Gymnastics is Experiencing an Influx of 3x Olympians

Entering the 21st Century women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) found itself experiencing a significant increase in the average age of its Olympic gymnasts. I’ve talked about this particular topic at length in the past. On some occasions I highlighted that even though the ages are rising, the sport still has a visibly large presence of gymnasts under the age of 18 such as Vladislava Urazova, Viktoria Listunova, and the Gadirova twins.

But I’ve also made note of the influx of veterans who have maintained high form in the sport long after what was once thought to be the age in which a gymnast typically retired. In this article I will focus on the latter, more specifically, the increase in gymnasts who have gone to the Olympics on three or more occasions.

The milestone of being a 3x Olympian is rather significant in WAG history. There have been 49 gymnasts who have done it. But on only four occasions has a gymnast surpassed it. Those gymnasts being Olga Tass  (1960), Oksana Chusovitina (2004), Daniele Hypolito (2012) and Vanessa Ferrari (2021). The significance of being a 3x Olympian is that as a threshold it is the perfect balance of being easy enough to achieve that WAGs reach it with frequency, but so difficult that WAGs have hardly ever surpassed it.

Ellie Black (2012, 2016, and 2021)

The list of the 49 gymnasts who have competed in the Olympics on three separate occasions can be found here. But the most noteworthy takeaway is how the list is broken down by era. Below is a bar graph displaying the number of gymnasts who were making at least their 3rd Olympic appearance in any given Olympic Games.

The above graphic displays the “full” history of Olympic WAG. But it paints a misleading picture as it was nearly impossible for a WAG to become a 3x Olympian prior to 1956. In 1932, 1940, and 1944 there were no Olympic WAG events contested. Making it unobtainable for a gymnast to have a viable opportunity to become a 3x Olympian. Starting in 1948 Olympic WAG would be held continuously for the first time, but three successful Olympic quads needed to be completed before the gymnasts making their debut in 1948 could finally reach the threshold of being a 3x Olympian.

For the above reasons, I created a condensed timeline measuring only 1956-present as I feel it is a more accurate reflection of the true frequency in which gymnasts achieved the 3-Olympics milestone. But the second graphic also emphasizes the main point of this article, that an observable “rise, fall, and return” trend can be seen.

The graphic highlights the devastating impact of the “little girl” era whereas after years of gymnasts hitting the 3-Olympic threshold with frequency in the pre-Nadia era, the sport went four consecutive Olympics without anyone achieving it. In 1996 Svetlana Boginskaya became the first gymnast to achieve it in two decades.

I also recreated the above graphics with slightly different data. Whereas before I used the total number of gymnasts, I reworked the data to reflect what percentage of Olympic competitors were 3x Olympians. This was done to account for the different field sizes the Olympics have experienced in various quads as the number of WAGs competing has both grown and shrank at various times.

Once again, I produced an additional graphic highlighting only the Olympics from 1956-present.

And finally, I created a table so you can see both sets of data side-by-side.

Below I’d like to provide some additional thoughts:

(A) Whereas these graphics are a telling sign as to how significant the “fall” of this trend was during the little girl era, they also give a remarkable insight as to the “return” of this trend in recent times.

(B) At the Tokyo-2021 Olympics five WAGs hit the threshold for the first time (Ellie Black, Kim Bui, Simona Castro, Elisabeth Seitz, Giulia Steingruber). While 2016 performed slightly better than 2021, it should be noted that both Vasiliki Millousi and Catalina Ponor were amongst the eight gymnasts who achieved this threshold in Rio. In both cases they did so after missing a previous Olympics. Some may choose to interpret this detail as a factor that skewed the 2016 results ahead of the 2021 results, at the expense of the 2012 results.

(C) There is a massive and fundamental difference between being a 3x Olympian vs being a 4x Olympian. I’d go as far as to call it the “4x Olympian barrier.” Prior to 2004 only one gymnast ever broke the 4x Olympian barrier. Eva Bosakova, Larissa Latynina, and Polina Astakhova were three of the most talented gymnasts the sport had ever seen.

Bosakova and Latynina were the medal leaders in World Championship competition during the pre-Korbut era. Astakhova and Latynina are the most decorated Olympians in Soviet WAG history. But on all three occasions Bosakova, Astakhova, and Latynina gave full effort in an attempt to become a 4x Olympian and were unable to do it. Their collective failures add to the legend of just how formidable the challenge was to become a 4x Olympian.

Pauline Schafer (L), Kim Bui (M), and Elisabeth Seitz (R) at the 2021 Olympics. Both Bui and Seitz became 3x Olympians in Tokyo.

(D) One point I’d like to strongly emphasize, Covid-19 had an impact on the average age of gymnasts participating in the Tokyo-2021 Olympics. The 1-year delay forced most gymnasts to wait and become one year older by the time they competed in their next (or first) Olympic Games. In many cases, gymnasts had delayed their expected retirement by a full year. This had the overall effect of making the average age of the 2021 Olympics a skewed result.

When using “average age” as a benchmark, Covid-19 has the effect of making it easier to present data demonstrating longevity has improved and is an advantage for anyone looking to prove the ages are rising. When using “Olympic appearances” as a data point of reference, no such advantage occurs when measuring the 2021 Olympics.

(E) One fundamental component of the data presented in this article was the four consecutive Olympics from 1980-1992 where no WAG became a 3x Olympian. But two of these Olympics were impacted by the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts. The existence of a 2x Olympian who missed her “middle” Olympics due to a boycott would have had a disastrous impact on the data.

But that trend didn’t happen and it wasn’t the result of luck. It is rather an accurate reflection that in the immediate aftermath of Nadia Comaneci’s 1976 performance, and in an era where “little girl” doctrine was at its most popular, the careers were simply too short back then for the boycotts to be a factor. This was an era where virtually everyone was on a trajectory to achieve no more than two Olympic appearances.

It is genuinely the superiority of the methodology which makes it less vulnerable to external factors and provides a better insight of which direction the sport is progressing on the topic of longevity.

This is in stark contrast to using “average age” as a methodology. In my analysis of the average ages in Olympic WAG history the boycotts of the 1980s had a significant influence on the data and possibly skewed it. From 1968-1992 only the two Olympics following a boycott had a net positive increase in average age, whereas every other Olympics in this period had a net decline. I speculated this was possibly the result of gymnasts who had missed an Olympics due to a boycott opting to delay their retirement and trying for the next Olympic team having a possible influence on the data.

(F) I first made this article with the intent on finding a fun way to look at the question of longevity trends. While I will gladly admit that it is far from perfect, and know full well it isn’t as informative as measuring the average ages, I am quite satisfied with the way it managed to bypass events such as the 1980s boycotts and Covid-19 without creating obvious irregularities where an external factor clearly influenced the data. One core reason for this is that an Olympic appearance is an Olympic appearance. It doesn’t allow a 1-year delay to create a skew in the overall numbers.

Dominique Dawes (1992, 1996, and 2000)

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