Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda: Remembering a Gymnastics Legend

The simple fact of life is sooner or later time moves on and the most famous athletes of the day will eventually fade into obscurity. Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was one of those athletes from the 1950s and 1960s whose name is largely unknown to most fans. But her legacy was so impactful, Keiko is one of the most important gymnasts of not just her era, but of the entire 20th century. Tanaka-Ikeda’s athletic accomplishments were extraordinary and her life story was as equally compelling.

In an era where communist countries won 99% of the medals, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was responsible for the other 1%.

In the same way that the United States has New York (the region) and New York (the city), the same is true for Hiroshima, Japan. Keiko was born in the Hiroshima Prefecture (province) and grew up in a relatively small city that was located 36 miles away from Hiroshima, the large city which shares a name with the entire region. When Japan escalated its war on December 7th, 1941 and brought the country into direct conflict with the United States, British Empire and the Netherlands, Keiko was just one month past her 8th birthday.

Tanaka-Ikeda was spared the worst of World War II by living in a small regional city that had experienced little to no bombing raids. Her World War II experiences was spent taking ballet classes and living a somewhat normal civilian life. But that was all shattered in the final weeks of the war during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (the city). It is one of the most controversial, widely known and defining moments of World War II, if not in the entire history of warfare.

Keiko immediately lost her uncle in the blast. Her father who went to search for him the next day and would soon die from radiation exposure. At the time Keiko was 12 years old.

Like most gymnasts of her generation, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda started the sport relatively late. At first she competed in swimming, tennis, volleyball and a wide variety of events in Track & Field. It was by a chance encounter when she was playing on a men’s high bar that a gymnastics instructor noticed her and convinced her to take up the sport. Tanaka-Ikeda became a gymnast at 16 years old and within three months had become a regional champion over all of Hiroshima.

This sort of dominance so quickly after joining the sport and starting gymnastics at such a late age was surprisingly common in this time period. It would occur frequently within the major European programs and Keiko was hardly the exception. Although it should be noted that in this era of gymnastics ballet training was a crucial part of the sport and Tanaka-Ikeda came from a ballet background. This was a crucial factor to her rapid rise up the ranks.

Keiko trained alongside the boys. When her grandmother watched Keiko perform gymnastics for the first time, she scolded her for taking up a sport that revealed so much of her body. Keiko responded by saying “what’s wrong with a girl spreading her legs?”

Within five years of taking up the sport Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was effectively ranked 8th best in the world at the 1954 World Championships. This is an era where the Soviets were allowed to use eight gymnasts in the All-Around and country limits did not exist. Nor were there country limits in Event Finals. Keiko didn’t merely win a medal in Event Finals, she took the gold medal on beam.

Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda won a gold medal in an individual event at the 1954 World Championships. At this point she had only five years of total experience in the sport and I couldn’t find any records of her having prior experience in even low-level international competition before this time. It is an extraordinary achievement for a gymnast to go from the novice level to a gold medalist in only five years. But Tanaka-Ikeda probably could have reached the international elite level even quicker than that if she had been allowed to compete at an earlier age.

Prior to 1954 Japan didn’t send women to compete in major gymnastics competitions. In 1954 Japan didn’t even send a full team to the World Championships. Instead, Japan sent just two women to the 1954 World Championships and this was the debut appearance of Japanese women’s gymnastics. If there had been competitions available and open Japanese women from 1950 to 1953, Keiko probably could have found success in any of those years as well.

Her #8 ranking in the All-Around and gold medal on beam at the 1954 World Championships makes it probable that she could have been a strong All-Arounder at least a few years prior. Potentially becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete in as little as two to three years after picking up the sport. Tanaka-Ikeda was simply that talented.

Strangely enough, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda is both the very first pioneer of Japanese women’s gymnastics, as well as its only Hall of Famer. The Japanese women’s program was in such infancy at this point in history that while Keiko finished 8th in the All-Around, the next highest ranking Japanese gymnast had finished 93rd. She did it while Japan’s facilities were not as strong as the dominant women’s gymnastics programs of Eastern Europe. Keiko is said to have “trained on dirt” in the early stages of her career.

The next major competition for Keiko would be the 1956 Olympics which were slated to be held in Australia. At the time barely a decade had passed since the end of World War II and Japanese athletes would be visiting a country that had fought directly against Japan. Australians spent much of World War II watching the Japanese advance to within striking range of their country.

