The Evolution of Gymnastics Bib Numbers

In Part I of this series I discussed the most historic bib numbers in the history of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) and came up with the following examples:

29: Natalia Yurchenko
49: Vera Caslavska
165: Elena Mukhina
253: Olga Korbut
545: Natalia Yurchenko

Now, to provoke a rather ridiculous question, if fans wanted to make it so, could these bib numbers be “retired” in the same fashion iconic jersey numbers are retired in other sports? There are a couple of problems with this. First, in recent years the IOC has become obsessed with codifying its regulations/standards. The IOC has forced some of the peskiest and pickiest rules on various Olympic sports.

The IOC has gone as far as to force artistic gymnastics to use “GAR” as its three-letter identifier rather than “GYM” as part of an overall strategy to codify the results sheets of every Olympic sport. For some competitions, “GAR” is required to be on every page of every start list in men’s and women’s gymnastics. The same change was also forced on the OlyMadMen database as well which switched to “GAR” even though “GYM” has long been its preferred choice.

With rules like that existing, it is not hard to envision a loud and resounding “NO” being uttered from the IOC if FIG ever tried to experiment with non-sequential bib numbers. That point alone would be enough to kill this idea in its tracks.

Another issue is that most of the historic bib numbers in women’s gymnastics are either obsolete, effectively banned, or only worn by men. It is hard to “retire” bib numbers that have already been taken out of service and aren’t going to be worn anyways.

In recent years FIG and IOC have put greater effort into codifying bib numbers with procedures regulating how bib numbers are assigned being more commonly enforced. While these procedures have been used inconsistently in the 2000s and early 2010s, they have dominated the criteria in all Group-1 competitions (World Championships and/or Olympics) from 2015-present.

The very confusion over whether Nadia wore bib number 073 or just “73” eventually led to a change where every bib number in Group-1 competition is now a triple digit number. As a result, the bib numbers start at either 100 or 101. This procedure has effectively banned Nadia’s iconic “73” from being worn again at the Olympics and other numbers like it such as Yurchenko’s “29” and Caslavska’s “49.”

The bib numbers of men’s and women’s gymnastics are combined, but in the past few years the men have been assigned the lower numbers on every occasion. Since the low numbers now start at 100, and because Group-1 competition did not drop below 65 competitors per discipline in the 2010s, in men’s gymnastics Elena Mukhina’s iconic “165” was still able to be worn at a Group-1 level competition, but it couldn’t be worn by a WAG.

There is one additional procedure where a large gap in the numerical sequence is inserted between the men’s bib numbers and the women’s bib numbers. The procedure takes the highest bib number from men’s gymnastics and rounds it to the next hundredth. For example, if the highest bib was #187, it would be rounded to an even “200.” From there an additional “100” would be added on top of it, and only then could the bib numbers for the women begin.

As a result of these procedures, at the Olympics women can wear a number no lower than “300” while at the World Championships they can’t go below “500.” This means Olga Korbut’s iconic “253” is currently unable to be worn by a woman in any Group-1 competition under the procedures used in the last Olympic cycle.

As for the men, it can only be worn at the World Championships because the Olympics doesn’t have enough male competitors to reach the 250s. The “253” which was part of an iconic Olympic moment, was effectively banned at the Olympic level in the last two quads.

The only number mentioned in this article that women were able to wear in Group-1 competition during the last Olympic cycle is Yurchenko’s “545” from the 1983 World Championships. But some of these numbers do live on in non-Olympic and non-World Championships competition. At the 2021 Junior Pan-American Games Rachel Rodriguez of Costa Rica wore the iconic “73.”

The last time women were given the low bib numbers while men were given the high bib numbers came at the World Championships in 2014, 2013, and 2009. The last time double-digit bib numbers were assigned in Group-1 competition came at the World Championships in 2005 and 2009. In 2005 these low double digit bib numbers went to the men, but in 2009 they were assigned to WAG.

As a result, the last WAG to wear the iconic “73” in a Group-1 level competition was Greek gymnast Evgenia Zafeiraki at the 2009 World Championships. At the 2014 World Championships Olga Korbut’s 253 (worn by  Asuka Teramoto of Japan) and Elena Mukhina’s “165” (worn by Anna-Maria Kanyai of the Czech Republic) were worn for the last time in WAG during Group-1 competition. The 1996 Olympics was the last time WAGs were assigned bibs that went under “300” and the final instance of any of these numbers being eligible for women to wear on the Olympic stage.

In the past bib numbers were far more sporadic, take the following eight numbers:

145, 592, 52, 114, 735, 88, 485, 352

The first four bib numbers belong to Emilia Eberle who represented Romania in every Group-1 competition from 1978-1981. The last four numbers belong to Ecaterina Szabo who attended every Group-1 competition from 1982-1987. When you combine their careers, Szabo and Eberle produce a full recounting of how Romanian gymnasts were assigned bibs from 1978-1987. The numbers for Romanian gymnasts were all over the place. Bib numbers are primarily assigned based on nationality, only then are they arranged by the alphabetical order of the gymnasts’ name.

For Simone Biles, her career bib numbers have been far more consistent. Especially following the codifying of bib numbers starting in 2015. Simone wore 391 and 392 in two different Olympic appearances, while her World Championship bib numbers ranged from 746 to 778 at the World Championships from 2015 and onwards. Had Simone Biles not gone on hiatus during the 2017 World Championships, she would have worn bib #646 which was only 100 spots off the range in all other World Championships years. It is a far cry from the Romanian gymnasts in the Cold War wearing bibs in the 100s, 300s, 400s, 500s, 700s, and double digits.

Link to Part I

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