Note: This article has a Part II which can be found here.
One of the great traditions in non-Olympic sports is the concept of sports teams retiring the numbers of athletes who had iconic careers. It is a gesture of respect indicating that the athlete who wore that number left such a lasting impact, their legacy can never be replaced. Thus, the number they wore belongs to him or her forever. The omission of that number in future competition serves as reminder to an athlete of past greatness that will never be forgotten.
Gymnastics doesn’t have this concept because jersey numbers aren’t a thing in gymnastics. Although I’d argue gymnastics has something even better, the concept of an eponymous skill where gymnasts can have their name entered into the Code of Points. This methodology even allows gymnasts who never made it to the Olympics to have their name repeated by commentators in the middle of an Olympic Games even decades after they retired.
Individual gymnasts are rarely associated with just a single number, largely because it is rare for a gymnast to be assigned the same bib number twice. But there are a couple of occasions where a gymnast achieved a performance that was so iconic, the bib number she wore along with it became forever linked with her name.
Elena Mukhina: 165
Even though she passed away in 2006 and never became an Olympian, there continues to be a sizable online community dedicated exclusively to remembering the career of Elena Mukhina. Because her lifestory is so powerful, Mukhina has that impact on people. The Mukhina fandom continues to hold “165” in high regard specifically because that number is intertwined with her athletic success.
Elena Mukhina is the only athlete in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history to win an All-Around title in a non-boycotted competition at the World Championships and/or Olympic level (Group-1 Level), and only have one career appearance at said level. Whereas every other WAG icon has worn multiple bib numbers throughout her career, in the case of Mukhina the bib she wore at the 1978 World Championships is the rare example of single bib number defining the entire career of an All-Around Champion because she wore no other number in major competition.
Mukhina’s performance at the 1978 World Championships is by many metrics one of the all-time greatest performances in WAG history. Mukhina’s 1978 result ranks 2nd best all-time in Data Crunch #3.1 as well as being one of the highest scoring results in Data Crunch #4.1. The #165 Mukhina wore at the 1978 World Championships is both synonymous with her identity and is a hallmark of one of the most impressive athletic performances in WAG history.
While it would be unorthodox, if not logistically unfeasible to “retire” a bib number to honor a particular gymnast, if FIG ever were to adopt this tradition #165 would be the single most justifiable number to retire. The concept of retiring jersey numbers in the context of tragedy is one of the common reasons sports teams elect to retire a particular number. Given Mukhina’s high status within gymnastics history, and the horrific circumstances in which her career ended, to reserve #165 as a way to continue her legacy is rather obvious.
Nadia Comaneci: 73
This selection needs little explanation. The number 73 is what Nadia Comaneci wore at the 1976 Olympics when she became the first gymnast to score a Perfect 10. It would go down as the moment where gymnastics reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the pre-Simone Biles era. The 1976 Olympics made Nadia the most iconic career WAG had ever experienced and it wasn’t until the arrival of Simone Biles that anyone was able to challenge Nadia for that title.
But Nadia was more than just a superstar gymnast who wore a bib with a 73 on it. Comaneci’s Perfect-10 at the 1976 Olympics literally broke the scoreboard which didn’t have the ability to produce a “10.00.” So, it showcased “1.00” instead. The fact that a gymnast scoring a Perfect 10 was considered so improbable that event organizers hadn’t accounted for this scenario when designing the scoreboard added to the fascination with what the young Nadia had achieved.
Pictures of the scoreboard were plastered everywhere with the iconic “1.00” being the signature takeaway from the 1976 Olympics. But amongst all the iconic pictures of Nadia’s 1.00, there could also be seen the number right on top of it, Nadia’s #73 bib number.
If Mukhina is unique in that her entire career comes down to just one bib number, the same is true for Nadia but for a different reason. Nadia’s 1976 Olympic bib number took center stage in her history making moment. The association between Nadia’s bib number and the first Perfect 10 in gymnastics history is so widespread, that gymnastics fans have been known to wear T-Shirts with 073 and 1.00 printed on it.
There is even a Nadia themed watch which features images of the iconic gymnast, along with the with 073 and 1.00 numbers associated with the Perfect 10 scoreboard.
As for the bib itself, it has been preserved at the Olympic museum in Switzerland. The fact that this particular bib is in a museum is all that needs to be said on the topic of whether or not this bib should be treated as a historic piece of sports history.
On numerous occasions Nadia has talked about how the number “73” has a special meaning when the it is further broken down. It is a particular topic that Nadia has a fascination with and frequently comments on this topic in her interviews.
7 = The number of Perfect 10s she received in 1976
3 = The number of gold medals she won in 1976
7 + 3 = 10
Between Elena Mukhina #165 and Nadia Comaneci #73, they are by far the two most noteworthy examples where gymnastics fans can recite a bib number from memory.
Olga Korbut: 253
Before there was Nadia Comaneci in 1976, there was Olga Korbut in 1972. If Nadia is the most iconic WAG heroine of the pre-Biles era, Olga Korbut is without question the second most iconic athlete from this era. Together, Korbut and Nadia changed WAG and ushered it into the modern era we know and love today.
Whereas Nadia was the gymnast who achieved the greatest levels of fame in the 20th century, Olga Korbut was the one who did the most to revolutionize the sport. Korbut’s legacy is so impactful that gymnastics history can be divided into two eras. The pre-Korbut and post-Korbut eras.
