The Last Major Competition Without Country Limits

In 1975 women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) experienced one of the most significant years in its history with the emergence of numerous developments that would forever change the nature of the sport. Most notably, it was in 1975 that Nadia Comaneci made her senior debut which kickstarted the career of WAG’s most famous gymnast of the pre-Biles era.

Whereas Simone Biles’ impact is measured in the number of medals she won, Nadia’s impact wasn’t so much the medals she won, but the way everything seemed to change as soon as the young Romanian came along. Nadia took one of WAG’s more obscure programs and immediately made it into a first-rate power. The country that hadn’t even attended the 1968 Olympics and failed to medal in 1972, would medal in the next ten consecutive Olympics. That streak is currently a WAG record amongst national programs.

Nadia turned conventional gymnastics wisdom on its head. Whereas before her arrival ultra-young gymnasts had been limited to only a minor role in the sport, after Nadia WAG dived head first into the “little-girl” era. Nadia’s rise to the top eradicated any remaining presence of the aging, veteran gymnasts that had once been commonplace. Nadia’s career marked the start of a new gymnastics philosophy, a new gymnastics power, and even the careers of Bela and Martha Karolyi who would be the most influential coaches in WAG for the next forty years. If everything seemed to change when Nadia made her senior debut in 1975, it was because everything had. All of this from a 13 year old whose best days were still ahead of her.

This article is about the Soviet perspective to that change.

(From L to R): Ludmilla Turischeva, Olga Koval, Elvira Saadi, Olga Korbut, and Lidia Gorbik

If 1975 was the year Romanian WAG experienced glory, it was also the year things would never quite be the same again for the Soviets. The Soviets would maintain their dominant form in future Olympic quads, but Nadia ended the “honeymoon” period of Soviet WAG. In the 1950s and 1960s the chief Soviet rivals were Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and Prague Spring (1968) sucked the life out of both WAG programs and ended their dominant runs of success.

In the late 1960s the East Germans appeared to be a worthy new challenger to the Soviet program with their powerful 1-2 punch of Karin Janz and Erika Zuchold. For a time the East German duo made the Soviet program fight for every medal it won. But when the pair of Hall of Fame gymnasts retired following the 1972 Olympics, their departure ended East Germany’s last opportunity to challenge the Soviet WAG program with real force.

The period from 1969-1975 was the Soviet honeymoon. The program was truly without rival and their dominance over the rest of the sport only seemed to grow with each passing year. It came at a point in WAG history where Ludmilla Turischeva and Olga Korbut were at the peak of their popularity. In its history Soviet WAG had produced an endless wave of medal winners. But it was only during this honeymoon period where their top gymnasts were winning over global viewers with ease.

Nadia Comaneci

Entering 1975 Soviet gymnasts had never been so dominant, so popular, or so loved. That was until a 13 year old from Romania came along and took all of that away. Not only were the Soviets unable to find a gymnast who could equal Nadia in talent and popularity, but even after Nadia’s retirement her presence still loomed large. The Western media fixated on the concept of the “next Nadia.” Turning gymnastics coverage into a game of trying to figure out who would be the next great Romanian superstar, or Bela Karolyi’s next American protege.

It wasn’t just that a rival program had produced a more popular gymnast in 1975. It was that a rival program had developed superior media relations and the Soviets never regained the initiative in future decades.

But Nadia was by no means the only big change gymnastics was experiencing in 1975. Another significant new development was the introduction of the World Cup. While the newly created World Cup represented the future direction the sport was taking, its 1975 edition would feature one final hallmark of the classical era of gymnastics that was about to be abolished. That being, the complete non-existence of country limits.

From (L to R): Ludmilla Turischeva, Nellie Kim, Elvira Saadi, Rusudan Sikharulidze, Nina Dronova, and Olga Korbut. The 1974 Soviet World Championships team.

Prior to 1975 the Soviet program was allowed to deploy its entire lineup in All-Around and Event Finals competition. Creating situations where the USSR would absolutely humiliate the rest of the competitive field. At the 1974 World Championships the Soviets had only five gymnasts at full health. Despite the handicap, all five Soviet gymnasts finished inside the top-6 during the qualifying stage, and then the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rotations of All-Around Finals.

It wasn’t until the final rotation that a 2nd non-Soviet managed to crack the top six. Ending the 1974 All-Around with USSR gymnasts going 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 7th. During Event Finals Soviet gymnasts were responsible for 58% of all the routines performed and 83% of all medals won. Most spectacularly, the USSR went 1-2-3-4 on beam and 1-2-3-4-5 on floor.

