While working on an upcoming article highlighting the rise of Brazil into a successful women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program, one particular detail I wanted to comment on was the significance of Brazil achieving breakout success in a sport that has historically been dominated by white athletes and white-majority countries.
The purpose of this article is not to measure racial diversity in terms of how it relates to participation rates, but rather the noticeable absence of non-white gymnasts when specifically analyzing the list of gymnasts who are all-time medal leaders in WAG. My intention for writing this article is first, to produce a data set so that the next time I assert in an article that such a racial disparity exists, I have the data on hand to back up said claim.
But my other major intent with this article is to make gymnastics fans better aware as to the existence of this disparity. Given the historical dominance of Eastern Europe in the sport, most WAG fans won’t be surprised that such a racial disparity exists. But many may be shocked to learn just how extreme the racial disparity actually is.
Currently, of the 30 most decorated WAGs in Olympic history, the 30 female gymnasts with the highest number of Olympic medals, Simone Biles and Nellie Kim (USSR) are the only non-white gymnasts among them.
But as many of you know, I don’t like using raw medal counts. Instead, I prefer using my “points” system which has proven to be popular with gymnastics fans. It counts only medals won in an individual event at the World Championships and/or Olympics, it then weights those medals where a gold is worth 3-points, a silver medal 2-points, and a bronze medal 1-point. The system is designed to be a compromise between ranking gymnasts by total medals and gold medals. It is designed to be so simple it avoids taking any stance at all thus negating personal opinion and/or subjectivity.
Just before the 2021 Olympics, there were 45 WAGs who were in the “10-point club.” Gymnasts who had 10 or more points in the “points” system. But during the 2021 Olympics two new gymnasts joined the 10-point club for the first time, Vanessa Ferrari of Italy and Nina Derwael of Belgium. In both cases, they were the first gymnasts from their respective countries to reach this milestone and increased the total number of countries with a gymnast in the 10-point club from 11 to 13.
With 47 gymnasts in the 10-point club and those 47 gymnasts represented the most successful athletes in WAG history per my data, the racial demographics of the list is as follows:
(a) 44 of 47 gymnasts are white. The three exceptions being #1 ranked Simone Biles (United States), #8 ranked Nellie Kim (Soviet Union), and #32 ranked Cheng Fei (China).
(b) The above figure states 94% of the gymnasts are white
(c) 46 of 47 gymnasts come from white-majority countries, the previously mentioned Cheng Fei of China at #32 being the lone exception.
(d) The above figure states 98% of the gymnasts come from white-majority countries.
For those wondering who these gymnasts are, here is the breakdown.
Soviet Union (13):
Larissa Latynina, Ludmilla Turischeva, Nellie Kim, Elena Shushunova, Olga Korbut, Natalia Kuchinskaya, Tamara Manina, Polina Astakhova, Maria Gorokhovskaya, Sofia Muratova, Elena Mukhina, Tatiana Gutsu, Svetlana Boginskaya
Daniela Silivas, Gina Gogean, Lavinia Milosovici, Ecaterina Szabo, Simona Amanar, Nadia Comaneci, Andreea Raducan, Catalina Ponor
United States (7):
Simone Biles, Shannon Miller, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone, Chellsie Memmel, Kim Zmeskal
Svetlana Khorkina, Aliya Mustafina, Elena Zamolodchikova, Viktoria Komova
Vera Caslavska, Eva Bosakova, Vlasta Dekanova
East Germany (3):
Maxi Gnauck, Erika Zuchold, Karin Janz
Agnes Keleti, Henrietta Onodi
Oksana Chusovitina (Multi-National), Nina Derwael (Belgium), Cheng Fei (China), Vanessa Ferrari (Italy), Helena Rakoczy (Poland), Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine), Beth Tweddle (Great Britain)
While it may be tempting to attribute the existence of these figures to the lasting legacy of the Cold War and the dominance of Communist Eastern Europe, 11 of 47 gymnasts in the 10-point club made their senior debut in the 21st century. And only 2 of 11 of them were not white. Thereby establishing that this trend continues to hold whether it be before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or afterwards.
I don’t want to give a false impression that non-white gymnasts are failing to achieve success in WAG. In fact, the 2021 Olympics experienced historic levels of success from non-white gymnasts who accounted for 7 of 12 gymnasts who won a WAG medal in an individual event. It is only when you look at the data in one specific way by highlighting career medal counts while ignoring everything else can such racial disparity be found.
It is up to gymnastics fans to determine what to make of racial statistics regarding the 47 gymnasts in the 10-point club. I just felt that from the perspective of countries like China, Mexico, Brazil, India, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, it was important to highlight that these figures exist. And then let fans determine for themselves what it all means and whether these figures are indeed the byproduct of racial barriers hindering the long-term success of non-white gymnasts.