The military situation of Australia during World War II

To the Americans, it was a war on the other side of the globe. For the Australians, it had been a war fought on their back doorstep. On a per capita basis, Australia had suffered nearly twice as many deaths as the United States.

The relationship between Japan and Australian represented a pivotal moment in Olympic history where two key adversaries of World War II would play the role of host and invited guest at the Olympics. Even though 1956 was the third Olympics since the end of World War II, this was actually the first time Germany or Japan would compete at an Olympics being held within a country that was a member of the Allies during World War II.

During the 1956 Olympics Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda had an anti-Japanese slur levied her way. It was a story she would recite repeatedly for the rest of her life, but also highlights a character trait every time she retold the story. What Keiko would so often mention when highlighting this incident, was that the spectator who ushered a slur towards her was a mother who had lost her son in the war.

Propaganda poster from World War II

When reading interviews of famous gymnasts, you can always get a sense of their personality as the same theme reappears time and time again. Even while the interviews were held decades apart. For Keiko, there were two themes that were readily apparent. The first is she had a habit of making legendary quips and witty remarks, often against authority figures attempting to criticize her.

But the second theme was that Tanaka-Ikeda had a tendency to value empathy and be mindful of the suffering of others. What better person to understand the perspective of a grieving mother than a daughter who had lost her father in the very same war?

At the 1956 Olympics Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda finished 4th on Floor Exercise and nearly missed out on a medal.

Previously I stated that in an era where communist countries won 99% of the medals, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was responsible for the other 1%. While this is somewhat of a joking exaggeration, there is a lot of truth to this comment. Prior to the major reforms and rule changes of the mid-1970s, only 11 medals had been won by non-Eastern Bloc gymnasts in the individual events at the Olympics and World Championships.

1 medal was won by Cathy Rigby
1 medal was won by Evy Berggren
1 medal was won by Taniko Nakamura
2 medals were won by Ann-Sofi Pettersson
6 medals were won by Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda

Keiko single-handedly won more medals than all the other non-Eastern Bloc gymnasts put together. In the All-Around she was the highest scoring non-Eastern Bloc gymnast in every single competition she attended from 1954 to 1966 in what was ultimately a 13 year streak. In that same time period, she had more top-10 finishes in the All-Around than all the other non-Eastern Bloc gymnasts put together.

At the 1956 Olympics Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was the only gymnast in the top-20 of the All-Around who wasn’t from the Eastern Bloc.

But where things get freakishly absurd with Keiko is how often she placed inside the top-6 of the All-Around and Event Finals. In gymnastics the “top-6” is not exactly an arbitrary cut-off as that is the cut-off for being a top seed in a modern All-Around Finals, as well as the cut-off for qualifying into Event Finals in Olympic competition from 1968 to 1980. For this reason, gymnastics history junkies prefer using the “top-6” cut-off to award retroactive appearances in Event Finals to gymnasts like Keiko who predate the 1968 rule change where Event Finals was separated from the team competition. Thus creating the concept of an “appearance” in Event Finals.

When counting the number of top-6 finishes in any of the five individual events from 1954 to 1966 among gymnasts who weren’t members of the Eastern Bloc:

15 times: Keiko Ikeda
3 times: Ann-Sofi Pettersson
1 time: Toshiko Shirasu
1 time: Evy Berggren
1 time: Hiroko Ikenada
1 time: Taki Shibuya
1 time: Taniko Nakamura
1 time: Yasuko Furuyama

The statistics make it clear, in this time period the most successful gymnasts were unequivocally the Eastern Bloc and Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda.

But Keiko wasn’t just a great gymnast from outside the Eastern Bloc, she was one of the best gymnasts of the day. Keiko won a medal in the individual events in every World Championships she attended from 1954 to 1966. Tanaka-Ikeda was an incredibly well rounded gymnast having won a medal in 5 of 6 events. The only event she never medaled in was vault.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Keiko’s resume was the eight medals she won at the World Championships, six of which came in the individual events.

In Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda’s era it was significantly harder to win a medal at the World Championships due to this event being held only once every four years back then. This is why there are very few gymnasts from the pre-1978 expansion of the World Championships in the all-time rankings for most medals at the World Championships.

It also should be noted that of the five most decorated gymnasts in the history of the World Championships, four of them competed in the 1990s or later when the sport had once again expanded the World Championships to be held in every non-Olympic year.