The 1975 World Cup would be the last time the Soviets had this ability. The Soviets were at a particular advantage because Nadia Comaneci would not be in attendance. Event organizers were so confident Nadia would be competing that they had listed her in the event program with a corresponding profile in the athlete biographies section. The absent Nadia had even been assigned a bib number.

Instead, the Romanians would be deploying Teodora Ungureanu, their other breakout child prodigy of 1975. Romania’s intention was to embarrass the Soviets even further by following up Nadia’s previous success at the 1975 European Championships with additional success from Teodora later in the year at the World Cup. Thereby proving Romanian WAG had become so powerful, even their second best gymnast could go head to head with the Soviets all on her own.

Opening Ceremony for the 1975 World Cup

At the World Cup Teodora was on track to win a bronze medal in the All-Around, but a fall on the uneven bars demoted her to 6th place. Ungureanu’s silver on floor was the only medal she won at the 1975 World Cup. Teodora would come back with a vengeance at the 1976 Olympics, but in 1975 there wasn’t much she could do to disrupt the Soviets. Meanwhile the East Germans were the only other program capable of fielding gymnasts who could keep pace with the Soviets. But travel issues had prevented the team from arriving.

With such little opposition in their way, the Soviets went 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 7th (Tie) in the All-Around. The Soviet dominance in Event Finals was particularly noteworthy. At the 1975 World Cup the Soviets were without their top gymnast Nellie Kim. She was the #1 ranked Soviet on bars, beam, and floor. Also partially absent was Olga Korbut who withdrew from the World Cup at the halfway point due to an injury. Korbut was the reigning gold medalist on vault and had won a medal on every event at the previous World Championships.

Despite these limitations, during Event Finals Soviet WAGs were responsible for 66% of all routines performed, 83% of all medals won, and 100% of all gold medals won.

Lidia Gorbik

The 1975 World Cup would paradoxically represent the end of an era while being a pristine competition displaying the attempts to modernize the sport. For the Soviets, they were under threat on two fronts. The opposition from Romania and later the United States and China was about to get tougher. All while new rules in the form of country limits were giving the Soviets fewer chances to win medals. Soviet dominance would always continue, but never again would they be able to showcase all six of their gymnasts in an individual event.

For Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Turischeva, the 1975 World Cup was the last time they had the spotlight all to themselves. Unlike every other major event post-dating 1974, neither Nadia nor Nellie Kim were around to upstage Korbut/Turischeva. It was the final time to shine for a pair of gymnasts who meant so much to making WAG the popular Olympic sport it is today.

The 1975 World Cup was particularly significant for Ludmilla Turischeva who won a gold medal on every event. Her dominating performance reset the narrative that Turischeva was a fallen star. Giving her strongest supporters hope that the 1974 All-Around Champion would defend her titles in 1976.

Most significantly, it was the 1975 World Cup that featured Turischeva’s famed “bars collapse” routine. It provided Ludmilla with a badly needed highlight reel that would rival Korbut’s “Korbut Flip” and later Nadia’s Perfect 10. Prior to then, Turischeva had been unable to produce a signature piece of footage that would define her career. It was thanks to the 1975 World Cup that such an event finally came.

The “bars collapse” video continues to go viral every couple of months on the Internet and is one of the greatest highlights in gymnastics history. It helped Turischeva’s name continue to be mentioned long after her retirement by casual onlookers who have little interest in 1970s gymnastics. For a moment that was so important to Turischeva’s lasting legacy, if not the single moment Ludmilla is most widely remembered for, it would surprise TMC readers to learn that it actually occurred in the final months of her career. At a point in time post-dating Turicheva’s strongest years in 1970-1974 and firmly in the era where Nadia Comaneci was widely regarded as the new #1 gymnast.

In many ways the 1975 World Cup was Ludmilla Turischeva’s swan song where she was afforded one last competition to rack up numerous gold medals while competing virtually unopposed. But for two other Soviets, the 1975 World Cup also served as a swan song of their own where they were given their one opportunity to shine before misfortunate plagued the rest of their careers.

Olga Koval

The two gymnasts in question were Lidia Gorbik and Olga Koval. They were two of the greatest Soviets of the 1970s to have never appeared in a World Championships, Olympics, or even a European Championships. But at the 1975 World Cup they were each granted their one and only opportunity to take part in a high-level international competition.

Lidia Gorbik was the Soviet alternate at the 1974 World Championships and was initially a member of the 1976 Olympic team, only to be replaced in the Olympic lineup at the final moment by Maria Filatova.

Koval was considered the top Soviet junior of the mid-1970s and was part of a famed quartet featuring Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, and Elena Davydova. Whereas the other members of this quartet went on to have Hall of Fame careers, Olga Koval’s career was hindered by a growth spurt. Her inclusion in the 1975 World Cup lineup is an insight into just how much the Soviets valued Koval at the time.