Korbut’s contributions to this revolution didn’t happen slowly and with time, it happened in an instant, and that instant came at the 1972 Olympics. The 1972 Olympics was Korbut’s debut in any high-profile competition. Before then Korbut had not appeared as a competitor at the European Championships, World Championships, or World Cup. The 1972 Olympics was Korbut’s great introduction to the international sporting community and she overtook the sport like a tsunami.
Korbut’s 1972 Olympic performances were WAG’s great breakthrough in not one, but two different realms. The first realm pertained to the Code of Points, where Korbut’s unique style ushered in a new emphasis on acrobatic stunts, high-level difficulty, and jaw-dropping routines. In the aftermath of Olga Korbut, the difficulty level of the sport grew at the fastest pace it had ever experienced.
The second realm pertained to the perceived popularity of gymnastics which grew substantially during Korbut’s career. Olga Korbut was the gymnast who did the most to bring WAG from a sport that wasn’t treated as one of the premiere Olympic sports, into being exactly that. Audiences instantly fell in love with her and Korbut’s popularity has carried over into every generation of gymnastics in the decades since.
Olga Korbut’s 1972 Olympic appearance is one of the most critical moments in WAG history, if not the very flashpoint that made the modern era of gymnastics possible. Which is why treating the bib number she wore during these Olympic Games as a historic bib number worthy of retirement an obvious choice.
Vera Caslavska: 49
In the case of Larissa Latynina and Simone Biles, both gymnasts are worthy of having one of their bib numbers retired, but deciding on which bib to retire is difficult. Take Simone for example. It was in 2016 that she had her most successful Olympic games, but it was 2019 where she won the most gold medals in a single competition. You could also make the case for 2018 which was the only occasion in which Simone swept a competition by winning a medal on all six events. How do you choose which of Simone’s competitions is the most historic?
The same issue arises with Larissa Latynina. She won the most Olympic gold medals in a single Games in 1956, but won more medals in the individual events at the 1960 Olympics. Then there is the 1958 World Championships which was the most dominant result of her career with five gold medals and a silver. How do you choose between those three?
Vera Caslavska is different because there is unequivocally, one result that stands above the rest. No matter how many times Caslavska dominated a different competition, none of it comes close to the legacy of what she achieved in 1968. In Mexico City Caslavska recorded the greatest stat line of her career, and she did it on the Olympic stage.
Her 1968 medal haul where Caslavska won four gold medals and a silver in the five individual events remains the most successful medal haul any gymnast has ever achieved at the Olympic level. Vera’s margin of victory in the All-Around was so large, it would be the record under the scoring system that existed from 1952 to 2005. It also came under the powerful context of the Soviet invasion of Caslavska’s country shortly before the start of the 1968 Olympic Games.
Caslavska won the 1968 Olympics in spite of the invasion forcing her to train in a forest with no access to gymnastics equipment. Vera risked her entire career including her eligibility to compete at the upcoming 1968 Olympics by publicly denouncing the Soviets and the Soviet-installed government which now ruled her country. Caslavska then risked her entire career one more time by publicly protesting the USSR during the medal ceremony of the 1968 Olympics.
For Caslavska, her greatest competition, greatest Olympic moment, and greatest act of personal integrity all came in one competition. And the bib she wore at this competition was “49.” If Mukhina has the most tragic bib number, while Nadia and Korbut have bibs from the most historically significant moments in women’s gymnastics history, Caslavska’s bib represents one of the greatest acts of personal integrity and athletic prowess in gymnastics history.
Natalia Yurchenko: 29
Natalia Yurchenko never became an Olympian, but she established a strong legacy for herself with the vaulting technique she pioneered. The introduction of Yurchenko-style vaults was one of the most pivotal moments in the technical development of women’s gymnastics. If Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci are two of the most well known names amongst the casual fans, Natalia Yurchenko is one of the most well known names amongst the gymnastics die-hard fans.
With Yurchenko there is the same problem that arises with Latynina and Biles, how do you define which competition of her career is the most worthy of being enshrined via her bib number? If Yurchenko is remembered for her iconic vault, the competition she debuted it came at the 1982 Moscow News where she wore bib #29. But this was a rather obscure competition compared to the Olympics and World Cup. Perhaps the most significant bib number of Yurchenko’s career was the #545 that she wore at the 1983 World Championships where she won the All-Around?
One interesting parallel between Elena Mukhina and Natalia Yurchenko is that both are All-Around Champions, both have only one All-Around medal in their careers at the Group-1 level, and they are the only two figures in WAG history who are members of the Hall of Fame without ever being an Olympian. Whereas Nadia, Mukhina, and Caslavska are in a league of their own on the topic of historic bib numbers, many of the arguments that can be made on behalf of Elena Mukhina’s career also apply to Yurchenko.
The Mukhina comparisons coupled with the extenuating circumstances of Yurchenko being one of the most widely known figures within the gymnastics community, I feel this makes her case worthy of inclusion.
These four gymnasts and the five bib numbers associated with them are my personal selections for the most historic bib numbers in WAG history. But could these bib numbers ever be treated like historic jersey numbers in baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball, and football where they are retired? Where does such a proposition rank on the scale of being “feasible” to “outright stupid?”
That’s a topic for Part II of this series where I talk about the evolution of gymnastics bib numbers.