For 12 Olympic quads Eastern Europe was the dominant power in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG). There are few comparable examples where a single Olympic sport was dominated with such impunity, for so long, by just a small collection of nations. But that run of dominance didn’t just come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed to disappear overnight.
One by one and in rapid succession, the famed WAG programs of Eastern Europe fell into disarray. Some ceased to be WAG powers in a near-instant. Others were slowly bled to death. Falling lower and lower in the standings with each passing Olympics until they were no longer capable of qualifying full Olympic teams.
Hungary was unique in the Eastern European WAG power structure in that it was the oldest WAG power of Eastern Europe. It was the only member of the Eastern Bloc that could trace its WAG history all the way back to 1928, when WAG became an Olympic sport for the first time.
But six decades later Hungary’s run was coming to an end like everyone else. If the Eastern European WAG programs weren’t being outright dismantled by their own governments who were no longer willing to provide funding, they were being pillaged by foreign programs who could lure away most of its top coaches with significantly higher salaries. The forecast was bleak.
No amount of athletic talent, coaching expertise, or luck was going to change the reality every Eastern European program was facing. Gymnastics had become a sport divided between the rise of new power programs enhanced by a recent infusion of wealth, and the smaller nations who didn’t have the resources to keep up. For the small Eastern European programs that once dominated the sport, their time had come to pass.
For Hungary, it suffered the same fate as everyone else, but how it got there was a different story. In an era where so many WAG programs were waiting their turn to join the growing graveyard of historic European WAG programs, Hungary wasn’t going to fade away in unceremonious fashion. It was going to end on a high note, with one of WAG’s most popular and widely respected gymnasts the sport had ever seen leading the way.
Her career was remarkable from the start, not only because Henrietta led Hungarian WAG into one of its most famous eras, but because she helped pull it out of one of its darkest eras. After traditionally occupying the #3 and #4 spots in the 1970s, Hungarian WAG gave its worst performance ever with a 9th place finish at the 1983 World Championships. The result was bad, but the context was even worse.
This had occurred at a competition being held on Hungarian soil, with their gymnasts competing in front of friendly crowds. Gymnastics is a sport where there is a longstanding history of teams with homefield advantage scoring significantly higher than they normally would. Part of it is the crowds helping the gymnasts compete to the best of their abilities, but another factor is FIG officials and judges extending a courtesy to the home team by inflating their scores. Numerous programs have had some of their most successful competitions occurring in Olympic quads and/or competitions that they themselves were hosting.
In 1983 Hungary the opposite had occurred with Hungary, which implies their abnormally low performance that year didn’t reflect just how low the program had fallen. Hungary would not compete in the 1984 Olympics due to the Soviet-led boycott. But for Hungarian WAG, the boycott spared them the embarrassment of another humiliation, this time occurring on the Olympic stage.
At the 1984 Alternate Olympics the five Eastern Bloc powers that had boycotted the Olympics held a team competition. Hungary not only finished last amongst the Big Five, but they had come in 8.05 points behind #4 Bulgaria. For comparison, teams #1 through #4 were separated by only 6.70 points. Hungary was so far behind that they had become an outlier. Their scores at the 1984 Alternate Olympics were so bad, had they attended the 1984 Olympics there was a possibility Hungary would have finished in last place had Los Angeles been fully attended.
It was at this low point in program history that Henrietta Onodi first appeared as a junior. In her junior career Henrietta didn’t enjoy success from right out of the gate. In 1986 she competed in the two most high-profile junior competitions of the day, but in both competitions she had finished 11th and 12th in the All-Around.
These low results were understandable given that Onodi was 11-12 years old at the time and competing as one of the youngest gymnasts in the entire field. And then the Hungarians sent Onodi to two additional meets, this time they would be competitions attended by gymnasts who were even older, seniors. Despite her young age, Onodi finished 17th in a Czechoslovakian competition won by Hana Ricna. The gymnast who finished 2nd to Olga Mostepanova at the 1984 Alternate Olympics and had won a medal at the 1985 World Championships.
