Why Did Gymnastics Pivot Towards Older Athletes? (Part III)

Note: This is Part III of a 4-part series.
Link to Part I
Link to Part II
Link to Part III
Link to Part IV

Olesia Dudnik is a legendary figure amongst the gymnasts die hards. She is primarily associated with her beam routines in 1989 and 1990. It wasn’t that Dudnik broke medal records or created an entirely new style of skills which makes Olesia so revered, it is the difficulty she packed into her routines. Dudnik’s routines were so difficult for her time that 30 years later the gymnasts of the current era perform routines with similar difficulty values.

Olesia Dudnik didn’t single-handedly pioneer a new generation of difficulty. She was merely the most obvious example of a new trend that was overtaking the sport. That being, the massive surge in difficulty on a yearly basis which was a defining feature of women’s gymnastics from the 1970s to the 1980s was beginning to slow down entering the 1990s.

The trend started with Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics whose routines were so groundbreaking, she brought a newfound emphasis on packing routines with difficulty and acrobatic skills. Future gymnasts strived to replicate Korbut’s new style, but because such little emphasis on difficulty had in existed in the past, the sport had a long way to go before gymnasts who were trying new moves would hit the limits of what the human body and equipment was capable of.

Olga Korbut

As a direct result of Olga Korbut, women’s gymnastics spent two decades witnessing its difficulty increase at an incredibly rapid pace. But entering the 1990s this unsustainable trend was finally forced to slow down. It was like pulling back a slingshot. At first you can stretch the string with ease. But as you get closer to the limit of what the sling is capable of, stretching it the last few centimeters is far harder to achieve than the first few centimeters.

That was where women’s gymnastics was at with its difficulty level in the early 1990s when the ages began to increase for the first time since World War II.

The uneven bars at the 1972 Olympics featured Olga Korbut who debuted the iconic “Korbut Flip” doing battle with her rival the East German Karin Janz who had a trademark skill of her own, the Janz Salto. But just two years later in 1974 another gymnast by the name of Annelore Zinke performed both skills in just a single routine. Effectively proving that you now needed the combined skillset of the #1 and #2 ranked gymnasts to maintain a competitive edge.

Olga Korbut performing a “Korbut Flip”

By 1977 two different Soviet gymnasts were performing a full-twisting Korbut Flip, an upgraded version of the original move. At the 1977 European Championships half of the uneven bars finalists performed either the original Korbut Flip, or an upgraded version of it. By 1978 gymnasts such as Natalia Shaposhnikova, Elena Davydova, Marcia Frederick and Maxi Gnauck were taking the uneven bars in a completely new direction where giant swings would be the future of the sport.

The Korbut Flip is one of the most historically significant moves in the history of women’s gymnastics. But it took only five years for gymnasts to upgrade it to its maximum difficulty and render the skill obsolete. Within eight years after the skill was debuted at the Olympics the Korbut Flip was already dying out as gymnasts looked for more difficult skills. In Korbut’s era and the years following it, difficulty was improving with such rapid progress that medal winning routines were rendered totally obsolete within a matter of years. It was unthinkable for an iconic skill to remain a competitive move for more than a decade.

But in the mid to late 1980s things suddenly changed. Suddenly skills began emerging that wouldn’t immediately die out or need to be upgraded if they wanted to maintain high status in the next Code of Points. Two examples were a pair of floor skills that would be named after two gymnasts from the 1985-1988 Olympic quad, Tatiana Tuzhikova and Daniela Silivas. For thirty years their skills would remain amongst the most difficult moves in the sport.

Daniela Silivas (top) and Ecaterina Szabo (center) at the 1985 World Championships

The Balance Beam Situation described Tuzhikova’s skill as:

Among the most difficult skills available to be performed on floor exercise, the double layout with full twist was quite rare until about…2018?

And Silivas’ named skill as:

Until recently, the double double in tucked position was the most sought after and unimaginable of the WOW-difficulty elements on floor, reserved for only the most powerful of daredevils.

What Silivas and Tuzhikova accomplished was performing skills that retained high status as being amongst the most difficult and exclusive moves in the sport for “until recently” and “until about…2018.” In contrast to Olga Korbut, the eponymous skills were no longer going to rapidly die out.

Simona Amanar

The most obvious example of gymnastics difficulty being impacted by a “slingshot effect” where the rate of difficulty is eventually forced to slow down was the Yurchenko family of vaults. From its debut in 1982, it took only two years for gymnasts to upgrade the skill from no twist, to 1.0 twists, and eventually 2.0 twists. But for a skill that took only two years to gain its first two twists, it took 16 years after that to gain its next 0.5 twist and become a 2.5 twisting skill. Ever since that last leap forward, the sport has been waiting an additional 22 years for a gymnast to make its next leap to three full twists. The highly coveted and greatly anticipated 3.0 twisting vault still has not yet occurred in women’s gymnastics.

In 2012 when the 2.5 twist version of the skill (Amanar) was 12 years old, the United States was nicknamed the “United States of Amanar” as a form of flattery for both Simona Amanar herself that the vault she debuted was so iconic it could define a gold medal winning team over a decade later, and the United States itself that it could garner its own nickname from the gymnastics diehards due to its vaulting prowess.

Even the 2.0 version of the Yurchenko vault is still of significant value as coaches select their team. It may not get you on the vault podium, but it could round out the program of an All-Arounder, or help a gymnast earn a spot in the vault rotation order during the team competition. The skill is almost four decades old and has yet to lose its status as a renowned skill.