With these details in mind, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda is actually one of the most decorated medalists of her time period and ranks 5th amongst gymnasts in the pre-Korbut era for most medals at the World Championships with eight total. Her six individual medals at the World Championships are particularly noteworthy. Vera Caslavska who famously won a gold medal in every individual event at the Olympics and has a legitimate claim to being the best gymnast in history is ahead of Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda by only one medal in this statistic.

Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda has the same number of individual medals at the World Championships as Alicia Sacramone. This is incredible to think about because Sacramone was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame on the basis of her success at the World Championships. Not only does Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda match up equally with Alicia Sacramone, but Keiko competed in an era where the World Championships were held just once every four years. Alicia competed in an era where they are held three times every four years.

But for Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda her career goes beyond the medals she won. She gave birth twice during her career, continued to train while pregnant, and never missed a major competition. Tokyo was slated to host the 1964 Olympics in what would be Japan’s most important Olympics in its history. But in 1963 the Japanese gymnastics program was alarmed that Tanaka-Ikeda, their most important gymnast on the women’s side was pregnant and was said to have scolded her.

Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda responded by saying “I will give birth, and I will win.”

At the 1964 Olympics Keiko was competing in her third Olympics and led the Japanese program to a bronze medal in the team competition. The victory was all the more special since it had been won on Japanese soil. Keiko’s next major competition would be the 1966 World Championships. Here she gave the greatest performance of her career by winning a medal in the Team Competition, All-Around, and Uneven Bars. Ironically she finished 4th on balance beam, it was the only time in her entire career that she failed to medal on this event at the World Championships.

On the uneven bars Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda would share the podium with Taniko Nakamura who finished one spot behind her in the standings. It was the only medal of Taniko Nakamura’s career in an individual event. With the exception of Taniko Nakamura’s 1966 bronze medal on the uneven bars, every other medal Japan has in women’s gymnastics in the 20th century was won by Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda.

Japan’s women’s gymnastics program currently has three medals in the team competition. All three medals were teams led by Tanaka-Ikeda. She is responsible for all but one medal Japan won prior to 2009 and Japan’s only Olympic medal prior to the 2021 Olympics.

When Keiko competed at the 1966 World Championships, women’s gymnastics was in the middle of a revolution. In the months after the 1964 Olympics a 15-year old Larissa Petrik defeated Larissa Latynina, the leading Soviet gymnast of the day. The result sent shockwaves through the sport and almost immediately every major program began prioritizing young gymnasts in the hope of finding the next Larissa Petrik. Contrary to popular belief, the rise of the little-girl era predated Nadia Comaneci by nearly a decade.

It was actually the 1965 to 1968 era of women’s gymnastics where the average age of a female gymnast was experiencing its most rapid decline. All over the world longstanding gymnasts who had multiple Olympic appearances were being pushed out of the sport. Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda became one more casualty in an era where the established veterans were rapidly being purged out of the sport to make way for a new era of gymnastics.

As soon as Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda disappeared, Japan’s women’s gymnastics program disappeared along with her. Perhaps Japan couldn’t do without its most successful gymnast and truest pioneer. Perhaps Japan was done in by its own lack of innovation as the program failed to adapt to the new “little girl” era of women’s gymnastics that would define the sport in the 1970s.

When Keiko retired it would take Japan 43 years to win another medal, 51 years to win another gold medal, and 55 years to win another Olympic medal as the country waited for a new generation of gymnasts to fill the shoes of Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda. And when such a generation did come to fruition, it was led by Mai Murakami who brought Japan another Olympic medal after an absence spanning more than 50 years.

But Mai Murakami didn’t just bring back Olympic glory to Japan’s women’s gymnastics program, she did so at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the very same city Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda won an Olympic medal at in 1964.

Great gymnasts are remembered for their medals, the context behind the medals they won, but also the way they advance the sport through their eponymous skills. In gymnastics Natalia Yurchenko has by far the most famous eponymous skill and it’s a question of who has the second most famous skill. While there are many candidates for this title, one skill that is in the discussion for it is the wolf turn.

The wolf turn has proven to be one of the most ubiquitous moves of the 2010s and 2020s. But the skill was equally as popular with beam workers of the 1960s and 1970s to the point where most of the gymnasts who won medals on beam in the late 1960s to early 1970s had wolf turns in their routines. The wolf turn is rather unique in gymnastics history as it peaked in popularity in two distinct eras, 35 years apart. Very few skills have been as popular across so many different decades and different eras as the wolf turn.