The Hungarian program had big plans for the young Onodi, sending her to as many prestigious competitions as possible regardless of how unlikely it was she would actually win. Henrietta was an obscure junior, from a program that wasn’t to be taken seriously. Those two details ensured Onodi would have to fight for every hundredth of a point she received from the judges.
But in one competition, Onodi would shine. It came at the 1986 Kraft International, a competition which would become a cult classic in gymnastics fandom due to Soviet gymnast Natalia Frolova’s legendary performance. Also in attendance was Borina Stoyanova, a gold medalist from the 1983 World Championships and veteran of the 1984 Alternate Olympics. But behind the two of them Henrietta had finished 3rd.
This 3rd place finish at the 1986 Kraft International was a significant boost to Onodi’s profile and reputation since it had been a British competition. Bringing Onodi in front of a Western audience, showcasing her to an English-speaking media who would spread the word on the new Hungarian whiz kid to their readers all over the world. In this instance, competing for a relatively weak program proved to be to Onodi’s benefit. Whereas Soviet gymnasts had to share a limited number of available international assignments with each other, Onodi could compete in as many competitions as she wanted since she didn’t have to share assignments with any fellow child prodigies
In the Soviet program they would never consider sending the same gymnast to the American Cup twice. Meanwhile the Hungarians sent Henrietta Onodi to this competition on three different occasions. Having so many opportunities to compete in high-profile competitions helped turn Onodi into a legend. The more times she was showcased, the more fans she gained who wanted to follow her career.
Another factor that led to the abnormally high popularity of a gymnast who didn’t have any notable wins by this point in her career, Henrietta’s small physical appearance. In gymnastics the gymnasts who can project a more youthful appearance tend to swell in popularity. They are perceived as cute and adorable, but their smallness is also seen as an athletic advantage and an indication that they will go on to become a future star. Competition reports frequently highlighted Henrietta Onodi’s tiny figure and she has the distinction of being one of the smallest gymnasts to ever appear in a major televised competition.
But the wins were hard to come by and this is what makes Onodi such a fascinating gymnast. In recent times the rise of slow paced juniors such as Jade Carey and Simone Biles have made this trend something that has been normalized. But in the 1970s and 1980s this was hardly the case. Back then the expectation was that young gymnasts should have wins very early in their junior career, then win immediately as a senior.
Young child prodigies who didn’t win their junior debut would typically record a top-8th finish, only to come back the next year and win an All-Around medal in the same junior competition. By the third year of their career, it was expected they would be medalists in major senior-level competition. Henrietta Onodi was one of the most extreme exceptions to this trend.
It is not that Onodi finished well outside the top-five in a majority of her competitions, but how she made only marginal improvements. At the 1986 Junior European Championships she finished 12th in the All-Around, but two years later Onodi’s returned to the same competition and recorded an 8th place finish. At Druzhba the same trend occurred where Onodia finished 11th, 10th, and 7th in three consecutive years.
To her credit Henrietta was always improving, but her pace was so slow, the amount of progress she had made in a year was in-line with what a Soviet child prodigy would usually accomplish in 2-3 months. But when people watched Onodi compete, there were murmurs of future greatness because as later years would prove, the talent clearly existed.
In 1989 a gymnast who had been around for years waiting to become relevant finally exploded into the legend that remains a widely loved figure to this day. Henrietta Onodi may not have won numerous medals as a junior, but she had something even better. Onodi’s unique junior career meant she was one of the most experienced gymnasts to ever enter the senior level. Onodi had already competed directly against Olympic-level gymnasts for three years straight. She had learned how to manage crowds from the Eastern Bloc, Western Europe, and North America. Onodi had waited three years and those three years had been spent wisely.
In early 1989 Onodi performed well in two notable competitions. First there was a 5th place finish at the European Championships where she beat the legendary Olesia Dudnik for that #5 spot. There was also the 1989 American Cup where Onodi finished 3rd and spoiled the Americans’ party by knocking Phoebe Mills, the only American to medal at the 1988 Olympics, off the All-Around podium.
