At the 2021 World Championships Angelina Melnikova won the All-Around (AA) title. While fans celebrated her win, one topic that was frequently highlighted by gymnastics fans is Melnikova’s status as a Junior European AA Champion. By winning the senior AA title in 2021, Melnikova was now the rare example of a gymnast who has major AA titles at both the junior and senior level.
If most gymnastics fans couldn’t recall the last such instance of a Junior European AA Champion winning a major senior title, it is because it occurred on only one other occasion. All the way back in 1986 with Svetlana Boginskaya. With only two gymnasts having ever made the transition from Junior European AA Champion to becoming a senior AA Champion, it may seem like the Junior European Championships is a competition with an unusual inability to produce gymnasts who can replicate their junior success in senior competition.
But the Junior European Championships is not the exception, in fact, its inability to produce high profile junior AA champions who go on to become senior AA champions is a trend that applies to all the major junior competitions. In its history, women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) has had five different competitions for juniors that can be classified as a major event. These competitions, some of which are now defunct are as recent as the 2010s, while going as far back as the 1960s.
After half a century of results involving five different competitions, there are only six gymnasts (on eight occasions) who have gone on to win major AA titles at both the junior level and the senior level. Part of the problem is WAG has never had a long-standing junior competition that was the equivalent to the World Championships. The World Championships are open to all the WAG programs of the world, while also achieving strong participation rates. The sport hasn’t yet developed a longstanding equivalent example at the junior level to complement its most prestigious senior competitions.
At the junior level, the prestigious junior competitions with strong participation rates have historically been limited only to a handful of nations, while the competitions that were technically open to any nation who wished to attend, didn’t have large enough fields to make them comparable to a World Championships.
I’ll give a brief overview of the five major junior competitions in WAG history and what they are at the end of this article. For now, I’m going to highlight the gymnasts who won junior AA titles at these competitions and later became AA Champions at the senior level:
Druzhba: Ludmilla Turischeva (1968), Nadia Comaneci (1973), Olga Bicherova (1980) and Svetlana Boginskaya (1986)
Junior European Championships: Svetlana Boginskaya (1986) and Angelina Melnikova (2014)
International Junior Championships: Svetlana Boginskaya (1985) and Maria Olaru (1997)
Youth Olympic Games: None
Junior World Championships: None
Between these five competitions there have been 75 AA gold medals awarded, but only eight of those medals went to a future AA gold medalist in senior competition. Statistically, only 10.6% of junior AA champions become senior AA champions.
But that doesn’t tell the full story.
There are an additional 10 instances of a Junior AA Champion who only narrowly missed out on a senior AA title by finishing in 2nd place.
Natalia Kuchinskaya (1965 Druzhba)
Karin Janz (1966 Druzhba)
Ecaterina Szabo (1980 Junior European Championships)
Ecaterina Szabo (1982 Junior European Championships)
Daniela Silivas (1983 International Junior Championships)
Daniela Silivas (1984 Druzhba)
Rebecca Bross (2007 International Junior Championships)
Viktoria Komova (2009 International Junior Championships)
Viktoria Komova (2010 Junior European Championships)
Viktoria Komova (2010 Youth Olympic Games)
With that in mind, Junior AA Champions have a 24% chance of finishing with at least a silver medal in senior AA competition. This is not including the many junior AA bronze medalists who went on to have success in senior competition or senior AA bronze medalists who were junior AA Champions.
On the opposite end, reversing the data also produces compelling results. There are five instances of a senior AA Champion who came up just short by finishing in 2nd place in a prestigious junior competition. All except for Svetlana Boginskaya never won a junior AA title.
Nellie Kim (1973 Druzhba)
Svetlana Boginskaya (1987 Druzhba)
Vanessa Ferrari (2004 Junior European Championships)
Aliya Mustafina (2007 International Junior Championships)
Aliya Mustafina (2008 Junior European Championships)
The point is, when a gymnast wins a Junior AA title, that isn’t an indication she is a favorite to win a senior AA title, and she shouldn’t be treated as such. If anything, it is a very premature conclusion to draw and holding a successful junior gymnast to such a high standard is completely unfair. But that doesn’t mean the junior competitions should be ignored entirely. There are countless examples of a legendary gymnast who won “only” a bronze or finished 4th in the AA as a junior. There are also plenty of gymnasts who don’t have a Junior AA title, but did perform well in an event finals as a junior.
Junior competitions often tell us a lot, but that statement only rings true when we look at the big picture. Gymnasts who have success in junior competition should be seen as athletes who have potential to be serviceable national team members. Those expected to contribute to their team’s score and maybe qualify to an apparatus finals. Perhaps they make an AA Finals if things go their way. In most cases, holding successful juniors to any standard beyond that is setting them up for failure.
Looking at the results of a junior competition there are indications of who is the future star in the making. But that “future star” can be anywhere from 1st and 4th place in the final standings. What junior competitions provide us with is a “working list” of the top candidates for an AA medal.
