The Greatest Gymnasts Who Never Went to the Olympics

In a previous article I highlighted the most accomplished gymnasts in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history who never won a gold medal. Now I’m producing a similar article on a slightly different topic where I highlight the greatest gymnasts who never went to the Olympics. Like the previous article, I will be using my points system and provide an overview of the four gymnasts with the highest ranking in that system who never went to the Olympics.

Olga Mostepanova (7-Points)

The first two gymnasts on this list are tied with each other and thus share the title of being the 3rd most decorated gymnasts in WAG history to never go to the Olympics. Of the two gymnasts in question, the first is the legendary Soviet WAG, Olga Mostepanova.

Olga Mostepanova is best remembered for being WAG’s greatest victim of the 1984 Olympic boycott. It would probably be accurate to classify her as the single greatest causality of any boycott in all of Olympic history. Mostepanova was the gymnast where all the stars seemed to align perfectly for her. After a strong 1983 season, she entered the 1984 season with exactly the right amount of experience, skillset, and seemed to be peaking in the middle of an Olympic year.

Whereas Nadia Comaneci became an Olympic icon at the 1976 Olympics where she famously scored seven Perfect-10s, Olga Mostepanova recorded twelve Perfect-10s at the 1984 Alternate Olympics. Mostepanova’s performance was further enhanced by the “Perfect-40” where she recorded a Perfect 10 on all four events during All-Around Finals and thus achieved the absolute maximum score a gymnast could reach under pre-2006 scoring rules. It is the only known occasion a Perfect-40 was achieved outside of a dual meet in elite level competition.

Mostepanova at the 1984 Alternate Olympics

Olga Mostepanova is remembered for her 1984 performance which is seen as one of the most impressive performances in all of WAG history and being the Olympic icon that never was. If not for the 1984 boycott, Olga Mostepanova would have achieved the same level of fame Sunisa Lee is currently enjoying today. Mostepanova would be to 1984 what Nadia Comaneci was to 1976 and Olga Korbut was to 1972.

But her 1984 performance is not included in my data and Olga Mostepanova being towards the top of this list is due entirely to her 1983 season where she finished 2nd in the All-Around, 2nd on floor, and won a gold medal on beam at the 1983 World Championships. It isn’t even considered the best year of her career and yet that performance single handedly propels her towards the top of this list. It is a testament to her athletic skillset that Mostepanova ranks this high after losing half of her possible point total to politics. The first half was simply that good.

Whereas other victims of the 1980 and 1984 boycotts had the ability to make the Olympics in a different year, that wasn’t a possibility for Olga Mostepanova. The main reason was Olga competed for the Soviet Union, a program that was constantly producing young talented prospects capable of replacing its top-seniors. The opposition for a lineup spot in the Soviet program was brutal and most Soviet WAGs only had one viable chance to make the Olympics.

Further complicating things for Mostepanova is she experienced an extreme growth spurt that was noticeable even before the 1984 Alternate Olympics and would make it difficult for her to maintain top form in the following years. Olga Mostepanova did everything right to prepare herself for the 1984 Olympics only to lose it all because of a political boycott. Not only did she lose the 1984 Olympics, it was her only viable shot at an Olympic appearance. Mostepanova missed her chance.

Rebecca Bross (7-Points)

Readers may recall that Rebecca Bross took the #1 spot when I profiled the most decorated gymnasts in WAG history who never won a gold medal. Her name pops up again, this time in a tie for #3 as the most decorated gymnast to never appear in the Olympics. It is incredibly rare for a gymnast of Bross’ caliber to be neither a gold medalist nor an Olympian. Rebecca Bross is the only gymnast in the top-100 of my points ranking that this is true for.

The highlight of Bross’ career came in 2009 and 2010 where she won five individual medals at the World Championships including two in the All-Around. The first major obstacle in Bross’ career was her success in the early part of the Olympic quad. It is significantly harder for a gymnast to maintain top form the further away she is from the next Olympic Games. Another obstacle was the wave of young new gymnasts overtaking the American program in 2011.

Programs will always be drafting new and exciting young gymnasts into their lineups, but the position the United States was in circa 2011-2013 where Kyla Ross, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber, Simone Biles, and Katelyn Ohashi all turned senior from 2011-2013 was a statistical anomaly. Never before had a top program experienced so many youngsters crash onto the scene in such rapid succession. The biggest loser in that trend was Rebecca Bross who had to compete against them.

But the main culprit and the moment of her career that is one of WAG’s most infamous moments occurred at the 2011 National Championships where Bross broke a kneecap in the middle of the competition. Bross’ career never recovered from that event while the decision to emphasize wins so early in the Olympic quad was also interpreted by fans as a tactical mistake.