These results made it clear that Henrietta Onodi was now one of the ten-best gymnasts in the sport. At least when it came to the All-Around. During Event Finals at the European Championships Henrietta Onodi was able to take advantage of not having to deal with country limits and qualified to all four apparatus finals. She finished 1st on bars, 5th on beam, and 3rd on floor. It was already impressive that she walked away with two medals at the European Championships, but she overcame adversity while doing it.
Onodi’s highest score of the competition during the All-Around had come on vault. During vault finals Onodi stuck her first vault only to fall on her butt on her second vault. The error turned a potential third medal into a last place finish. But the 14 year old Onodi who was in the first major competition of her senior career demonstrated that she does not get unraveled in distressing moments. She had returned from that mistake to win two additional medals later in the competition.
Unfortunately for Henrietta, the 1989 World Championships would not be as triumphant. At this competition only four countries produced a gymnast who scored above 78.300 points in All-Around qualifying. The three nations in question were the Soviet Union (Gold), Romania (Silver), China (Bronze) and Hungary (9th place).
Henrietta Onodi was so far ahead of her teammates that out of Hungary’s eight highest scoring routines, Onodi was responsible for seven of them. Whereas Onodi averaged a 9.807, the rest of her team averaged only 9.475 points per routine. To put this in perspective, the Romanian WAG team had an easier time keeping pace with Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics where Nadia outscored them by 0.299 points per routine, than the Hungarian gymnasts trying to keep pace with Henrietta Onodi at the 1989 World Championships. Henrietta outscored them by 0.332 points.
But this strong performance in the team competition didn’t come to fruition. On three events Onodi had put up strong scores that were enough to net her a top-10 finish. Beam was the event Onodi had exceled on the most at the 1989 World Championships. Had Henrietta performed well on beam at the 1989 All-Around Finals, she would have ended up finishing in around 5th place. But Onodi fell on beam, and not just on any skill.
The skill that would later be remembered as simply the “Onodi.” She didn’t so much as fall on the skill, but seemed to perform it perfectly until the very last moment when Henrietta took an unusually large balance check. Instead, Onodi would finish 19th in the All-Around.
In Event Finals the same magic as the European Championships simply wasn’t there. In what would be a “changing of the guard” moment in WAG history, 50% of the spots in Event Finals went to Asia and North America. This knocked Onodi out of all but one apparatus finals (beam) where she finished in 5th place.
By this point Henrietta Onodi’s career had been dominated by the geopolitical upheaval that was about to overtake the Communist world. Henrietta’s emergence as a junior in 1986 and a senior in 1989 could not have come at a more critical time. It was at this point that the less dominant members of the Eastern Bloc like East Germany and Czechoslovakia were beginning to crack.
At the three consecutive World Championships held in 1985, 1987, and 1989, the All-Around placement of East Germany’s middle (2nd best of three entrants) All-Arounder went from 4th, to 7th, to 33rd. For Czechoslovakia, the exact same trend occurred. Their middle All-Arounder went from 10th, to 34th, to a DNQ (did not qualify). Henrietta Onodi appeared right as the strain the Eastern Bloc was under would prevent it from producing another generation of iconic gymnasts. After Onodi’s senior debut in 1989, the smaller Eastern Bloc powers stopped producing promising juniors.
The bulk of the Eastern Bloc was gone, only Romania and the USSR were strong enough to carry on after the 1988 Olympics. Between Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Henrietta Onodi would be the last gymnast from any of these programs to win a medal at the World Championships and/or Olympics. That statement is not just when looking at the year Onodi won her medals, but the year she was born. Any gymnasts younger than Onodi simply didn’t have the program stability to excel in an Eastern Bloc system that was collapsing.
Henrietta Onodi was like the last droplet of water before the well had been sealed off.
This impending development was disastrous for most Eastern Bloc gymnasts, but it had aided Onodi tremendously. Henrietta was able to rapidly rise to the top of her domestic program because Hungarian WAG would soon be unable to produce gymnasts capable of challenging her. It also allowed Onodi to rapidly rise up the international standings as historic powers from rival Eastern Bloc nations were no longer a formidable foe.
