best gymnasts in the AA were also the three best gymnasts of the entire quad. The gymnasts who made this AA podium combine for 12 career AA medals, making it one of the most decorated AA podiums of all time.
And this competition gets even better when looking at who else was there. There were an additional five gymnasts who would win AA medals at some point in their career, Vanessa Ferrari, Ellie Black, Yao Jinnan, Mai Murakami, and Larisa Iordache. McKayla Maroney won another medal on vault in an Event Final that also featured Hong Un-Jong and Oksana Chusovitina. China once again sent a respectable delegation highlighted by Shang Chunsong and Huang Huidan.
2017 World Championships
At the 2017 World Championships the pendulum swung again and this post-Olympic World Championships featured some notable absences. Both Aliya Mustafina and Simone Biles skipped the 2017 season only to return to high level gymnastics in 2018. It would be up to the rest of the field to carry this competition, and they did.
There are 24 gymnasts who have won an individual medal at the World Championships in the 2017-2020 quad. Of those 24 gymnasts, 16 of them were present at the 2017 World Championships, compared to only 13 at the 2018 World Championships. Melanie de Jesus dos Santos, Angelina Melnikova, Nina Derwael, Maria Paseka, Mai Murakami, and Fan Yilin were some of the big names in attendance. Other aging veterans included Vanessa Ferrari and Oksana Chusovitina.
But the bulk of the credit goes to Morgan Hurd who won the 2017 AA title. When she first appeared on the scene Morgan was doubted as a less than legitimate champion who won only in the absence of Simone Biles. But as Morgan’s career progressed, she established herself as a gymnast just as capable as most of her contemporaries who also won AA titles.
In my points data Morgan is tied with McKayla Maroney and ranks as the 10th greatest American gymnast. Scoring higher than even Carly Patterson and Kyla Ross. Prior to the 2021 Olympics, she was the second highest scoring gymnast of the 2017-2021 Olympic quad and one of the few gymnasts to have ever won multiple AA medals. Despite not making the 2019 World Championships and 2021 Olympic teams, Morgan Hurd ended up as “only” the 4th most decorated of the Tokyo quad instead.
Of the 16 highest scoring gymnasts in the 2017 All-Around, 12 of them would go on to compete in the 2021 Olympics. When veterans of the 2016 Olympics are accounted for as well, the entire 2017 All-Around had just four non-Olympians in the field. Ironically, two of them won AA medals that year, Elena Eremina and Morgan Hurd. But in both cases they were first-year seniors who continued to compete at the elite level through 2021 in a failed attempt to make their respective Olympic teams.
At the 2021 Olympics, 44% of the individual medals went to WAGs who attended the 2017 World Championships while an additional 31% went to those who were too young to compete at the senior level in 2017. Only 25% of the individual medals (4 total) went to gymnasts who were age eligible for 2017, but didn’t attend. But half of that total was Rebeca Andrade who missed the 2017 World Championships because of an ACL injury rather than merely skipping it. That leaves just 2 of 16 medals which can be classified as an intentional withdrawal. MyKayla Skinner who competed NCAA in 2017 and Simone Biles’ well documented absence in 2017.
What is often the case with this myth, it is the American program that usually captures the bulk of the attention within the gymnastics community. The high-profile careers of Simone Biles and MyKayla Skinner who departed from the elite level in 2017 distracted from the fact that outside of those examples, WAG had a near-perfect participation rate.
I don’t think its fair to blame gymnastics fans for buying into the idea that post-Olympic World Championships fields are typically weaker than usual. It is understandable how this narrative could arise with two recent high-profile cases that have created skewed perceptions. The first being the failure of 2009 to produce a breakout superstar similar to what happened with Simone Biles in 2013. The second being the career of Simone Biles herself and her well documented 2017 hiatus.
There is also a case to be made that disproportionate attention is paid to 2009 and 2017 proving the narrative correct, without acknowledging whether 2013 proves it incorrect. And even if you disagree with everything I’ve said in this article, I hope I’ve done enough to establish that even if these competitive fields were weak, the drop-off in quality is of such a small margin, that they are still relatively equal in quality to a 2018 or 2019 World Championships.
Lastly, I want to finish this article by simplifying my argument with a few pointers.
(1) The loss of iconic veteran gymnasts is almost always offset by the arrival of new breakout stars.
(2) Gymnasts who take a hiatus frequently miss multiple World Championships such as Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman in 2013/2014. Thereby making the phenomenon of “skipping” a World Championships something that is not exclusive to one particular year of the Olympic quad. In some cases, it could be argued the 2nd-year Worlds had a lower participation-rate than the first-year Worlds of the very same quad.
(3) Returning veterans often have a greater incentive to compete in a post-Olympic World Championships than at any other point in an Olympic quad. The further away the next major competition is, the more likely a gymnast nearing retirement age will be replaced by a younger gymnast or be considered too old for the sport.
(4) An isolated number of high profile examples often creates skewed perceptions and overshadow that the rest of the field often has very strong participations rates.
(5) There is a staggering list of WAG superstars who have competed in a post-Olympic World Championships, including:
Dobre, Khorkina, Shushunova, Boginskaya, Silivas, Mustafina, Davydova, Biles, Miller, Raducan, Liukin, Memmel, Mostepanova, Podkopayeva, He Kexin, Yurchenko, Sui Lu, Milosovici, Ross, Chusovitina, Liu Xuan, Zamolodchikova, Amanar, Filatova, Mo Huilan, Omelianchik, Produnova, & Gogean
Finally: It should be remembered that the entire premise of this question is based on the personal opinions of gymnastics fans as they judge which competitions they think are better than the other. Thus it is a question of personal opinion with no right or wrong answer. But I do hope to dispel the idea that there is a significant drop off. And that Morgan Hurd is as strong of a gymnast as your typical AA Champion.