In the early 1980s even Olga Mostepanova did a wolf turn. There is perhaps no other skill in gymnastics history that is associated with such a wide variety of famous gymnasts as the wolf turn due to its links with both the 1960s and continued popularity to this day. Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda not only performed the wolf turn in her time, but she is the earliest known example of any gymnast performing a true wolf turn based on surviving footage.

If Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda wasn’t truly the first to do it because other gymnasts may have done it but footage of their routines didn’t survive, at the very least Keiko was the first great beam worker to embrace this skill. Keiko set the standard that all the top contenders for a medal on the balance beam performed wolf turn as if it were a fashionable thing.

The wolf turn is one of the most famous moves in gymnastics history, and Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda can appropriately be called “The Grandmother of the Wolf Turn.”

In 2002 the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame made the decision to induct Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda. This was a highly symbolic decision as at the time the Hall of Fame was still in its infancy. Back in 2002 only 12 women had previously been inducted into the Hall of Fame. By making Keiko one of its earliest inductions, it amounted to a declaration that the Hall of Fame felt Keiko’s career was so extraordinary, she deserved to be at the top of the list.

After analyzing her career, it is my opinion that the Hall of Fame got it right and inducting Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda so early in its history was one of the best decisions the Hall of Fame ever made. Some gymnasts are pioneers of their respective program, while others advance that very same program by being their most successful gymnast ever. Gymnasts are almost always one or the other.

But in Keiko’s case, she wasn’t one or the other. She was both.

Connie Caruccio is the original American gymnast, but its greatest gymnast was Simone Biles. The same is true for Queenie Judd and Jessica Gadirova of the British program. For the Soviets, it is Maria Tyshko and Larissa Latynina. Being a pioneer is not the same as being the most successful gymnast in program history.

That’s the story for 99% of gymnasts, but as was the case before, Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda is the other 1%. Always being that lone exception. Keiko not only led Japan to its debut in major competition, she led the program to its first gold medal and its first Olympic medal. Tanaka-Ikeda then spent the next fifty years being the most successful gymnast in program history.

There is perhaps no gymnast in history who did so much for a single program as what Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda did for Japan.

Keiko lived a long life and was able to witness the revival of the Japanese women’s program. In 2005 Mayu Kuroda finished 4th on the uneven bars at the World Championships. It was the first time Japan had achieved such a high ranking since Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda’s retirement. While Mayu never won a medal, she proved the Japanese program was on an upswing and that trend has held firm.

Ever since 2005 Japan has been getting stronger with each passing Olympic quad. By the time of the post-Covid era Japan had become a full blown gymnastics powerhouse. The program now dominates the World Cup and whereas Keiko used to be Japan’s only gold medalist in program history at the Olympics and World Championships level, three different Japanese gymnasts have won a gold medal since 2021.

Hazuki Watanabe won a gold medal on beam at the 2022 World Championships

Japan is not only winning at the senior level, but are the reigning champions of the Junior World Championships. The widely held belief is that Japan is one of the leading powers in the current era of women’s gymnastics and will continue to be so for the next couple of years. Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda’s career represented the Golden Age of Japanese gymnastics. Now the program is unquestionably in its 2nd Golden Age.

In recent years Japan has emerged as the leading program on balance beam, the very same apparatus Keiko was most known for. The program accomplished the rather rare feat by winning back-to-back gold medals on balance beam at the World Championships with two different gymnasts (Urara Ashikawa & Hazuki Watanabe). In doing so, the Japanese duo won the same medal, on the same event, at the same competition as Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda had done almost 70 years prior.

Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda passed away of cancer at the age of 89 years old on May 13, 2023. She died at a time when she was able to witness the Japanese program at the height of its power. The Japanese program she pioneered and set the standard that winning was possible. Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda was able to witness Japan return to its former glory.

That former glory was Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda.


One thought on “Keiko Tanaka-Ikeda: Remembering a Gymnastics Legend

  1. I think Japan have so many young talent female gymnast but they didn’t shine in world stage yet and also Japan didn’t main focus in women gymnastics like their men gymnastics in the past ! But I really hope Japan will more focus in women gymnastics now because it seems likely that Japan women gymnastics in this moment is rising and rising than ever ! I believe if Japan really main focus in women gymnastics Japan will dominate in both men and women gymnastics like Soviet in the past surely !


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