And then came 1990.
It would be one of the most defining years in all of WAG history. The 1989 World Championships proved to be the downfall of numerous WAG powers. Then in 1990 with the country in chaos due to the effects of the Romanian Revolution, for a single year Romanian WAG would be a non-factor as the program focused on dealing with the fallout of recent political events. The lack of a World Championships that year would also impact China, who opted against sending strong lineups to compete in the few notable competitions that remained.
This effectively left the Soviet Union, United States, and Henrietta Onodi as the last remaining notable names still standing for the 1990 season. Henrietta Onodi won bronze in the All-Around at the 1990 European Championships. By just .001 points, Onodi missed out on the silver medal. It is one of only a handful of cases where the margin between medals was that close. In an ironic twist, many of the gymnasts Onodi defeated in 1990 were from the same generation who had constantly beaten Onodi as a junior from 1986-1988.
In Event Finals Henrietta Onodi qualified to apparatus finals on bars, beam, and floor. She won a bronze medal on floor, but finished in last place on the other two events. Then came the 1990 Goodwill Games, a short-lived attempt to create a major “made for TV” sporting event that would compare to the Olympics in prestige. Both the Soviets and the Americans opted to send their very best, and the event was being held on American soil.
The American media covered the gymnastics portion of the competition with such intensity that it would be accurate to say this was the most covered non-Olympic event in WAG history. Both Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci were brought in to provide studio commentary. There was also a satellite feed where Larry King did a live interview with Soviet gymnasts in Moscow’s most prestigious gyms. The intent was to give viewers an understanding of what the training conditions of Soviet gymnasts were like back home.
At the center of it was Henrietta Onodi who proved to be superior to the Americans and with the ruleset calling for 2-per country, once again she finished 3rd in the All-Around. Defeating the likes of Kim Zmeskal and Betty Okino on American soil. As expected, Onodi qualified to Event Finals on every apparatus. But she failed to medal and came up just short with a pair of 4th place finishes.
Then there was the 1990 World Cup, the major competition of the year that was held in lieu of a World Championships. With the 2-per country rule in effect, Henrietta finished 3rd in the All-Around. Unlike the European Championships, Onodi had won with China and the United States in attendance. It also marked the third time of the season Onodi won a bronze in the All-Around behind a pair of Soviet gymnasts
Then came event finals where Onodi won a gold on vault, a silver on floor, and a bronze on bars. Onodi’s only blemish was she fell during beam finals on her trademark “Onodi” in the exact same fashion as she had done so in the 1989 All-Around. The resulting last place finish was all that prevented Onodi from sweeping the competition and winning a medal on every event.
The 1990 season was one of missed opportunity and taking advantage of the opportunities Henrietta was given. It was probably the year where Onodi was in the best position to dominate a major Olympic/World Championships level competition. Unfortunately, there was no such competition for her. But in the notable competitions Henrietta Onodi did appear in, she performed quite well in all of them, leaving little debate as to how strong her skillsets were.
During the World Cup former 2x Olympian Kathy Johnson was providing television commentary and described Onodi as a “previously underrated” gymnast. The implication being, Onodi may have been an obscure gymnast in the past, but she wasn’t anymore. She was also described as one of the most exciting young gymnasts in the world.
At the 1991 World Championships Henrietta Onodi gave another brilliant performance in the team competition. Onodi’s All-Around qualifying score was 79.111 points. Once again only the gold medal winning Soviets, the silver medal winning Americans, the bronze medal winning Romanians, and 8th place Hungary had a gymnast over 79.000 points. In 1989 Henrietta outscored her Hungarian teammates by an average of 0.332 points per routine. This time she raised them by .410 points per routine.
