The Curse of the European Championships (Part I)

Note: This article is Part I of a 3-part series

Part II: 2009-2017
Part III: 2002-2008

The European Championships has the distinction of being the most historic competition in women’s gymnastics after the World Championships and Olympics. This particular event has been associated with some of the most compelling moments in the sport. At the 1967 European Championships Vera Caslavska recorded the first Perfect 10 in a major competition. In 1975 Nadia Comaneci made her senior debut at the European Championships which gave birth to the Romanian dynasty and popularized the “little girl” era of gymnastics. Then there was the iconic rivalries with incidents such as Daniela Silivas humiliating the Soviets in Moscow by taking gold on all but one event at the 1987 European Championships.

For decades the European Championships was a competition so difficult to win, that winning it would all but guarantee success in the more high-profile events such as the Olympics and World Championships. The allure of the European Championships made it a “must-win” competition for everyone. The legends of Cold War era gymnastics, most of whom still top the all-time medal counts even to this day often value the gold medals they won at the European Championships as amongst the most significant wins of their career.

But then came the 1990s and as communism fell in Eastern Europe, the balance of power in women’s gymnastics shifted away from Eastern Europe along with it. China and the United States would see the most immediate gains, while in the long run programs such as Brazil, Japan, and Canada would find their position considerably improved. Western Europe also saw significant growth and it is now the norm for the region to win medals on a regular basis. Something that rarely happened during the Cold War.

Olga Korbut admiring the trophy that was awarded to the All-Around winner at the European Championships. Despite her best attempts, Korbut never won it. After winning it 3x, the trophy was retired and given to Nadia Comaneci as a commemoration of her dominance.

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, gymnasts such as Svetlana Khorkina, Gina Gogean, Lilia Podkopayeva, and Svetlana Boginskaya were able to maintain the legacy of the European Championships. The correlation where success at the European Championships would almost always result in major success at the World Championships and Olympics remained firmly in place. In both 1992 (Tatiana Gutsu) and 1996 (Lilia Podkopayeva) the Olympic All-Around Champions were reigning European Champions.

But in the early years of the 21st Century the demographic changes overtaking women’s gymnastics would eventually catch up with the European Championships. It wasn’t that All-Around winners at the European Championships are no longer capable gymnasts, they have been extremely unlucky.

This is not a story of Europe’s fall from grace, but the unusual trend where gymnasts who win the All-Around at the European Championships frequently go on to experience one of the worst stretches of their careers in the months afterwards. Most notably, three of the last four All-Around Champions at the European Championships would be forced to withdraw from the very next World Championships due to injury.

Since 2002 there have been 12 different gymnasts who have won the European All-Around (AA). Even though ten of these gymnasts have medals at the World Championships and Olympics, only three of them managed to win a medal in the same year they won the European AA. In the last 20 years Vanessa Ferrari and Aliya Mustafina are the only gymnasts to have won a medal in an individual event at the World Championships in the same year they were crowned European AA Champions.

Asia D’Amato (2022)

Asia D’Amato got off to a strong start at the European Championships. First, she led Italy to a gold medal in the team competition, then she won a gold medal for herself in the All-Around. Next was Event Finals and her first apparatus was vault. On her last vault run Asia practically stuck the landing and seemed perfectly balanced, before falling down and clinging to her ankle in pain. D’Amato managed to win a silver medal for the performance, but it had costed her everything else.

Asia D’Amato would miss the rest of the European Championships along with the 2022 World Championships as she continues to recover from her injury.

Viktoria Listunova (2021)

At the 2021 European Championships Viktoria Listunova made her senior debut and instantly won the All-Around. In that moment the young Listunova proved she could hang with the adults and many marveled at her future potential. In floor finals at the European Championships Viktoria significantly underperformed, but few thought anything of it and the incident was dismissed as a combination of an inexperienced gymnast along with bad coaching. The upcoming Olympics would be Vikoria’s next proving grounds.

At the Tokyo Olympics Listunova had a strong qualifying score in the All-Around (6th). But 2-per country limits left her ineligible to compete despite Listunova’s status as a strong contender for a medal. Listunova had a chance for redemption in floor finals, but like the European Championships once again she significantly underperformed. This time Listunova’s struggles could no longer be dismissed as a one-off, but an established pattern where the young 1st-year senior was struggling to keep herself mentally composed in the later days of a major competition.

Young gymnasts like Listunova are typically at an advantage in the World Championships since they are held later in the year. This gives 1st-year seniors more time to learn how to mentally adjust to the bigger stage. But Listunova would miss the 2021 World Championships due to injury. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, as a Russian gymnast Listunova was ineligible to compete at the 2022 European Championships and 2022 World Championships.

Listunova’s career is currently on hold as she is unable to compete in any major competition, and even the vast majority of minor competitions as well. The ban on Russian athletes remains in effect for the foreseeable future. Listunova’s 8th place finish on floor at the 2021 Olympics is currently her last appearance in a Group-1 competition.

Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos (2019)

At the 2017 European Championships Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos made her senior debut and won a bronze medal in the AA. Melanie would follow up that success with a 5th place finish at the 2017 World Championships and a 6th place finish in 2018. Still considered a newcomer to the scene, fans were excited to watch Dos Santos’ career and all signs pointed to her being on an upward trajectory.

Then at the 2019 European Championships Dos Santos improved upon her previous performance by winning a gold medal in the AA and becoming a European All-Around Champion. During AA qualifications at the 2019 World Championships Melanie took 3rd place and appeared to be well positioned to win a medal. But fate would have other plans. Dos Santos struggled in AA Finals and finished in 20th place.

Melanie is still waiting for her first medal at the Group-1 Level (World Championships and/or Olympics). Currently she is one of the few European AA Champions to have ever gone medal-less at the Group-1 level. She has qualified to Event Finals on four occasions but has not yet reached the top-4 of the final standings. Since 2017 Melanie has qualified to AA Finals in every competition she attended at the Group-1 level. However, at the 2021 Olympics she finished 11th while at the 2022 World Championships she was forced to withdraw from AA Finals due to injury.

The greatest accomplishment of Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos’s career is unquestionably her AA title at the 2019 European Championships. But the 2019 World Championships from the very same year is the worst AA performance of her career. It is merely a strange coincidence that these two competitions occurred in the same year.

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

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