The Lack of Racial Diversity In Women’s Gymnastics Medal Leaders

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.

Guan Chenchen

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.

Guan Chenchen and Simone Biles

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.

Sunisa Lee

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

Romania (8):
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

Russia (4):
Svetlana Khorkina, Aliya Mustafina, Elena Zamolodchikova, Viktoria Komova

Czechoslovakia (3):
Vera Caslavska, Eva Bosakova, Vlasta Dekanova

East Germany (3):
Maxi Gnauck, Erika Zuchold, Karin Janz

Hungary (2):
Agnes Keleti, Henrietta Onodi

Others (7):
Oksana Chusovitina (Multi-National), Nina Derwael (Belgium), Cheng Fei (China), Vanessa Ferrari (Italy), Helena Rakoczy (Poland), Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine), Beth Tweddle (Great Britain)

Yeo Seo Jeong

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.

Sunisa Lee

7 thoughts on “The Lack of Racial Diversity In Women’s Gymnastics Medal Leaders

  1. Irrelevant…. this can be turned around in many other sports like Track and Field. and therefore, what are w suppose to do… you cannot force non-whites to enter the sport or excel in Gymnastics. Just like 80% of USA NBA Player are Black… so what !

    Like

    1. It’s ironic you bring up track and field and the NBA, a BIG reason sports like Track and Field and Basketball have more diversity is because they are EASILY ACCESSIBLE SPORTS. From a socioeconomic standpoint, BIPOC folks make less are more likely to not be able to pay for things like gym fees. To become decent at track and basketball it HELPS to have resources, but when it comes down to it you can become a better athlete without the need for top notch facilities. To be able to be the best gymnast possible you need to have coaches who know what they are doing, gyms that are up to date as far as safety, it’s not a sport you can pick up on your own, but to do it safely costs LOTS of money. When you look at most gymnasts, especially those who aren’t part of centralized systems A LOT of them come from money.

      Like

      1. Follow the money trail.Jen, I think you’re correct to a degree but not really in the context of the gymnasts used in this article. But either way, so what?
        Some ethnicities originate from areas that are generally very poor and/or suffered hardships.
        Obviously, it can be expected that people coming from a low socioeconomic background are less likely to be involved in something that requires a lot of money.
        However, the bulk of the gymnasts used in this article weren’t actually from wealthy backgrounds as far as I’m aware. Most are from communist style state run programs so the gymnasts were not self/family funded – and most date from several decades ago.
        This is hardly relevant to today.
        If we only counted the last 20 years you would find that there would be far more racial diversity.
        But again, and as Mike Jacki said; so what?

        Like

  2. It really stuck out to me when I learned that in 2003 Daiane Dos Santos was the first black woman to win a world championship gold medal, in any individual event. It really shocked me that it took that long in the history of the world championships for this to happen.

    A thing I’d be curious about is how the judges’ nationality affects their judging – when we used to get the breakdown of judges nationalities, they were typically from majority white countries. It’d be interesting to see how far subconscious bias has potentially affected gymnastics judging, though obviously this data is all incredibly difficult to quantify or draw meaningful conclusions from given that nationality doesn’t always reflect people’s racial background.

    I think there are obvious ways in which racial bias manifests itself among gymnastics fan communities, too (especially the treatment of Gabby Douglas even as recently as 2016), but that’s a much bigger discussion for another day!

    Thank you for a brilliant article, Mike, and for all the work you put in to this blog and producing interesting data sets for us.

    Like

  3. Very interesting. my thoughts:

    1- the financial accessibility of the sport: in France, the sport of Gymnastics is not an expensive one, and I think it shows on their national Teams. They may not score as high as in the point systems here, but at French national level, I am sure, POC have a much better representation.

    2- I think if I must compare the sport of gymnastics to talk about the trend in this article, I’d go for « figure skating ». Which, interestingly enough, is called « patinage artistique » in French, so even closer in its naming. Where I am going with this, is that both sports share the word « artistry ». I can well believe without any negative judgment that it has taken a while for mentalities and therefore judges to give some artistry points to POC, preventing them from achieving better results. In figure skating, Surya Bonaly is a good example of that, and in some ways, so is Tonya Harding (while being white, but seen as not capable of real « princess-like » artistry)

    3- what’s gonna move the needle? The open scoring system! And for some people, this meant the end of the « artistry » in gymnastics. While, to me, Simone biles has both the artistry and the athletics (#GOAT), I think it is fair to say that POC are very athletics and therefore, will have better results in a CoP that favors difficulty over artistry.

    Finally, disclaimer – If I said something that could be rude to anyone, I apologize and meant no harm, English is my 2nd language but even in French, not always easy to talk about such topics the right way. Thanks

    Like

  4. There are a number of problems with this article, namely that the data understates true racial diversity of gymnastics, and also by applying American ideas of diversity to the rest of the world.

    1) Your points system is drastically inaccurate for China. They have been very dominant in WAG for many years now, but because their programme tends to wear out and replace their gymnasts at a rapid rate, very few of the Chinese girls get a chance to achieve long-lasting careers. The prominence of Chinese gymnastics is therefore seriously underestimated by your scoring system. It would be more accurate to count the number of Group 1 medals China gets each year. They consistently win medals.

    2) At least one of the gymnasts you have incorrectly listed as white, therefore your data is inaccurate. Alina Mustafina is half Tatar, and it’s especially important not to whitewash this as Tatars are predominantly Muslim. I suspect a couple of the other gymnasts listed and assumed to be white may have different family heritage.

    3) This article is blindly applying American racial politics, definitions and history to the rest of the world. The USA includes Jews as white people, who by virtue being classed as white in America, therefore have eternal worldwide white privilege. But in terms of this article, listing Jewish gymnasts Agnes Keleti or Maria Gorokhovskaya as “white” in the American sense belies any barriers they may have overcome to achieve what they achieved in the 1950’s. Applying 21st century American racial politics to USSR athletes is wrong. Indeed in the 1930’s-40’s, as we all know, in many parts of Europe Jews were not considered white at all. Maria and Agnes would have grown up in this time frame and I think it’s therefore fair to assume that lumping them in as white erases their experience.

    4) Gymnastics was developed by white people and originally became popular in white countries. It is natural that most gymnasts were white until it became popular elsewhere. This is not a sign of non-white gymnasts being excluded or discriminated against.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s