Henrietta averaged 9.888 per routine while her teammates averaged 9.478 per routine. Of Hungary’s eight highest scoring routines, all eight of them belonged to Onodi. She had become such an outlier that Onodi finished 3.214 points ahead of the #2 Hungarian in qualifying. For reference, it was greater than the 3.136 points that separated 1st-place Kim Zmeskal from the last place finisher (#36) in All-Around finals.
At the start of All-Around Finals television broadcasts emphasized Onodi as one of the favorites to watch. But it quickly fell apart when Onodi lost momentum while swinging on the uneven bars and didn’t have enough speed to make it to the top. Bringing her back down the way she came and leaving Onodi in a dead hang. Technically, she didn’t fall off the apparatus. But Onodi did something that was just as significant.
Henrietta balanced her body on the high bar, let go of it with her hands, and started rechalking her palms mid-routine. It was as if she were back home in the training hall rather than inside an NFL stadium in the middle of an All-Around Finals at the World Championships. After completing her routine Onodi walked off the podium.
She was instantly met by a cameraman looking to achieve a closeup shot of a disappointed Onodi. The person behind the camera was so close to Henrietta’s face that it appeared the front of camera was no more than a couple of inches away. And yet though the entire broadcast as the score was compiled, not once did Onodi break composure. She didn’t shed a tear, didn’t pout, didn’t do anything other than look mildly disappointed. One would think Onodi had lost nothing more than a game of tick tac toe with how well she had maintained composure.
Then came beam where Henrietta fell on her “Onodi” the move that would be her claim to fame for three decades to come. For the third straight year it was this one specific skill that had been her downfall in a major competition. The result dropped Onodi to 31st place out of 36 total competitors. Once again Onodi had maintained composure, but eventually the tears came and Onodi let her emotions come out in full force while coaches attempted to comfort her.
But there were still medals to win and Onodi had qualified to apparatus finals on all four events. In the exact same fashion as what occurred at the World Cup in the previous year, Onodi started Event Finals strong with a gold medal on vault and narrowly missed out on another medal with a 4th place finish. Onodi competed in beam finals with a watered down routine, including the removal of the “Onodi” which had given her so many problems in the past. She then completed an uncharacteristically bad floor routine in floor finals.
It was later announced that Onodi had suffered a back injury during the competition which would explain her sudden downturn and sporadic results.
Two months later Henrietta Onodi would achieve the trademark win in All-Around competition of her career. She won the Chunichi Cup and it was an important win because it is one of the few times in her career where Onodi finished first in the All-Around at a high profile competition. As a junior Onodi never had these kinds of wins in competitions where the opposition featured so many renowned gymnasts. In many of her senior competitions Onodi would be conceding defeat to someone else in the All-Around time and time again.
Henrietta finally achieved her long-sought win, but there was a symbolic meaning to it as well. Henrietta defeated both Svetlana Boginskaya and Cristina Bontas at this competition. The gymnasts who won silver and bronze in the All-Around just two month prior at the 1991 World Championships. The 1991 Chunichi Cup was Onodi’s statement that had things gone differently, she could have won an All-Around medal at those World Championships. Or at the very least finished in the top-5.
The 1992 season would be an Olympic year, and once again an opportunity would arise for Onodi. In what would occur on just three occasions in all of WAG history, there would be two Group-1 competitions (World Championships and/or Olympics) in a single year, allowing a gymnast to rack up a large medal haul in a short window. Onodi would do exactly that and 1992 would be her revenge year. By 1992 Onodi was something of a specialist before specialists were a thing.
At the 1992 World Championships Onodi won a gold medal on vault and a silver on floor, while repeating the exact same stat line at the 1992 Olympics. During the Olympics for the 4th consecutive year, Onodi fell while performing the “Onodi” on beam. This time however, Onodi fell in the qualifying stage. This prevented the error from counting towards her final score, but it ensured she wouldn’t qualify to beam finals and her All-Around qualifying score would also be low. During All-Around Finals Onodi simply got through her routines and finished in 8th place.