Oksana Fabrichnova (L) and Dina Kochetkova (R)

Another example would be an uneven bars dismount debuted in 1993 by Russian gymnast Oksana Fabrichnova. Balance Beam Situation would describe the move as:

Among the most difficult dismounts possible on the uneven bars, the double-twisting double tuck is appealing because of its juicy two-tenth value increase over the single twist. Still, only a very select few are able to complete it in a way that’s not profoundly knee-eating and terrifying.

What all these moves put together signify is that during the late 1980s and early 1990s the sport was changing. Skills were now being created that would retain their reputation for being “the most difficult” moves possible even decades after their creation. This change had an important connection to age demographics.

There is a correlation between the rate at which difficulty increases in a sport like figure skating or gymnastics and the ages of the athletes competing. In eras where the rate of difficulty is increasing at a rapid pace, it encourages younger athletes. When such difficulty occurs at a less audacious pace, the advantage reverts back to the aging veteran.

Oksana Fabrichnova

The “little girl” era of gymnastics largely overlaps with the era where the difficulty level was expanding at its most brutal pace. Gymnasts who couldn’t keep up with the changing nature of the sport were quickly left behind. Today women’s figure skating is experiencing a similar dilemma where the sport is simultaneously being led by child athletes, while at the same time the difficulty of its programs have skyrocketed in recent years.

Many of the previously mentioned examples of eponymous skills in gymnastics history are associated with ultra young athletes. When Annelore Zinke recorded a historic performance by taking the trademark skills of both the reigning Olympic gold medalist and the reigning Olympic silver medalist and using them in a single routine in 1974, she did it at just 15 years old. In the process Annelore became the youngest gymnast to win a gold medal in any individual event at any type of major competition such as the Olympics, World Championships and/or European Championships.

The only reason Zinke isn’t remembered as an iconic child athlete is because a few months later a 13 year old Nadia Comaneci came along and shattered this age record. As for Zinke, she suffered a career ending injury a few months later. Annelore Zinke never became an Olympian.

Olga Korbut performing the “Korbut Flip”

Tatiana Tuzhikova and Daniela Silivas were only 16 when they debuted their skills. Silivas herself was involved in an age falsification scandal and made her debut at the 1985 World Championships as a 13 year old. The double twisting Yurchenko, a move that has remained a vitally important skill even 38 years after its creation was first debuted in a major televised competition by Elena Gurova. At the time she was only 11 years old.

There are two reasons why eras marked by rapid increases in difficulty trigger a pivot towards younger athletes in figure skating and gymnastics. The first reason pertains to the human body. In both sports, athletes with a body that closely resembles the body of a child are more capable of performing acrobatic skills that push the needle of difficulty. The shorter height and less mass centered around the hips and upper body translates to a more favorable weight distribution and lower center of gravity. Children in general have a superior strength to weight ratio than adults. For figure skaters, it makes a spin easier for them to perform. For gymnasts, it helps when they swing around a set of uneven bars.

Some eponymous skills are so favorable to child athletes, it is almost as if child athletes are the only ones capable of performing them. The “Counter Kim” on the uneven bars is the best example of this. To this day it remains one of the most difficult skills on the uneven bars, but traces its origins to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The same era that produced the trademark skills of Silivas, Fabrichnova, Tuzhikova, and the 2.0 twisting Yurchenko vault.

Daniela Silivas at the 1985 World Championships

In modern times the skill is more commonly seen in training footage of junior aged gymnasts rather than seniors looking to use the skill in a major competition. In the early history of the Counter Kim, the first two gymnasts to perform it were Gina Gogean and Kim Gwang Suk. Gina Gogean was part of an age falsification scandal which caused her to become an Olympian at only 13 years old. Her contemporary Kim Gwang Suk and the namesake of the skill was a North Korean gymnast who is best known for being the most blatant age falsification scandal in gymnastics history.

Kim Gwang Suk’s age has never officially been determined, but it is speculated that she was as young as nine years old when she made her debut in major, international junior competition. This assumption would make her only 11 years old when she competed at her first World Championships. Kim Gwang Suk’s small size served her well, and she became the last gymnast to record a Perfect 10 at the World Championships. But her famed eponymous skill would go down as the textbook example of a skill so favorable to child athletes, it is rarely performed by adult athletes.

The other advantage young athletes have in a system where the difficulty is growing at a rapid pace is personal experience. In most situations the older the athlete is, the more experience she has against the younger competitors. But when new eponymous skills are constantly being added to the Code of Points at a rapid rate, when an aging veteran is in the final years of her career, she will be competing against younger gymnasts debuting skills that she did not train during the novice/junior stage of her career.

From L to R: Tatiana Lysenko, Shannon Miller, and Gina Gogean at the 1993 World Championships

But for the younger, smaller, and more physically advantaged gymnasts this aging veteran is competing against, they grew up on these skills and have better familiarity with them. The aging veteran thus becomes an old dog trying to learn new tricks and being forced to train skills that are outside of her comfort zone in order to remain competitive. The net result is gymnasts being pushed more towards retirement rather than making a comeback for the next Olympic cycle.

The difficulty of women’s gymnastics didn’t flatline after the early 1990s. Elena Produnova, Simona Amanar, Victoria Moors, and Simone Biles have all saw to it that the difficulty of women’s gymnastics continued to improve in the years since. What occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s was an evolution where the debut of a new eponymous skill was no longer making the last eponymous skill obsolete.

The current era of gymnastics is defined by continued growth to its maximum difficulty, while the minimum level of difficulty required to excel in the sport increases at only a modest level. Creating an environment where gymnasts can still have success with vaults that are twenty years old and don’t need to copy Simone’s Double Piked Yurchenko. The result being, aging veterans aren’t forced out of the sport any time a new vault is debuted.

Link to Part IV

Oksana Fabrichnova

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