Rebecca Bross is the only gymnast in the top-4 of this list who didn’t miss the Olympics because of an extenuating circumstance. The issues that plagued her career are common in the sport and frequently repeated elsewhere. Injuries, peaking at the wrong time, and bad coaching decisions occur frequently in WAG and for Rebecca Bross, it was too much to overcome.

Morgan Hurd (8-Points)

In the #2 spot is Morgan Hurd who won the All-Around at the 2017 World Championships. Morgan also had a strong performance at the 2018 World Championships where she won another All-Around medal. The following year Morgan Hurd missed out on making the American team for the 2019 World Championships. The omission on Morgan Hurd was an early sign that perhaps her Olympic prospects were in serious jeopardy. But fans were quick to point out she had competed at the Pan American Games just two months earlier and her omission from the 2019 World Championships team could be linked to exhaustion rather than an indication her overall career was in decline.

In 2020 Morgan proved those assertions correct by winning the American Cup which established Hurd as a gymnast riding a wave of momentum and a top prospect for the 2020 Olympic team. Unfortunately for Morgan Hurd, the American Cup was one of the very last sporting events to occur before the Covid-19 Pandemic triggered a world-wide sports shutdown. Just four days later the NBA postponed its season in an event that seemed to trigger the shutdown of everything else.

The 2020 Olympics would be postponed to 2021. Morgan Hurd was already facing an uphill battle by winning the All-Around in the first year of the Olympic quad. Even in a normal quad it would have been a tall order to ask a gymnast to maintain top form over the next four years. Now Morgan Hurd had to do it for five years. Unfortunately for Morgan, that fifth year would be the difference maker and it was in the 5th year of her senior career where her body broke down.

The key issue for Morgan was continual elbow problems which required multiple surgeries. By the time the Olympics came around Morgan Hurd was still a highly capable gymnast in the international level, but making the ultra-competitive lineup of the American program was too difficult for a gymnast in Morgan’s diminished state. To make the American team a gymnast doesn’t just have to be good on the international level, they have to be amongst the very best in the world.

If Olga Mostepanova’s gripe is the 1984 boycott, Morgan Hurd’s gripe is Covid-19

Elena Mukhina (10 Points)

The #1 most decorated gymnast who never competed in the Olympics is Elena Mukhina. It should be noted that when counting medals in “Big Four” events (World Championships, World Cup, European Championships, and Olympics) Elena Mukhina is the highest ranked non-Olympian by that metric as well. Which means that Mukhina wins this category under two different metrics that measure different things.

Using “Big Four” medal leaders isn’t exclusive to Group-1 competition and doesn’t weight medals. The points system is exclusive to Group-1 competition and weights medals. The point is, by ranking first in two metrics that are completely different from each other, it establishes just how far and away Elena Mukhina wins the title of the greatest gymnast to never go to the Olympics.

Mukhina is also 2 points higher than Morgan Hurd in the points system, which is the equivalent of being 19 spots higher in the all-time rankings. Like Olga Mostepanova, Elena Mukhina’s point total has been handicapped due to there not being a World Championships in 1977 where she most certainly would have racked up a far higher point total.

Instead, it is her performance at the 1978 World Championships where she won three gold medals and two silver medals that single-handedly propels Mukhina to the top of this list. After three years of success Mukhina’s career started to regress in 1979. Even while healthy she began to place lower in the standings. Then came a brutal wave of injuries where Mukhina suffered a broken leg. The injury was then further compounded when doctors and coaches mismanaging her recovery time table and prematurely forced her to resume training.

By the time the 1980 Olympics came around Elena Mukhina had roughly a 50/50 chance of making the team and it was rapidly becoming a pressing issue for the Soviet program on what to do with their superstar gymnast whose ability seemed to be fading. But before that decision could be made, tragedy struck.

Two weeks before the Olympics were to begin Elena Mukhina broke her neck in a training accident. The injury left her permanently paralyzed from the neck down just one month after celebrating her 20th birthday. Complications from that injury would lead to her premature death at the age of 46.

For Elena Mukhina to be #1 on this list, it is incredibly symbolic due to the tragic circumstances in which her career ended. It enhances the scope of the tragedy, but also justifies her status as one of WAG’s biggest legends.

Mukhina performing her trademark skill at the 1978 World Championships

Conclusion

To conclude this article, I want to provide a list of the remaining gymnasts in the top 10, which actually features 11 gymnasts due to a tie.