In retrospect, the unique 1992 format gave no net benefit to All-Around favorites, but did benefit gymnasts who had strong prospects for Event Finals. As a gymnast who was incredibly reliable on vault and floor but not so much in the All-Around, the back-to-back competitions of 1992 personally benefited Onodi more than any other gymnast in the world. Onodi can jokingly be referred to as the only specialist to have won four medals in a single year.
The four medals not only added to Onodi’s medal tally, but because all of them were silver or gold, in my points system Onodi is actually the third most decorated gymnast of the 1992 Olympic quad. She would take a hiatus from the sport after Barcelona, before returning just in time to be a part of Hungary’s 1996 Olympic team. This made Onodi a 2x Olympian and ensured she would be part of Hungary’s final Olympic WAG team. Serving as a veteran past her prime, trying to be a strong supporting castmate for the gymnasts younger than herself.
Most notably Adrienn Varga, the young Hungarian who fans saw as Onodi’s successor. At the 1996 Olympics Varga wouldn’t exactly live up to the high bar Onodi set. But at the 1997 World Championships Varga would qualify to Event Finals, the last Hungarian gymnast to do so for the next two decades. It wouldn’t be until the 2021 World Championships and the lingering effects of Covid-19 that another Hungarian gymnast would appear in an apparatus finals of a Group-1 competition (Olympics and/or World Championships).
Henrietta finished in 2nd place at the 1992 American Cup in an appearance which gave her significant recognition within the American market. Between her three American Cup appearances, the 1990 Goodwill Games, the 1991 World Championships, and the 1996 Olympics, Onodi’s constant American presence was a critical factor in her popularity which endures to this day.
There was also the fact that she genuinely was a successful gymnast and one of the most accomplished gymnasts of her era. Onodi had an unforgettable personality who won over the hearts of fans because she spoke softly and with humility in interviews. The way Onodi projected herself was inspiring with themes emulating self-confidence. But she also showcased integrity as showcased when she reacted to tough breaks only in the most courageous fashion.
There were moments in her career where Onodi looked heartbroken after a bad routine and viewers wanted cry alongside and hoped someone would give her a hug. But then there were the moments where Onodi was inspiring with her mental resolve in the way she held back tears in the toughest moments of her career.
But beyond the medals, Onodi was simply gymnastics at its best. Competition report after competition report uses the word “exciting” to describe her. No mater how many different pundits covered her career, it was the one conclusion everyone came to. From the very beginning everyone seemed to agree that this gymnast had a special status that went beyond the medals she won. Onodi was a great tumbler and could twist in the air as fast as anyone. Her trademark skill on beam would be relevant for decades to come. It was most recently made famous by Sunisa Lee who performed the skill on Dancing With the Stars.
The term “Onodi” would become one of the most recognizable names in the sport. Gymnastics fans constantly invoke it when they create gymnastics themed usernames on their social media accounts. In gymnastics folklore, Onodi is something of a cult-classic. Both her specific skill and personal image are instantly recognizable. Her skill is remembered for combining artistry and elegance with difficulty. It is one of WAG’s most popular skills specifically because it is both aesthetically pleasing and athletically difficult.
And then there is her personal image that also remains recognizable, largely because Onodi was one of the last gymnasts with a trademark hairstyle that defined the era in which she belonged. It is a hairstyle that isn’t seen today as pony tails and buns have been the standard for the last two decades. Coupled with the flashy leotards which were distinctly 1990s, when people see Onodi they see a memorable gymnast from a memorable era.
Part of the reason Onodi is so popular today is because her era is peak nostalgia. Henrietta was another example of a great beam and floor worker in an era made famous by Svetlana Boginskaya, Tatiana Groshkova, Natalia Frolova and so many more. Where gymnastics choreography included motions that required 30 feet of floor space in between tumbling passes.
Onodi herself is part of the memorable floor legacy that defined a generation of WAG. The Hungarian gymnast who choose Hungarian Rhapsody as her floor music was a predictable recipe for success. Her coaches created a memorable pose for Onodi where she arched her back. It has since become the iconic and most photographed moment of the routine. But what also made Onodi’s floor work so brilliant was the raw athlete talent.