And when you treat these junior competitions as such, they become critical to providing insights as to which gymnasts will carry the future. But what should never be done is automatically assuming a #1 junior will become a #1 senior.
The five junior competitions featured in this article:
I’ve referred to this competition as a “de facto Junior World Championships” during the Cold War. Druzhba was open only to Communist countries who were allied with the Soviet Union. The “Soviet ally” being a critical distinction because the requirement barred China, a Communist WAG power from participating. Instead, Mongolia, North Korea, and Cuba would be the most notable presence from outside of Eastern Europe.
Druzhba’s main drawback other than the competition being defunct for over three decades is that only a handful of countries participated in it. But what makes this competition so legendary is that of the few countries that were part of Druzhba, they won nearly all of the medals in major, senior-level competition. Which makes this competition as close to a Junior World Championships lineup as it gets.
The other advantageous aspect of Druzhba, and something that to this day has yet to occur with another high-level junior competition is that it was held on a yearly basis. It also rotated hosts between various participating countries ensuring the competition did not favor one specific nation.
Druzhba was probably the greatest junior competition WAG has ever had, but the format fell apart when the Berlin Wall came down.
Junior European Championships
This competition had virtually all of the same benefits as Druzhba, the only difference being that it was held once every two years. At the height of its power Europe was winning virtually all of the WAG medals during the Cold War. This made European continental championships not far off from a World Championships in terms of difficulty.
In recent times, the emergence of non-European WAG powers such as China and the United States has made Europe’s continental competitions not up to the same caliber as what they were in Cold War times where they closely mirrored the World Championships in lineup strength. But even after losing its monopoly on the sport, Europe was still responsible for 8 of 12 WAG programs (66%) that qualified a full team to the 2021 Olympics.
Europe’s influence within WAG is still unrivaled relative to other continents, putting events such as the Junior European Championships so far ahead of anyone else that they are more comparable to a World Championships lineup than your average regional competition.
International Junior Championships
This competition has been referred to by various names over the years including the “International Championships of Japan” and iterations like it (Japan Junior International). It is slightly older than the Junior European Championships and together they are the two junior competitions that existed in both the present era and the Cold War era.
The drawbacks to this competition is its format is virtually identical to the American Cup, and that comparison is not intended to be a compliment. The International Junior Championships are held in the same country each time, with only a small number of competitors, and the competition itself often giving the permanent host country a disproportionate advantage. The International Junior Championships was like most competitions of its era, with the lone exception being that it was exclusive to only juniors.
Surprisingly, the main drawbacks to the International Junior Championships actually did more to help it than hurt it. If the competition was set up to benefit Japan, that didn’t seem to matter as for most of its history, Japan was a low ranking WAG program that was never in serious medal contention from the 1970s-2000s. This made Japan a popular destination for major WAG programs who saw it as a neutral location with the added benefit of being a strong gymnastics market. Home field advantage didn’t matter much when the host nation wasn’t a major medal threat.
For countries like China and the United States, the International Junior Championships was their only option to test their promising juniors against the emerging juniors of the Eastern Bloc in a traditional competition format. The International Junior Championships were held once every two years and were due to be hosted in 2019, but I couldn’t find any results from that year. The fairly recent rise of Japan into a formidable WAG program thanks to the success of gymnasts like Mai Murakami, coupled with the emergence of new junior competitions such as the Junior World Championships and Youth Olympic Games makes it questionable if this competition will ever be what it once was. Coupled with Covid-19 causing major disruptions to junior competitions, the International Junior Championships’ future status is as complex as ever.
Youth Olympic Games (2010-Present)
This is one of two recently created competitions that have given WAG its first chance at having a major competition for juniors that is open to all nations and can get all the top programs to send their very best. But so far that has been easier said than done. The main drawback to the Youth Olympics is that it is held only once every four years. Making it far too infrequent to serve a useful role. The 4-year schedule coupled with Covid-19 cancelling the 2022 Games means this competition has been held on just three occasions in the first 15 years of its history.
The infrequent schedule was made worse that on the first three occasions it was held, the participation rates haven’t been great and rival competitions of lower prestige have attracted stronger lineups.
Junior World Championships (2019-Present)
This is the first attempt at creating a bona fide junior competition. The competition is held only once every two years, and its timing was unfortunate having occurred right before the Covid-19 Pandemic. This meant its 2nd edition (2021) would be delayed until 2023. Sadly, this means it will be years before we see how this competition develops.
The 2019 edition was a resounding success with the top juniors well represented. The 2019 Junior World Championships featured a historic lineup of top juniors. The only drawback is the competition is so new, we don’t know if this competition will maintain its 2019 momentum over the ensuing years. While the two-year model has been the standard for the Junior European Championships and International Junior Championships, perhaps with all its success in 2019 the two-year window may prove to be too limiting. But for a competition that is so new and needs to establish itself first before becoming even more ambitious, a pivot to an annual scheduling model in the future is feasible.