Elena Mukhina (10-Points)
Morgan Hurd (8-Points)
Olga Mostepanova (7-Points)
Rebecca Bross (7-Points)

Irina Pervushina (Left) sitting with Ingrid Fost of East Germany (Right)

6-Points: Irina Pervushina (Soviet Union)

Oksana Omelianchik at the 1984 Alternate Olympics where she was the alternate for the Soviet team. She would be an alternate again at the 1988 Olympics

6-Points: Oksana Omelianchik (Soviet Union)

5-Points: Huang Huidan (China)

5-Points: Liu Tingting (China)

5-Points: Olesia Dudnik (Soviet Union)

4-Points: Ana Porgras (Romania)

4-Points: Jana Bieger (United States)

10 thoughts on “The Greatest Gymnasts Who Never Went to the Olympics

  1. Shoudn’t Annelore Zinke also be there? Won one gold medal at the WC in Varna 1974 and a silver and a bronze at the EC in Skien 1975.
    Excellent article anyway, as always.

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  2. ELENA MUKHINA FUE ÚNICA, Y NO CREO QUE NAZCA OTRA ELENA MUKHINA.
    SU HABILIDAD Y DESTREZAS MENGUARON DEBIDO AL CANSANCIO EXTREMO EN QUE FUE EMPUJADA, EL CUERPO HUMANO TIENE UN LÍMITE.
    ME ENCANTA TODOS LOS TEMAS SOBRE ELLA.

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  3. What about Natalia Yurchenko, one of the greatest innovators in the sport’s history. She won 3 gold medals at world championships, including the AA Gold in 1983 ahead of Szabo and Mostepanova, where she qualified in all 4 event finals with the highest score in each event. An injury kept her from sweeping the medals that year (she had to withdraw during the vault final).

    I think she may also have a vault (or rather an entire family of vaults) named after her, but I’ll have to check on that 😉

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    1. NY Andrea, big “Le Sigh” on that one.

      I used to have a project that I spent well over 100 hours on that was a pretty complicated and large Excel multiple spreadsheet “database” of all of individual medalists at all Olympics, World Championships, World Cup Finals, and European Championships. There was a point system that I created where Olympic Medals were worth most, World Championship second most, and World Cup Finals and European Championship medals less than the Olympics/Worlds. AA Medals were worth considerably more than their EF counterparts. I did this for both men and women.

      One of the biggest surprises to me was how Yurchenko’s results at such championships placed her in my system. Her name has stayed big in the sport due in no small measure to her namesake vault, but of course dedicated fans of the history of the sport also know what great an innovator she was, as well as her longevity, and incredible spirit. She is personally one of my topmost faves. Despite all of this, however, she ONLY HAS 1 individual medal at the World/Olympic medal (although it is a great medal – World AA Gold).

      Mike’s point system that he uses considers only individual World/Olympic medals, so that’s why she didn’t come up in this list.

      In my system, she would no doubt come up somewhere on such a list, because I also included World Cup Final medals and “Alternate Olympics” in 1980 and 1984. If you were to include such medals, she has 6 more individual ones to tally. (Something else *REALLY* surprising – she never won an individual medal at a European Championships). So her name would be pretty high on such a list if I were to do one based on the point system I devised.

      Yurchenko injured herself pretty badly in the year or so before the 1980 Olympics. There is a decent chance that she would have made the team. Competing against the likes of Comaneci, Eberle, Gnauck, Kim, Shaposhnikova, Filatova, and Davydova would have made her individual medal pursuits pretty tough, though, as she wasn’t really an established star yet, however if she had peaked really well and competed really well at those Olympics, that might have been her big breakthrough competition. As for the 1984 Alternate Olympics, she did reasonably well, but if I remember reading correctly, Mostepanova said that Yurchenko was pretty demoralized about the boycott and didn’t compete as well as she would have otherwise, although at a fully-attended 1984 Summer Olympics, the competitive field would have been pretty daunting (not just to her, but to everybody).

      Among all of the all-time greats and legends in the sport, she was definitely one of the most unlucky ones in terms of her overall individual medal count at major games.

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  4. MIL DISCULPAS SI ME ALEJO MUCHO DEL TEMA EN CUESTIÓN, PERO HOY 1 DE JUNIO
    CUMPLIRÍA 62 AÑOS LA GIMNASTA MÁS TALENTOSA QUE HA TENIDO LA UNIÓN SOVIÉTICA, “LA GRAN ELENA MUKHINA.”
    MIKE, PROMETISTE ESCRIBIR MÁS SOBRE ELLA, Y SU TRATO CON KLIMENKO, GRACIAS.

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