In 1990 Svetlana Boginskaya’s floor routine included three traditional passes. While competing directly against her, Onodi performed her first pass, then a second pass, then her “third” pass was a “marathon” pass which was the equivalent of performing two consecutive passes, and finally, Onodi ended the routine with yet another pass. Even by modern standards where passes have increased in number that would be considered insane. Onodi did it in 1990 when gymnasts typically strived for two and a half to three passes.
Ironically, Onodi never won a medal on beam, but she does have a gold on vault, a gold at the European Championships on the uneven bars, and a silver on floor. She was a dependable gymnast who delivered on a wide variety of occasions. Onodi has a gold medal at the European Championships, World Cup, World Championships, and Olympics. Ensuring she has a gold medal at each of the four major competitions of her era.
Henrietta was an innovator who became a textbook example of how to properly pace a junior, emerging decades before such behavior became mainstream. While I’m sure readers may argue against my assertion that Onodi was WAG’s first specialist, at the very least her career proved the viability of a gymnast who could rack up medals in Event Finals without exhausting themselves chasing an elusive All-Around podium. Despite her storied reputation, the highest result Onodi ever achieved in Group-1 Olympic competition was 8th in the All-Around.
Onodi was the underdog gymnast from an underdog program. Adding to the plotline was that on so many occasions Onodi looked like a small child sent out to compete against teenagers who were so much older than herself. Despite the limitations Henrietta would become an Olympic gold medalist, carved out a lasting legacy for herself, and raised the profile of her national program as well.
This is Onodi’s great gift to gymnastics, and the part of her story that is most overlooked. Henrietta Onodi was the perfect “book ending” to one of WAG’s most historic programs. Before Onodi, Hungarian WAG had been associated mostly with the 1950s. It was a program that had been dormant for decades and people had forgotten that its history was every bit as rich as that of Ukraine.
Onodi crashed onto the scene and threw that narrative of an old dormant program on its head. Bringing so much attention to herself that Hungary is now more commonly associated with the 1990s than it is with the 1950s. Even though it was the 1950s that produced Hungarian gymnasts who currently sit at #3, #7, #22, and #26 on the list of most decorated gymnasts in Olympic history. Despite all that historical wealth, gymnastics fans primarily think of Henrietta Onodi when Hungarian WAG is mentioned.
Henrietta Onodi made it so that despite all that historical success, Hungary was going to reach the peak of its popularity in program history right as the WAG program was reaching its death throes. The era of the small Eastern European WAG power had come to pass. There was nothing that could be done for countries that didn’t have the population or wealth to keep pace with the changing nature of the sport. The sport’s most historic programs were going to die, but one died with dignity.
It had achieved more lasting recognition in its final Olympic quad than the eight decades prior and there was but one gymnast to thank for that. When I say Henrietta Onodi gave Hungarian WAG a storybook ending it so rightfully deserved, I speak in terms of the gymnast who had a 1980s haircut, wore a 1990s cartoonish leotard, and possessed skills that are still relevant to this day. I see that alongside a pioneer from a bygone era where the only media we have of her are black, white and grainy images because that’s all the technology of her era afforded.
That vast differences when you compare footage of Agnes Keleti and Henrietta Onodi is what perfects the legacy of Hungarian WAG. Demonstrating how long this program was successful for, how far back the history goes, and how noteworthy this program was that it found relevancy in two completely different eras. In order to write a great piece of literature, the last chapter has to be as significant as the first. Onodi was that legendary final chapter for Hungary.
But despite it all, Hungarian WAG couldn’t avoid the fate of its contemporaries and if its time was going to come to an end, Hungarian WAG was going to go down fighting. East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia collapsed in an instant. Belarus, Romania, and Ukraine slowly fell into disarray. Under Henrietta Onodi Hungarian WAG appeared to flatline in the team standings for three consecutive Olympic quads, winning medals in individual events, before joining the graveyard of Eastern European WAG as soon as Onodi departed. WAG had lost its oldest power, but of all the legends the program produced, Hungary had saved its best for last.