Olga Korbut (L), Ludmilla Turischeva (M), and Elvira Saadi on the All-Around podium at the 1975 World Cup. Marta Egervari (obstructed) shared the bronze medal. Also in the background is 2x Olympian Anca Grigoras of Romania

The final two members rounding out the 1975 Soviet team were Nina Dronova and Elvira Saadi. For Saadi, she would return to the Soviet lineup for the 1976 Olympics. The 1975 World Cup was the only time in her career where Elvira won an All-Around medal. At the 1974 World Championships she had only narrowly missed out on such a medal by finishing 4th in the All-Around.

Finally, there was Nina Dronova who had achieved a remarkable career and the 1975 World Cup would be the final international assignment that she ever received. It was yet another example of a legend of the Soviet program having a fitting send off at the 1975 World Cup. Dronova had been one of the best gymnasts in the world back in 1971, but in the following years had shown continued regression.

The 1975 World Cup wasn’t just memorable for Korbut’s presence, Turischeva’s bars collapse, and the top-to-bottom Soviet dominance that would never be seen again, but also for its visuals. The 1975 World Cup was held in London, firmly within the grasps of the Western media. The 1975 World Cup was one of the first high-level competitions where virtually every routine was captured in high quality footage and has since been made available on YouTube.

It also produced the most widely shared collection of pictures involving a Soviet team. Five of the six gymnasts on the 1975 team (Turischeva, Koval, Saadi, Korbut, and Gorbik) gathered in front of a wall of photographers and allowed a team picture to be taken. The informal photoshoot humorously produced an uncoordinated mess where at times each gymnast was looking at a different camera. In some photos you can see the exact same moment from different angles. Other times you can see how the facial expressions of each gymnast vary in the span of one or two seconds.

There is no “perfect” photo from this moment where all five gymnasts are looking at the same camera. But because so many different photographers were involved and collectively represented a wide variety of media outlets, this moment instantly became unforgettable due to its widespread preservation. Virtually every major supplier of stock images has a copy/version of this image. Making it a popular choice for any modern website that needs a vintage photo of Soviet gymnastics.

The 1975 World Cup photos are so frequently circulated amongst the Internet that numerous websites have erroneously listed it as an Olympic team. Which is a particularly regrettable mistake considering neither Gorbik nor Koval are officially Olympians.

(From L to R): Ludmilla Turischeva, Olga Koval, Elvira Saadi, Olga Korbut, and Lidia Gorbik

But the collection of photos has a special meaning, most notably due to the mannerisms of Korbut and Turischeva. In some photos their personalities are on full display. For Korbut, her joyful smile makes it evident she is at her happiest when it is time to engage with the media. Korbut comes off as so confident in front of a camera, you’d expect it was her giving instructions to everyone else in the immediate vicinity. Or at the very least, it was Korbut’s idea to gather everyone for a team photo.

For Turischeva, the look on her face couldn’t be any more different. Turischeva won five gold medals at this competition, she should be the happiest gymnast in the room. But instead, Turischeva appears looking as if she is mildly annoyed that she is forced to spend any of her time with the media at all. Treating the fame and press attention that comes with being the top gymnast in the world as a distraction that got in the way of winning medals.

(From L to R): Ludmilla Turischeva, Olga Koval, Elvira Saadi, Olga Korbut, and Lidia Gorbik

And in one final fitting gesture, Elvira Saadi can be seen with an arm tightly around Koval, almost as if she’s clutching her. Perhaps the 23 year old veteran wanted to keep her young 14 year old teammate close, to ensure the child didn’t feel nervous or unprotected while facing a storm of international media. If this photo captures the very different personalities of Korbut and Turischeva, it also captures the growing age divide women’s gymnastics was experiencing at the time. And the small gesture this photo displays helps symbolize the many steps taken by veterans like Elvira Saadi as they looked after their young teammates.

The 1975 World Cup was a new competition designed to kickstart a new era of WAG. But for the Soviets their 1975 team was anything but. Within ten months all of them had competed as members of the Soviet-A team for the final time. The immediate future of Soviet WAG would be carried by a different generation of gymnasts. Of the six Soviets who attended the 1975 World Cup, not one member competed in a major international competition following the 1976 Olympics.

One thought on “The Last Major Competition Without Country Limits

  1. Waoooo, todos tus artículos me encantan, especialmente si son de la WAG soviética.
    Me gustaría que escribieras una segunda parte sobre la nueva generación de gimnastas que reemplazó a la generacion de 1975, que tan fuerte o débil fue esa nueva generación, gracias.

    Like

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